ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kushner is the author of The Flamethrowers, a finalist of the National Book Award and a New York Times Top Five Novel of 2013. Her debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist of the 2008 National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller. Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, and the Paris Review. She is the recipient of a 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2016 Harold D. Vursell Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not, until you don’t exist, and then your plans are meaningless.
At twenty-nine, Romy Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California. Romy — who spent her neglected San Francisco adolescence drinking, stealing, and getting high — grew up to make her living as a stripper at a seedy club that gives the book its title. When a Mars Room regular starts stalking her, Romy kills him in what the courts deem a murder rather than self-defense. Her arrest leaves her five-year-old son in the precarious custody of her mother, whom Romy detests. Throughout the narration of this bleak backstory, Kushner resists painting her protagonist as singular or special. The book neither flinches nor sensationalizes, guiding us from Romy’s past to the darkest corners of the prison-industrial complex with a sure and powerful hand.
Kushner’s novel offers strident critiques of the contemporary prison system, none more severe than the excessive presence of rules and authority that deny prisoners dignity and autonomy. There are rules that seek to cover and control every possible behavior or thought in Stanville. Kushner, always a diligent researcher, spent time in prisons and, therefore, displays an impressive knowledge of the life inside. She makes no attempt to prettify her characters or their ugly lives.
Cages in The Mars Room represent isolation, confinement, and the harsh limitations of personal freedom present throughout the novel. For a work that examines and critiques life in contemporary American prisons, the presence of cages is not surprising, but they are more ubiquitous than one might first suspect.
Romy’s narration is blunt, wounded, smart and disarmingly confiding, which conveys to the reader both the depth of her intense experiences and her status as a prisoner with nothing to lose. Like all the characters in this unflinching portrayal of what it means to be poor and female in America, Romy received her life sentence long ago: her mother, addicted to painkillers and divorce, treated her with “silence, irritation, disapproval”; she was raped age 11, and went on to become a drug addict and sex worker.
Two male characters are given their own chapters, told in the third person. There’s a dirty cop, whose history is narrated in a queasily consummate feat of ventriloquism taking in child abuse, murder, country music and President Nixon. Then there is Gordon Hauser, a distressed academic hired to teach literature in the prison, with a fatal weakness for romanticizing his pupils.
The book takes a look at how socioeconomic factors affect the rate of incarceration, the quality of legal defense received, and recidivism. It is a fugue of a book whose various voices swell and fade, complementing and complicating Kushner’s themes. The minds of Kushner’s characters tend to meander. And their freedom to think, to travel down fanciful mental byways, works in counterpoint to their confinement; that liberty is among the few they’ve hung onto. Kushner does a masterful job evoking the isolation and hopelessness intrinsic to a life behind bars; she never resorts to cliché or pathos, but still manages to convey the emotional torture to which prisoners are subjected on an hourly basis.
That being said, the book also jumps around between perspectives, and between first and third person, in short, choppy chapters. One can feel universal empathy for Romy, but personal attachment is difficult to establish.
In a nutshell, The Mars Room is a contemplative slow ride. The slow torque of the book embodies the limited range of the imprisoned beings multiplied by the infinity of a life sentence. Claiming its rightful rating of 4.6 out of 5, this may not be an enjoyable novel, but it definitely marks you like a tattoo.
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