Book Review: The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner
Fiction: The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner
Considering that The Mars Room is on the short list for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and that author Rachel Kushner has twice previously been nominated for the National Book Award, there may not be much left to say in praise of either the book or the writer. The Mars Room is extraordinary. The plot is straightforward enough, but the characters are rich, deep, compelling, and the voice telling their story (sometimes first person, sometimes an omniscient narrator) is honest and unsparing.
Romy Hall is in prison for murder. She murdered a man who had followed her from her home in San Francisco to Los Angeles, where she had fled with her young son to escape his attentions. Despite the stalking, the jury only heard about a young woman beating a physically challenged man to death with a child nearby. Romy was sentenced to spend the rest of her life behind bars, her mother was given custody of her son, and the story begins with Romy on the bus heading to prison.
The Mars Room is the name of the strip club in San Francisco where Romy danced and where she met Kurt Kennedy, the man she would eventually kill. The book shifts perspective often, from Romy’s flashbacks to her present situation to other inmates to acquaintances and victims and accomplices of those other inmates and even to Kurt Kennedy in the days prior to his death. Throughout, Kushner is neither judgmental nor particularly sympathetic. Her characters are who they are, they did what they did, and whether the reasons behind the crimes matter is up to the reader to decide. The result is a haunting book that reminds me in weird ways of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Mars Room has nothing directly in common with The Grapes of Wrath (apart from being set in California), but the unforgiving yet nonjudgmental voice telling the stories of people with no legitimate reasons to hope has antecedents in literature. Kushner just does it much better than most other writers.
Romy tells about her broken family. Her troubled, immigrant mother. The father she never knew. The child she had to leave behind. The men she spent time with, including the one who sent her fleeing to Los Angeles and whom she later killed. She does want some measure of understanding, perhaps even forgiveness, but has learned not to hope. After her mother dies and her son is made a ward of the state, Romy does hatch some desperate plans to try to “save” him. She recognizes the plans are foolish and hopeless, but does not let that stop her from trying to implement them. Despite her situation, she is a mother who feels compelled to save her son. Yet as her situation may indicate, her judgment and decision-making are not always the best. Kushner lets Romy make her choices, lets those choices play out, and the reader sees how the consequences affect the characters. It is sometimes harsh and there is no “and they lived happily ever after” but the result is a powerful and moving novel that speaks to the heart.