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The Mars Room

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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Fiction (2018)
It’s 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision.

338 pages, Hardcover

First published May 1, 2018

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About the author

Rachel Kushner

39 books1,579 followers
Rachel Kushner is the bestselling author of three novels: the Booker Prize- and NBCC Award–shortlisted The Mars Room; The Flamethrowers, a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times top ten book of 2013; and Telex from Cuba, a finalist for the National Book Award. She has been awarded prizes and fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her novels are translated into 26 languages. She lives in Los Angeles and wants you to know that if you're reading this and curious about Rachel, whatever is unique and noteworthy in her biography that you might want to find out about is in her new book, The Hard Crowd, which will be published in April 2021. An excerpt of it appeared in the New Yorker here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20....

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,732 reviews
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,990 reviews298k followers
May 3, 2018
2 1/2 stars. It's taken me a long time to admit that I just didn't like The Mars Room very much. Even as I was struggling to keep my eyes on the page, keep reading, and not get distracted by that piece of fluff on the floor, I was doing my best to write a positive review in my head.

I thought I would love it. It felt like I should. What doesn't sound great about a gritty prison novel dissecting class, wealth and other power structures in the penal system? Diverse characters, complicated family dynamics, and unfair bullshit that sees poor, working class women given shoddy legal representation? Sign me up to be pissed off (in the way that leads to 5-star ratings).

But I found this book so disjointed, aloof and boring. Even Romy's first-person chapters felt distant and impersonal, like she was looking down on events from far away and not living them. Perhaps this is some kind of literary technique, but it did nothing except make me feel completely disconnected.

I understand the importance of The Mars Room. It takes a look at how socioeconomic factors affect rate of incarceration, the quality of legal defense received, and recidivism. The protagonist, 28-year-old Romy Hall, killed a man who stalked her incessantly for months, but the jury didn't see any of that. All they saw was the brutality of the crime. Now Romy is serving consecutive life sentences in a California women's correctional facility.

These themes speak to something close to my heart-- the way poverty and background can deeply affect all aspects of a person's life. I'm very intrigued (and angered) by economic power structures, and I'm particularly interested in Marxist Feminism. This book didn't have to work hard to sell me on its point; it just had to keep me interested in its characters and the story being told. And, sadly, that's where it failed.

The story didn't flow. It jumped around between perspectives, and between first and third person, in short choppy chapters. Obviously any person with a heart would feel sorry for Romy, but that's about the extent of the emotional connection. I felt a kind of universal empathy for her, but no personal attachment to her circumstances. I also don't know why Doc's chapters were necessary.

It's strange how I felt like Kushner showed a lot of awful things happening, but without conveying any of the emotion you would expect to go with them. But maybe it's just me. The early reviews have been glowing.

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Profile Image for Angela M .
1,308 reviews2,192 followers
May 13, 2018
3.5 stars

I read an in-depth article in New Yorker Magazine that made it apparent why Rachel Kushner can so vividly bring her characters in this book to life. (The link to the article is below.) She followed an inmate at a California prison because she wanted to have people in her life “that the State of California rendered invisible to others.” She brings these real people to us through a cast of characters in her fictional account of life in prison. This book definitely depicts experiences that are far removed from mine. Not just in the prison but the world where the prisoners came from - strip cubs , doing and dealing drugs, hit jobs, getting beaten, enduring abuse as children. I found this stressful to read and it was definitely out of my comfort zone. But that’s not a bad thing as I learned. It’s vulgar at times, brutal a lot of the time, raw most of the time and I assume pretty realistic given the research that the author has done.

While we come to know the stories of a number of characters, this felt like it was mostly Romy Hall’s story. A single mother, formerly a stripper at The Mars Room, Romy has killed a man who stalked her, is serving two consecutive life sentences plus 6 years . There are other inmates whose stories we learn - Fernandez, Bette, and Doc in the men’s prison. We come to know someone from the outside, Gordon Hauser, a prison teacher who gets involved in the lives of some of the inmates - mailing letters , buying them books, flower seeds, a paint set. Gordon seems to reflect what Kushner wants us to see - that these inmates are human beings.

It’s about the flaws in our society, the flaws in a justice system that won’t allow someone to tell their side of the story, the flaws in our penal system. It is also about the flaws of inmates at a California prison whose fate on the one hand is a result of their choices. However their circumstances, their lives before incarceration make it difficult to be unsympathetic.


I received an advanced copy of this book from Scribner through NetGalley and Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Charlotte May.
720 reviews1,112 followers
June 3, 2019
"If I had never worked at The Mars Room. If I had never met Creep Kennedy. If Creep Kennedy had not decided to stalk me. But he did decide to, and then he did it relentlessly. If none of that had happened, I would not be on a bus heading for a life in a concrete slot."

The Mars Room grabbed me from the get-go and I was hooked! Romy Hall is serving two life sentences for murdering her stalker in front of a child. Before this she worked as a stripper in a club called The Mars Room. We follow both her life in the present, in prison along with all the other women serving time; as well as flash backs to her life before - bringing up her son Jackson, moving house to get away from her stalker.

There are also chapters involving Doc - a bent police officer serving time for murder, the woman who talked him into it is actually on death row in the same prison as Romy. We see how he was besotted with Betty, would do anything for her - which turned out to include murder. He is kept in an extra tight security prison, along with paedophiles and rapists - as they, along with ex-coppers are most likely to be attacked by the other inmates.

Another POV is Gordon Hauser, working in the women's prison as a teacher; helping most of them get their high school diplomas. Though he frequently is screwed over by some of the inmates.

This book is dark but gripping, it shines a light on a part of society we see very little of. We learn that everything isn't all black and white. Some of these women have served 20+ years for minor offences, whereas others were cold hard killers. Who are we to decide what length of time is enough for a crime? We are left with the ongoing question - was Romy in the right to murder her stalker. When we finally read about how that scene played out, I still wasn't sure myself. Yet that one choice, has sent her to prison for the rest of her days.

"Life does not go off the rails because it is the rails, goes where it goes."
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews596 followers
July 6, 2018
Library Overdrive Audiobook....read by Rachel Kushner

I didn’t even consider this book when it first popped up. “Telex From Cuba” was a little too politically dense and long. There was a good story inside - but I remember the time & effort I put in - and wasn’t looking forward to ‘that’ experience again. Plus I have a paper copy of “The Flame Throwers” which I’ve started and stopped too many times. (the damn print is tiny)....
So - with low expectations - I downloaded the public library’s *Audiobook*.

I’m BLOWN AWAY BY *Rachel*.....and what she did with her VOICE!!!! Absolutely I think this is a phenomenal novel - and - I still can’t get over how perfectly magnificent her voice is for the character of Romy Hall. Her audio-voice is so darn praiseworthy- I just can’t say it enough about the impact I felt it made on her book.

From start to finish - I was bound tightly listening to “The Mars Room”. I could visualize the strip club in San Francisco- the bickering between the girls - the men - the hustle- the rough reality- the money passed - I saw the Golden Gate Bridge the way Romy saw it....( a curse)...San Francisco was a place where fights started. I saw the bars in the Sunset district...with 10 year old girls hanging out near by - already drinking - the white powder - already raped - I saw the evil....I saw the choices.

I saw the harsh realities of our prison system: the inmates and the guards....a women’s prison.... from women’s perspective.

Disturbing book....YES - yet I can’t stress enough RACHEL’S VOICE....she does something to brighten the bleak. So tender - so sweet - so loving - compassionate....SO REAL...
I really want to hug this girl. I’m so incredibly moved - the work she did - the truth she exposed through fiction storytelling power- and the brilliance in her delivery.
Profile Image for Debbie.
454 reviews2,888 followers
June 21, 2018
When a friend asked me whether I liked the book I was reading, I told her, “It’s refreshing! A novel about women in prison!” I was dead serious. It was only after my friend was losing it, laughing so hard, that I realized how weird my comment was. Laughing now too, I tried to defend myself. I just get tired of straight old life; there’s so much “regular” out there. Can I help it if I like to read about down-and-outers? The truth is, the dark is sometimes my light—I prefer rain to sun, for instance. (A friend once read that that was a sign of mental illness. Really? lol.)

Yes, this book was refreshing, with its grit and spit, edge and energy. It’s mostly the story about Romy, who’s serving a life sentence for murder. It’s impossible not to feel sorry for her: She had a bum lawyer and a crazy-long sentence, and she has a 7-year-old kid who she most likely will never see again.

Oh what a rich book! Everyone is so vivid and real, and nothing is sugar-coated. The prisoners are smart, whacked, desperate, resigned, sorry, tough. What stood out to me was the intense camaraderie and equally intense solitude.

Kushner humanizes the prisoners without going overboard. There are no Tony Sopranos—no big-time killers who we are manipulated into feeling sorry for. We see how the prisoners’ precarious life on the outside, where they were barely surviving in the underbelly of society, served as a catalyst and a preview of their doomed futures.

Something that stuck in my mind was how adaptable the prisoners were. They learned how to survive. They created a tribe, a microcosm of society, with its own rules and routines. Lots of bartering for precious goods. One thing I love is the way Kushner shows us how two opposite conditions, a sense of isolation and a sense of community, co-existed. Even though this is in no way a message book, I couldn’t help but think about the injustices done to prisoners. For example, there are two transgender characters, and their situation is ten times worse than others’. It was horrifying.

One funny thing: While I was reading I realized that the tone and content reminded me a lot of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson, a book I read recently and liked. Turns out, the author mentions Denis Johnson and his book Jesus' Son (his most famous book, which I haven’t yet read) a few times in the book! Pretty weird, huh? In fact, a teacher at the prison gives Romy Jesus' Son, and after reading it, she said:

“I was paranoid he thought I was a no-good ex-junkie like the characters in the stories. He said he gave it to me because it was excellent. That it was one of his favorite books.”

So it sounds like Kushner was maybe emulating one of her own favorite writers and wanted readers to check him out, too.

And funny, a complaint I had with The Largesse of the Sea Maiden applies to The Mars Room, too: The rich, engrossing stories of far-out characters somewhat interfere with the plot. Both books read like a series of powerful vignettes. I both liked and disliked this. I loved hearing about the down-and-outers, but I also wanted the plot to move along. Sometimes the story would get disjointed because of the segues. Plus there were new characters introduced late in the game. Even though most of them were just passing through, it often slowed me down.

Man, I wish I weren’t so picky, but once I see a teensy little problem, I can’t un-see it. Two other minor complaints: There was a point-of-view problem a couple of times, which is always jolting. Also, there are a few (yes, just a few!) pages that seemed lecture-y: a side trip about rich vs. poor, and another about Dostoevsky.

But these complaints are all minor because the language is so damn rich, the characters so vivid. You really feel like you are sitting there with them; the writer is amazingly good with prison details, and the story sounds so authentic. Kushner takes us into a world that most of us can’t imagine; she helps us imagine it.

Readers from San Francisco will love this book because Kushner paints a vivid picture of the city, including street names, district names, etc. It turns out that Kushner grew up in San Francisco and lived a life on the edge, too. In some ways she identified with her main character, Romy, although they were from different classes.

Check out this great article on Kushner and the making of the book:


And you must check out this particularly fantastic article in The New Yorker, which talks about Kushner’s unusual life and how it affected her writing. The article also shows us that Kushner did her homework—she got to know prisoners. This makes the story that much more authentic.


I am now officially fascinated by Kushner. I must read her earlier novels, I must! And believe me, I’d sign up for her memoir in a San Francisco minute. Hope someday she writes one.
Profile Image for Shelby *trains flying monkeys*.
1,604 reviews5,988 followers
May 2, 2018
I'm one to admit when I just do not get the hype on a book. This is one that I just did not jump on the train with. I am bit confused by it actually.

The majority of the book is about Romy, who has been sentenced to two life sentences for murdering her stalker. She is poor and worked as a stripper..so she basically stood no chance in the justice system.
This part of the book kept me interested. For some sicko reason prison type dramas are one of my favorite subjects...and it does not have to be farting unicorn type storylines.
For example..one of my favorite shows of all time...

This one is sorta dark. The women in the prison are not being portrayed as innocents..they did their crimes. So it was not that that kinda soured this book for me.

It was the jumping time line and viewpoints. You had so many different storylines that were thrown into the mix that NEVER came together. At the end of the book I thought maybe it would all tie in but it doesn't. It was just random. Then when Romy's crime is finally explained I did not really like her much either.

I may need a warning on some books that I'm just not smart or edgey enough to get them.

Booksource: Netgalley in exchange for review.

Profile Image for Perry.
632 reviews532 followers
May 30, 2018
The Mars Room is a provocative, raveworthy exploration of choices or, indeed, the absence of any perceived choice for adolescent and teen female criminals on the lower echelon of the socio-economic scale who grow up sexually abused, addicted to street drugs and/or engaged in a sex-related trade because they've had no choice in where, how and by whom they were raised, the adverse societal effects being the counterproductive institutionalization of a legion of women, their repetitive recidivism and a vicious intergenerational cycle of passing down the pain.

Ms. Kushner avoids the easy traps of a) excusing crimes with what some might call a "societal cop-out," or b) downplaying a woman's free will in choosing to commit a crime instead of walking away. Rather, as all estimable authors do, she deftly sculpts hard truths-- between lines, behind bars and through an array of colorful supporting characters.

Ms. Kushner approaches mastery in portraying authentic 20-something females from the outer fringes who contain a multitude of layers. The Mars Room is, quite remarkably, an improvement on her exquisite craftwork in creating the 20-something free-spirited artist Reno in The Flamethrowers, which preceded this novel.

The novel is tantamount to an indictment of a legal system that pushes public defenders to "plead out," not to "buck the system," and, when they do actually try a case at the client's insistence, engage in shoddy trial practices that show a reckless indifference to duty, justice and truth. In the trial of the accused 28-year-old protagonist for the murder of her stalker, her attorney failed to fight to prove that the "victim" brazenly and relentlessly stalked the young lady over the course of several months, spinelessly capitulating to the prosecutor's objection and motion to exclude such evidence at trial on the shameful grounds that its introduction would impermissibly allow the jury to consider "the victim's prior conduct" in determining the guilt of the accused, which is a bass ackwards way of turning the Rape Shield Law on its head; all of which resulted in the conviction of the young woman and her sentencing to consecutive life sentences.

The novel further offers a sublime and visceral reflection on the context of it all against the vastness and beauty of the mountainous terrain surrounding the California women's correctional facility in which the protagonist is imprisoned, peppered with comparisons to and excerpts from the journals of Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski.

Ms. Kushner has brilliantly structured a memorable, arresting, and enduring novel that should change the reader's perceptions of present/former children of the streets and of foster homes, showing how they view the world around them much differently than most do. In some ways, they are more perceptive than those caught in the rat race, but in others, particularly in their formative years, they're blinded by dire circumstances: "What I eventually came to understand, about San Francisco, was that I was immersed in beauty and barred from seeing it."

Thank you, NetGalley and Scribner, for providing me an advance copy of this novel in return for an honest review.
Profile Image for Justin Tate.
Author 7 books964 followers
August 24, 2019
At first this seems like a monumental achievement; a masterful storyteller giving voice to the incarcerated. Difficult characters come to life in unexpected ways. They're complex, flawed, a little evil and a lot good. The writing--as in, the actual formulation of words--is truly impressive. About a third of the way in, however, it becomes abundantly clear that no plot will emerge and the same old theme will be sung many times over. The edgy characters lose their edge, and the mystery of how everything will tie together dissipates when we realize this isn't that kind of book. It's not going to come together. We can rip out the pages, throw them in the air and glue them back in random order and the book will be just as good, and bad, as before.

I don't regret reading it, though. It's not boring. These are characters whose voices need to be heard. I just wish something had happened! Strippers give lap dances - we get it! Shenanigans happen in prison - no kidding? Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Yes, yes. It's true. That's all a great set-up. I could read it for 100 pages easy. But it kept going. And going. And then it was over and I just felt an overwhelming "so what?"
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,085 reviews68.4k followers
October 5, 2021
Hustling for Every Little Thing

Real power is the power to humiliate. Humiliation requires the participation of the victim. Participation in humiliation is what allows coercive society to exist. Armies, religions, prisons are examples notable not for their differences from what is ‘normal’, but rather for the norms they make obvious. To say it plainly: to be human is to be humiliated, including those who are in power, who are mostly men.

Children are humiliated as a matter of cultural routine. If they accustom themselves to it, they develop into good citizens. If they don’t, the intensity of humiliation is progressively increased. They become vagrants, addicts, and inmates... or prison guards. If they are women, there are career opportunities in the many mansions of the sex industry.

For the most humiliated, life is a constant hustle. To hustle is to humiliate oneself intentionally in order to survive. Hustling is the main form of participation in humiliation that takes place throughout society. But it is only practised at a professional level by those typically designated as criminal. Criminality is illegal hustling. It can look like haplessness, but really it’s just a transient position on the learning curve.

For the criminal, the world is not composed of other individuals but of one monolithic AUTHORITY which must be hustled against (or, more properly, with). AUTHORITY is simply ‘there.’ Most obviously in the quaintly named ‘justice system,’ but also in the increasingly trivial rules, procedures and prohibitions one becomes subject to on the slide into abyssal humiliation. There’s also one’s fellow hustlers to contend with, whose goal is to stay one rung above you on the ladder. Humiliation, like wealth, is always a relative thing.

Criminal hustling uses enormous amounts of energy. One’s competitive edge is difficult to maintain. Prison can be a welcome respite. Its humiliations are known and largely impersonal. Its hustles are relatively simple and low energy. In an environment of rigid routine, hustles can be planned and executed methodically. No need to ad lib or take inordinate risks. In prison, patience becomes a cardinal virtue.
Profile Image for Esil.
1,118 reviews1,363 followers
May 28, 2018
The Mars Room pushed all the right buttons for me. I liked Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, but this was something else altogether. Here Kushner uses her talent to extraordinarily potent effect. The story is set in the early 2000s, focused primarily on Romy Hall, who is in a women’s prison for life for murder. Kushner does a great job of showing the reality of Romy’s life — where she came from, how she got to prison, and her life in prison. There is no sugar coating. Romy’s life is harsh and she is hard edged. At the same time, Kushner does a great job showing how smart, resourceful and resilient Romy is. But life has offered very few choices and plenty of traps to Romy. Somehow, I found the end heartbreaking but brilliant. Besides Romy, The Mars Room features a few other characters connected to Romy or life in prison.

Ultimately, Kushner’s book suggests that the path that gets women into prison is often laden with poverty, addiction and abuse. But her message is delivered without polemic or simplistic solutions.

By a strange coincidence, today I tuned into Writers and Company which featured an interview with Kushner: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/writersandcom.... She describes the research she did about women in prison before writing The Mars Room. If anything, the interview added to my enthusiasm for the book. A lot of thought, empathy and research went into this one.

Highly recommended!

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for an opportunity to read an advance copy.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
265 reviews275 followers
December 9, 2021
Romy Hall is starting two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women's Correctional Facility. Her crime? The killing of her stalker. As Romy forms friendships over liquor brewed in socks and stories shared through sewage pipes her future seems to unfurl in one long, unwavering line, until news from beyond the prison bars forces Romy to try and outrun her destiny.

I had really high hopes for this book. It sounded right up my alley and I thought I would love it. I enjoy books where each chapter is dedicated to a different character, I don't mind when books jump between different periods in time, but this was so disjointed. Each paragraph would dive from one perspective to another and some characters I just didn't see the point in. I did enjoy the parts in the prison and I enjoyed the writing style which felt raw and truthful, but overall I found myself struggling to pick up this book. I hate not finishing a book so I persevered and was left really disappointed. Lots of holes and two dimensional characters. So many unanswered questions?!? Ughhh
Profile Image for Marchpane.
296 reviews2,166 followers
May 7, 2019
For some reason I had a preconceived idea that The Mars Room would be a po-faced social commentary loosely shaped into a novel. Expecting a lecture, I got a guttural roar. Not to mention a ‘stayed up all night to finish it’ compulsive read.

Comparisons to Orange is the New Black (the show, not the book) are apt, but only to a point. Where that show often adds levity in the form of goofy comedy and prison romance, The Mars Room avoids sensationalism and displays much blacker humour and a grimmer reality. The novel format gives more space for examining the deep failings of the U.S. prison system, a dichotomous world not shaped to fit the complexity of individual lives:

”maybe guilt and innocence were not even a real axis. Things went wrong in people’s lives.”

The book combines a literary sensibility with a cinematic thrill ride, extensive research and memorable characters drawn with sensitivity and heart. It doesn’t all totally work – one character is a bit too much of a cartoon villain, the Unabomber’s diary excerpts are incongruous, and occasionally characters become too obviously Kushner’s mouthpiece – but damn it is riveting.

That Kushner is able to elicit such sympathy for these characters is impressive. The actual crimes committed by each character are mostly withheld until very late in the book, but readers are not let off the hook – these are violent and despicable acts. This is not romanticised violence, and the reader is not expected either to forgive or condemn, merely to recognise the essential humanity of these people whose incarceration is a product of both their own choices and external circumstance.

With main character Romy, serving two life sentences for murder and child endangerment, we see her life history play out in flashbacks, providing context but no easy answers. Details of her crime are slowly drip fed throughout the book, and when finally revealed in full, the effect is not certainty, but greater ambiguity. Rather than being a straightforward miscarriage of justice, Romy’s case asks us to consider the very notions of justice that we hold.

It’s unflinching and at times difficult to read. But also empathetic, heartbreaking, raw and real.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,589 reviews2,811 followers
November 26, 2018
Rachel Kushner writes about mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex, and she does it by looking at the individuals who make up that mass, and the singular rules and facilities that constitute the bigger complex. Novels about the poor, about drug addicts and the disenfranchised always run the risk to use their protagonists as mere devices in order to illustrate societal problems (even Brecht often did that), but Kushner gives her characters dignity and complexity. She excuses nothing - we are dealing with convicted fellons, many of them murderers, some on death row - but she illustrates the reality in which these women were brought up, and that puts the terrible decisions they made in context, and it raises the question what the aim of the prison system should be.

The main character is Romy, a young mother, former stripper and former drug-addict, who got two life sentences plus six years for killing her stalker. We meet her on the way to prison, and she is the one holding the story together while we get to know her fellow inmates, her public defense lawyer and the prison teacher. We learn more about all of these characters in several flashbacks that not only give more details about Romy's crime, but also inform the reader about the upbringing and living circumstances of several characters. It is obvious that the incarcerated women committed atrocious acts, but it is also obvious that their chances in life were very few - and that the system did interfer very late and only in order to punish. Skid row, negligent parents, abuse of all sorts, drugs, prison - for some of them that's all they've ever known, and all the people they've grown up with knew.

I really admired the narrative voices Kushner created: They feel real, sharp and acute, and the way she shines a light on certain situations and places from different viewpoints effortlessly illustrates how perceptions differ regarding where you come from and what your current role is. At some point, we even read a chapter written from the perspective of Romy's stalker, and not only the way he perceives his crime is interesting, but also how Romy in her telling of the story does not describe how repulsive this guy really is - we learn it by listening to his own account. Romy does not see her clients as people, only as wallets, in order to be able to cope with her situation as a stripper in the Mars Room, the "most notorious, the very seediest and most circuslike place there is.". Romy's logic is that if she has to be a stripper, then she wants to be one in the filthiest club there is - this stubborn refusal to aspire to work at the best place for this bad job is a twisted way to preserve her dignity.

But, she reminisces, "(s)omething brewed in me over the years I worked at the Mars Room, sitting on laps, deep into this flawed exchange. This thing in me brewed and foamed. And when I directed it - a decision that was never made; instead, insticts took over - that was it." There's only so much a person can take.

Kushner makes it very clear that she sees the system as broken: No help for the kids on skid row so they have a high risk to end up in prison at some point, excessive punishments for minor crimes, over-worked and under-qualified public defense lawyers, poorly qualified and supervised prison staff, and, probably worst of all, no proper rehabilitation for convicts - what's the point of a prison if serving time does not include proper measures to rehabiliate fellons?

The book also discusses gender roles (what happens to prisoners who don't conform to the male/female dichotomy?) and the objectification of women: In The Mars Room, Romy is only a piece of flesh, earning money by obliging to the wishes of the customers who don't see her as a person. In prison, Romy is only a number, obliging to prison rules and the commands of the guards who only see her as a convict. "Looking at someone who is looking at you was a drug as strong as any other", the text states at some point: Who is looking at the kids without care? Who is looking, really looking at those who have ended up in prison?

Highly recommended, and then go on to read "A Colony in a Nation".
Profile Image for Brandice.
910 reviews
January 13, 2019
I’m bummed to say that I didn’t enjoy The Mars Room. It seems to be one of those books where people like it or they don’t, with little middle ground. Unfortunately I’m in Camp Don’t on this one.

The story begins with a young woman, Romy Hall, who is on a bus ride to a new prison in California. Prior to prison, she was a stripper at The Mars Room, and is a single mom with one son, Jackson. While I did appreciate the true, unpleasant realities of prison life that were described, I had a hard time feeling for most of the characters, including Romy. Though life deals many hardships to people, we are responsible for the choices we make and enduring the consequences - good or bad- as a result of those choices.

I hated the skittish structure of this book - Something that has also been a huge detractor for me with other books (like Chemistry and All Grown Up). I will accept that I’m just not a fan of this “piece-y” style.

I liked the premise of The Mars Room, which is what initially intrigued me to the book. I felt like this is not an overdone story, however my enthusiasm level when actually reading the book would look like a jagged line graph - Some chapters were interesting, and in others, my interest plummeted. The book was not for me.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,438 followers
May 23, 2018
Rachel Kushner’s novels defy categorization. Her work reads easily but has a complexity that resists summation. She breaks rules and changes minds. This novel is both heavy and light at the same time, like a women’s prison in the Central Valley of California is tragic and absurd. Only for the untethered is it the joke it sometimes appears.

Kushner is for adults. She talks about sex and violence in a way that only adults will understand. Deviance is something else. Criminality is different again. But where sex and intimacy intersect in the Venn circle of our lives, we understand there is a corona of otherness around each of us. Consent is required. Absent that consent, all kinds of wrongdoing can occur.

This novel is about incarceration. It does not take sides; that is done by the courts. It tells us who people are before we know what they’ve done. That fits in exactly with the theme in Bryan Stevenson’s nonfiction, Just Mercy, that "each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done.”

Romy Leslie Hall was an exotic dancer. She’d called herself Vanessa at work. She was in maximum now, a lifer with no possibility of parole. There were others in there with her who were likewise unwilling to be screwed with, but otherwise were perfectly ordinary human beings, with needs, wants, and aspirations.

The pace is slow. We are reading, however long it takes, because of the obvious intelligence behind the words, the insights, the news from inside. Romy’s not going anywhere. This story could take forever, as long as she wants to drag it out. Romy is a mother. She left her four-year-old, a son, with her own mother, not by choice. She’d been hauled away in cuffs in front of her son.

What Kushner does particularly well here is hold up one-way glass for readers to see themselves and at other times we look into the prison. I could see myself, hear myself, when Kushner mentioned the guards admonishments
“Ms. Hall, I know it’s tough, but your situation is due one hundred percent to choices you made and actions you took. If you’d wanted to be a responsible parent, you would have made different choices.”
In the course of this story we see how, in fact, choices were made long before Romy had any say in the matter. The rest just plays out predictably, according to some formula that hasn’t changed for millennia. Romy’s choices look bad, and the consequences all poor, too.

The one bright light in her life is her son, Jackson. Jackson came out of the womb optimistic, a happy baby. If you’ve ever seen a happy baby, you’ll know right away why it was so important for Romy to protect him, and why he was her lifesaver.

We learn about the personnel in a prison environment: guards, GED teachers, intake counselors. “Counselor doesn’t mean someone who counsels.” Counselors determine the security classification of the prisoners. Romy found herself “pleading with the [counselor] sadist in a little girl voice” in order to find out what happened to her son. The pressures of the place screwed with Romy, changing outcomes.

At first Romy’s chapters are interspersed with lists of prison rules, just to give us a sense of how restrictive the environment is. We run our eyes down the list, taken aback, immediately trying to think of ways to get around the regulations. We grow resentful, cynical, testy. “No arguments,” the sign says. “No loud laughing or boisterousness.” “No crying.”

Eventually, after the rules have done their job, we are occasionally treated to a short chapter lifted from mad loner Ted Kaczynski’s diary. The GED teacher, Gordon Hauser, the Thoreau specialist living in a one-room mountain shack while he worked at the prison, was gifted the diary by a fellow Berkeley grad because of the coincidences. At first, truth be told, Kaczynski doesn’t sound mad at all. It is only when people insist upon screwing with him, with nature, with the environment in which he lives, that he loses control.

There aren’t just a few of us who might have some sympathy for Kaczynski’s point of view, though not condoning his means of pressing his point. If we lived on the earth alone, we wouldn’t need to consider the requirement we get along with others. Persuasion as a tool is a crude thing, though it did work once for Romy, with Gordon Hauser, the GED teacher.

Hauser was not a guard, not like the others. We never learn whether or not Romy was able to free her son Jackson from the system by giving Hauser the best photo she had of Jackson. Something about Hauser was still free, not foreordained, and giving him the photo meant a little piece of Jackson lived free, too. Hauser was not staying; he was leaving his job and had plans…plans to go back to school.

We can lose ourselves, when we are screwed with. Both Kaczynski and Romy made clear: Do Not Screw With Me. Hauser had been screwed with, in his life, in his work, but he bore his humiliation like a flower in a rainstorm, bending to it, until the weather changed and he took charge. Doc, a former policeman-turned-inmate whose story is likewise told here, was one of those “don’t screw with me” types, until he wasn’t. He left prison, too, but not in the same way as Hauser.

The title, The Mars Room, refers to the low-rent Frisco club where Romy worked, but we also might take it to recall the isolation of Kaczynski or prison, places distant from the world where the rest of us live, places where it is difficult to get word in or out, where people are changed by the isolation, and from which they may never get home.

The cover is a Nan Goldin photograph called Amanda in the Mirror, Berlin, 1992. There is a scene towards the end of this novel that has all the terror and propulsion of the escape scene in Iceberg Slim's iconic autobiography, Pimp. You are not going to want to miss either one.

This is another extraordinary fiction from someone who appears to have taken on the role of flamethrower. As Romy says,
“You learn when you’re young that evil exists. You absorb the knowledge of it. When this happens for the first time, it does not go down easy. It goes down like a horse pill.”
Romy tells us women in prison like to read about women in prison. Well, this one’s for them.
Profile Image for Zoeytron.
1,036 reviews690 followers
October 11, 2018
Let me out!  I don't want to read this book any more.  Not quite halfway through, I guiltily add it to my scant DNF shelf.  I neither liked nor disliked the characters, and the way it was put together seemed disjointed to me. 

I am aware of the extensive research, time, and effort on the author's part in writing this book, and I do respect that.  As an aside, it tickled my funny bone for there to be a character by the name of Laura Lipp who never stopped talking. 
Profile Image for Norma.
551 reviews12.7k followers
July 21, 2018
3.5 stars!

I received an ARC from a Goodreads Giveaway of THE MARS ROOM by RACHEL KUSHNER. Thank you so much! I thought this was a very good read and I’m glad that I read it! I think it’s definitely worth the read!

Even though this book was a little structurally & mentally challenging for me to read there was something about it that had me glued to those pages. When I wasn’t reading this one, I was thinking about it. It got under my skin, I was interested in Romy and the details behind her incarceration in a women’s prison.

I thought that the author did a great job here at showing us the reality of Romy’s life in prison. Some parts were definitely cringeworthy, the harshness and vivid portrayal wasn’t sugarcoated.

The ending is where this book lost stars from me. I thought it was a little too dramatic and to be totally honest I wasn’t exactly sure why it ended the way it did. Maybe I just didn’t get it and missed the point?

Review written and posted on our themed book blog Two Sisters Lost In A Coulee Reading.

Coulee: a term applied rather loosely to different landforms, all of which refer to a kind of valley.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,114 followers
May 17, 2018
This is a strong case of "it's not you, it's me." I have tried to read and like Rachel Kushner before, back when I read The Flamethrowers when it was the it book of the season. In the case of that book, what lingers is the description of the motorcycle crossing the salt flats, but at no point did I connect to the plot or characters. And unfortunately we are here again. I've read almost 40% but just need to acknowledge that it isn't working for me, as I've been reading other books in the breaks that I've connected with on a deeper level.

It isn't that Kushner's books don't have depth. They are clearly well-researched, and I believe she is curious about her subject and wants to get it right, but that also comes across as coldness. I don't know why these characters matter. Ron Charles fleshes this discomfort out more, and sticks to the end, but I can see that it won't serve me well to do the same.

Thanks to the publisher for providing me access to the title through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Here's me being honest!
Profile Image for Kelli.
851 reviews404 followers
June 1, 2018
I found this book structurally challenging, emotionally distant, and intentionally didactic. I’ve hit a rough patch with popular books recently, so I tried to ignore how disjointed this felt (and how disinterested I was) but in the end, it’s a 2.5 for me.
Profile Image for j e w e l s.
315 reviews2,418 followers
January 21, 2019

Usually, I steer clear of audiobooks that are read by the author. Because....uggggh! Writers should write and actors should read. In this case, I'm so glad I took the chance.

Author Rachel Kushner read her novel aloud in such a sweet, vulnerable and sincere voice that you can't help but fall in love with her. Ironically, the story she is reading is harsh, unblinking and completely unsentimental. The contrast definitely works.

I wish I could say I fell in love with the book, but I didn't. The story zigzags all over the place--all random thoughts followed through on a pages long tangent. The only narrative I cared about was Romy Hall's. How I wish it was just Romy's story, before and after prison. It was annoying to me when we had to leave Romy, which was way too often.

The novel is a bleak, despairing look at modern American society-- especially our prison system and the women forced to survive behind the barbed wire and concrete. Unlike Orange Is the New Black, there is very little humor. A kind of preachy message, the stories are slammed down your throat, one after another, with no time to digest or even reach for air. I found it exhausting and depressing.

A Man Booker finalist, it is a fantastic work of art and I don't regret taking it on. I just didn't connect to it as much as I wanted to. A similar author, Tommy Orange, delivered a stronger gut punch with THERE THERE.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
October 1, 2018
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018

My ninth book from the longlist is perhaps the most difficult to assess. In normal circumstances the Californian prison system would not be a subject I would choose to read about, but I did find quite a lot to like in this book.

The central story of Romy, a lap dancer and mother of a young boy, who is jailed for life for attacking a stalker she finds on her doorstep, is powerful and moving. Her story is interleaved with the stories of many other prisoners, one member of prison staff who works as a literacy teacher, Romy's victim and Ted Kaczynski a.k.a. the Unabomber.

I did feel the book tried to do too much, and by doing so lost its focus and became a little tedious and repetitive, but it does have sections I liked a lot.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,820 reviews1,378 followers
September 20, 2018
Now shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize,

This probably represened the most hyped and predictable book on a longlist which largely avoided the expected and established literary choices in favour of readability, the inclusion of new genres/media and a theme of a “world on the brink”.

It is a book whose first chapter ends with a startling image, for me perhaps the most powerful of the longlist. As a prisoner is en route to serving two consecutive life sentences and reflecting on what bought here there, the bus passes of caged Thanksgiving Turkeys. America's foundational family feast relies on the incarceration of thousands into a system from which they never emerge; which I saw as a metaphor for how American society seems to have as its dark side, in a parasitical symbiosis, mass incarceration.

This is Rachel Kushner’s third novel, and continues her idea of moving forward sequentially in time - her to previous novels being set in the 1950s and 1970s, this is set in the early 2000s, a time period I think chosen to ensure her key character could share her own upbringing.

The novel stemmed from the author’s decision in 2012 to investigate California’s penal system in its entirety after some years of reflection on the use of the prison system in the structure of that society - a decision which I feel was not necessarily motivated by wanting to write a book, but which given her identity as a novelist was inevitably going to find an outlet in her creative art.

Her years of immersive research, included visiting courts to watch trials, joining prison tour programmes with criminal justice students, arranging specific prison visits and then moved from the purely observational to the participative and includes Involvement with an activist prison reform group, partly run by prisoners serving life sentences (http://www.justicenowprisonabolition.org), visiting and corresponding with prisoners with life sentences at Chowchilla (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centr...), mentoring prisoners with writing projects, sending prisoners books and assisting with the parole appeals those convicted for life as juveniles (for example http://articles.latimes.com/2002/mar/... the length of whose sentence is mirrored in that of this novel’s central character.

I believe that the author had five aims in this book, which largely dictate its sprawling structure (one which I know a number of my Goodreads friends have criticised):

to draw on her own childhood to identify the back stories of her characters and in particular the underlying circumstances that in her view underlying reasons they may have ended in jail;

to draw on the stories of prisoners both male and female she met over the years;

to give a realistic insiders view of life as a prisoner based on her conversations with those she befriended;

to include an outside character, one tangential to the prison system so as to bring something of the outside view of the system and the prisoners in it;

to consider the wider environment in which the California prison is set.

The book’s main character is Romy - convicted for the murder of a stalker, her case not helped by a well meaning but over worked and inexpert Public defender who effectively rules out from court the immediate reasons for her actions. Romy’s sections are the only ones in the book written in the first person, and I think this is important to an understanding of the book. Romy’s teenage years are based around those of the author and her friends (Romy being I think six years younger). For example Kushner was a member of a group who styled themselves White Punks on Dope. Kushner has said that some of her friends ended up in prison, and puts this down less to the immediate wrong choices they made in their lives, as the wrong choices that were made for them by their class and privilege lead lack of a support network. She, I think, uses Romy to come to terms with this on a personal level and also to provoke her readers with the same idea. In a memorable moment in the book, as Romy explains an assault she suffered as an 11 year old, one that was the start of her journey which ended in prison, she breaks through the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly.

You would not have gone. I understand that. You would not have gone up to his room. You would not have asked him for help. You would not have been wandering lost at midnight at age eleven. You would have been safe and dry and asleep, at home with your mother and your father who cared about you and had rules, curfews, expectations. Everything for you would have been different. But if you were me, you would have done what I did. You would have gone, hopeful and stupid, to get the money for the taxi”.

In terms of characters she met in the novel and which feature in her book some are based on more Proustian movements. A five minute meeting with a former police officer convicted for acting as a contract killer, his pictures of Harley Davidson’s, his admittance to undiscovered quasi-legal killings and a memory of expensive cologne mixed with prison cleaning solution (Cell Block 64) lead to the character of Doc. Others are based around specific prisoners whose story she has understood, with for example Rosie Alfaro (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosie...) forming the inspiration for Candy Peña, one of the death row characters and her friend and consultant in the book Theresa Martinez appearing as Sammy, Romy and our guide to prison life.

The insider view of female prison life are many and varied and lend the book a compelling level of realism - for example ad seg and its sanitary pipe communications with Death Row, prison cheesecake, the popularity of Danielle Steele’s Malice in the prison population, the school age books given to prisoners to read). It is however one of the most disappointing aspects of the novel that this meticulous attention to detail and to realism is rather ruined by an unnecessary and unbelievable ending to Romy’s imprisonment.

The outsider view is provided by Gordon Hauser, an English literature graduate who after the failure of his dissertation on Thoreau takes a job as a prison teacher. Through his eyes we see the prison system and the routines and bureaucracy involved in it, but we also get a wider view of the prisoners, conflicted between seeing them as human beings and understanding the horror of the crimes they have committed (something which is only ever the subject of rumour and misdirection amongst the prisoners themselves). He also is our and Romy’s connection to the fate of her son Jackson and the state’s view that she has effectively by her actions disqualified herself from parenthood (a view commonly held and repeated by the prison officers abiut all of the prisoners).

The environmental part is I believe the last successful; the author has Hauser living Thoreau style in a log cabin surrounded by the same industrial style Almond farms as the prisons. However she also tries to crowbar in the similarities between Thoreau’s retreat from society and that of the Unabomber as outlined in a film made by a friend of hers (http://glasstire.com/2013/04/18/decod.... In particular Hauser’s chapters are followed by an excerpt from sections of the Unabomber’s diary as decoded by Benning. I struggled to see any justification for this part, although I did note that the sections from the diaries show the Unabomber effectively usurping the right to impose his own justice system on others.

The ending of the book as Romy reflects on her son is both beautifully touching

He is on his path as I am on mine. The world has gone on for a long, long time. I gave him life. It is quite a lot to give. It is the opposite of nothing. And the opposite of nothing is not something. It is everything.

And deeply sad.

Romy’s actions, and the State’s reaction to them has surrendered Jackson to a system which has already let down so many of the other characters.

And so it continues .....

This is far from a perfect novel but it is a memorable and important one.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,049 reviews48.7k followers
May 4, 2018
More than a week before the release of Rachel Kushner’s new novel, “The Mars Room,” the New York Times published an excerpt in a special 12-page section. Hauntingly illustrated and spiced with artsy pull-quotes, it was an extraordinary presentation designed to proclaim the advent of an extraordinary book. Indeed, a Times book critic followed up with a review calling “The Mars Room” “a major novel.”

Which may be the problem with this bleak tale about people trapped in the American prison system. “The Mars Room” shuffles along shackled with so much Importance that it barely has room to move. Swollen with certainty, the story tolerates little ambiguity and offers few surprises. Kushner told the New Yorker that several years ago she decided “to learn everything I could about California prisons.” And now she is determined to teach it to us, her readers, who are sentenced to more than 300 pages of despair, cruelty and illness.

The heroine is Romy Hall, a 29-year-old white woman who has just begun serving two consecutive life sentences plus six years for murdering a stalker. “I don’t plan on living a long life,” she tells us, “or a short life, necessarily. I have no. . . . .

To read the rest of this novel, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews651 followers
September 24, 2018

When I first read this book, several months before it was long listed and then shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, I did not enjoy it. I found it haphazard. Read my review below for my thoughts at that time.

Then the discussions opened up on GR once it was on the Booker list. I came to a view that perhaps I had misread the book. I decided that if it made the shortlist, I would re-read it.

I have now done this.

If you have not read the book yet, my suggestion is that you stop here as I don't want to put people off when so many others have enjoyed the book and there are what may be regarded by some as spoilers below. I'm going to go on a bit of rant.

If anything, I liked it less second time through, even though I tried desperately to remember all the positive comments other people had made in their reviews and in the discussions. I'm happy to accept that it might simply be me, but I can't make this book work.

Here's how I see it now (this is going to upset some of you - look away now!). Admittedly, I have exaggerated a bit for effect. Gordon Hauser is a two-dimensional character (as the book says "At least I think it was Hauser. It was a placeholder man...") who exists almost solely so that Kushner can have someone living in a wood and make that tenuous link to Ted Kaczynski so she can therefore shoe-horn in the extracts from the Unabomber's diaries that she is determined to include even though they have no relevance. Both Unabomber and Hauser could go. Then there's Doc who makes a brief, irrelevant appearance for a few chapters. The book reads like even Kushner wasn't sure he should be there: she kills him at the end of one chapter, then has second thoughts and he survives for one further episode. Then he is dropped, never to be heard of again. he could also go.

Trouble is, all that's left then is a women's prison drama. As several others have commented, that's been done many times already. Some of this was actually pretty good, to be fair.

The Seattle Times likes the book a lot but even that makes reference to "a narrative that's riddled with fragments and false starts." This is echoed by the book itself which includes a sentence that says: "The problem with reading was how relentless it was. You managed to concentrate long enough to read a whole paragraph and then there was another one, and they just kept coming."

I did, however, like the bits about trees at the end that form a great link to Richard Powers' The Overstory (a book that, unlike this one, improved for me on second reading). With Romy hiding in one of a pair of giant redwood trees, we read:

"Both trees had charred areas around their trunks, inside and out, wood burned black and dry, fractured into a geometry of crackles. Probably the trees had been hit by lightning. Whole forest burning up around them, and they had lived on because they lived on. Because they could. Maybe they were a thousand years old. Two thousand years old. To the tree, that might not be so long. Just life. Like life to a human is life-length. There were other scales of life. The tree was so tall I could not see up it, only to the baby arms, the small branches that began high, sky-height, tall enough that this tree stretched to another world, or to the end of this one."

So, all is not lost. But I am not going to increase my rating.


I think I would like to hear more from Kushner about the motivations for this book and the choices she made regarding its structure before I make a final judgement on how I feel about it. It seems to have received a lot of positive reviews in the pre-publication buzz. It is supposed to be a gritty prison drama that has something to say about incarceration, poverty/class, sexism and other topics. I was looking forward to reading it.

And it does include a lot of interesting writing.

"Prison was a place where you had to be strong to get through each day. If you thought about some awful act you’d committed, every day, in graphic detail, enough to prove to a parole board that you had insight, the proverbial insight they wanted, needed, to let you go home, you might lose your mind. To stay sane, that was the thing. To stay sane you formed a version of yourself you could believe in."

But I have to acknowledge that I really struggled to get to grips with the novel and I think it was the structure that put me off more than anything else. It is, to my mind, incredibly disjointed. This is why I would like to hear more from Kushner about what she was trying to achieve with the book. I am not completely unaccustomed to disjointed novels: I recently read Flights, for example, and they don’t come much more disjointed than that. But I loved Flights whereas I struggled with this one. And I have been asking myself why since I finished it. I think it has to do with Flights building something that grows in the reader’s mind, even if the parts don't seem to be joined up, but The Mars Room seems to simply confuse plot lines. At times, I felt like Kushner had a list of topics she wanted to address and was simply ticking them off as she covered them. One of the most interesting things I discovered as I read this was that parts of the novel were published in the The New Yorker as a short story (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20...). In the novel, other bits have been woven around this short story, but it doesn’t feel to me like the graft has taken: it still feels to me like several stories stitched together rather than a single novel.

The Mars Room concentrates mainly on Romy Hall who has just been sentenced and will spend the rest of her life in prison after she killed someone. The novel opens with Romy on a bus on the way to prison and you think the scene has been set for a prison drama. But that prison drama does not develop for a long time because we spend a lot of pages learning about Romy’s past. That’s still OK, except that we seem to be hearing about a lot of characters who are immediately discarded and never heard from again. Good background information, but it starts to get a bit frustrating.

But then we skip to Gordon Hauser who teaches in prisons and ends up at Romy’s prison. There are links, but it feels like we are jumping all over the place.

Then suddenly Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, pops up and there are random bits of his journal included.

Then the main protagonist switches to someone else for a while.

And so on.

I am quite prepared to be told that I am missing the point, but at the moment I just don’t get it.

My thanks to the publisher, Vintage Publishing, for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Trudie.
544 reviews583 followers
August 5, 2018
This is arguably the superstar novel on this years Man Booker longlist, a book I would happily see win but doubt will do so, principally because I don't think the British can handle a third year shut out of their own prize ;) ( Although, as an impartial observer, that outcome would amuse me).

Booker politics aside, I thought this novel held up well to the hype and critical praise it is receiving. Its probably good to point out the review from Dwight Garner in the NYT, which I really admired and agree with when he says :

“The Mars Room” is a major novel, a sustained performance, one that broods on several exigent ideas. The sense of constriction I mentioned above plays out in many ways. Nearly every character has had radically limited options from birth.

That said, I didn't find The Mars Room entirely without faults. It reads like modern noir, darkly funny but not inherently pleasant, cityscapes are harsh, grimy and drug-fuelled, and the characters morally ambiguous, cold. The structure is problematic as it often devolves into a chaotic, fractured collection of snippets. There could be an argument that Kushner has done too much research for this. Interesting anecdotes about prison escapes, the Norman Mailer / Jack Abott story and excerpts from the decoded Ted Kaczynski dairies, although interesting, often threatened to get in the way of the story-telling. The line between good fiction and non-fiction wears too thin for me at times.

While The Mars Room is populated with a diverse and beautifully sketched array of characters (I loved Conan, The Norse, Laura Lipp, and Betty La France - she of the million dollar legs), Romy Hall's story anchors the novel. If you warm to her voice and find her believable, it will probably determine if you like the book or not. I found her situation entirely realistic, even if some of her actions seemed implausible. Passages like this just broke my heart :

I would drive past the ugly power plant in Burbank and see the steam billowing from its reactor mouths and be faced with what I did not like to admit, which was that Jimmy Darling was free of worry, and he had a place in the world. He was a somebody. Take the inverse of that and it was how I felt about myself.

This feeling didn’t seem like it derived from something I could fix or improve. It was simply who I was compared to who Jimmy was, which put my life in negative relief.

I feel strongly that The Mars Room is a book that matters and I hope it will have some longevity. It was interesting to read both Rachael Kushner and Virginie Despentes for the first time this year. Both fierce, provocative female writers, turning their considerable writing skills to tackling lives lived on the margins, in the dark, grimy underworlds of lap-dancing clubs and flophouses, actions fuelled by drug-taking and desperation.

Both authors are undoubtably political even polemical, reflecting back an ugly, painful version of contemporary social decay. Characters are convicted felons, murderers, strippers, prostitutes, career criminals, believable and nuanced people making bad choices, mostly having no choices. This sounds potentially miserable and yet the genius is the humanity conveyed, there is warmth and comedy and also hope. I found it was impossible to read The Mars Room or Vernon Subutex without feeling an enormous amount of empathy for the predicaments people faced.

Writing like this is obviously going to be divisive. I have seen Kushner's book being accused of having comic book characters, bringing nothing new to the table about the corrections system and an inexplicable comment of "no one has sympathy for felons anyway". This last point highlighting one of the reasons we do need books like this - to continually reenforce the the truth of Mahatma Ghandi quote A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.
Profile Image for mwana .
381 reviews287 followers
October 3, 2019
He had in his mind something that Nietzsche had said about truth. That each man is entitled to as much of it as he can bear.

It’s often in the best interests of your emotional well-being to read a New Yorker short story with absolutely no expectations to get your heart massaged and your feelings coddled.

They are batshit crazy and unbelievably well written. Honestly, reading them is usually an exercise (for me) in ego maintenance. Because every time I read them I am awed by the storytelling, whipped over the head by the lyricism and oft times overwhelmed by the subtexts.

The very first New Yorker I read was Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress. It seemed like an everyday crime story featuring your Meryl Streep-esque black widow who murdered husbands for a living. Then came Cell One by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which was a magnified examination of Nigeria’s legal system and many other African themes you could never escape. After that, I read Cat Person whose subject matter’s cup of unpleasantness runneth (runnethed?) over.

Cat Person taught me the lesson to gird my heart against the unapologetic nature of New Yorker shorts. They are gritty, raw and reality personified. Truth is not stranger than fiction. New Yorker fiction is stranger than fiction. It’s the kind that rummages around in the cockles of your soul and goes, “How can we fuck you up today?”


The author Rachel Kushner talks about Stanville on the New Yorker

My expectations of feel-goodness notwithstanding, New Yorker shorts remain to be some of the most remarkable collections of great literature ever. Yes, I can confidently state that with my 22 years of reading under my belt.

Stanville is no different. Set in a maximum security women’s prison, I had no clue what to expect. And I tried not to expect anything. However, my mind’s eye’s eye was always on the lookout for something virtually heart wrenching like a murder of my narrator. Who I invested in the moment he, Gordon, was introduced.

If his students could learn to think well, to enjoy reading books, some part of them would be uncaged. That was what Gordon Hauser told himself, and what he told them, too. But there were days, like when a woman walked into the prison classroom and flung boiling sugar water into the face of another woman, when he did not believe it.

Gordon, a literature teacher (I think), bonds with an inmate called Hall and I suspected that they may cultivate a romance. Where she would use his naiveté to machinate a grand escape from incarceration. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

The story isn’t as conclusive as other shorts because it’s part of or at least adapted from the authors upcoming novel The Mars Room.


Rachel Kushner, in this instance, didn’t demolish my innocence or demoralise my optimism. She didn’t yank away my rose-tinted glasses. I am not sure what exactly she was trying to extrapolate other than taking the reader through an intimate journey of prison life. And the not-so-harsh realities of life on the borders of the prison. I have a feeling some underlying complexities probably flew right over my head in my quest to avoid feeling gut wrenched.

But I will refer to her as a lit tease because she had the audacity to end her story so abruptly when the book comes out in June. Fucking June. What is it with this year and making me wait?
Profile Image for Dianne.
567 reviews932 followers
October 12, 2018
This is an interesting look at incarceration. It’s set up as the life story of Romy Hall, a stripper at The Mars Room and single mother of a young son, Jackson. Romy’s story starts with her bus ride, in chains and shackles, to the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California where she will be serving two life sentences. Kushner gradually knits Romy’s backstory together, alternating between Romy and other characters associated with Romy, both within and outside of the prison.

The sordid details of prison life are gripping, but at the same time, most of it I knew or suspected. Prison is a big, depressing clusterfuck of a business filled with angry, hostile and incompetent people - on both sides of the bars.

I think Kushner’s agenda here is to point out that incarcerated people are doomed from the get-go and never did stand a chance. Whether by socioeconomic status, trauma, poverty or accident of birth, a life doesn’t go off the rails - it follows the rails where they have already been laid down.

”If you grew up rich, you played a musical instrument, violin or piano. You were on the debate team. Preferred a certain brand of jeans cuffed just so, maybe you puffed a ciggie or smoked bowls with your friends in your dad’s Lexus, then were late to your SAT tutorial. But so many kids did it differently, and were done to differently. If you were from Richmond, or East Oakland, or, like Sanchez, South LA, you might be trained from birth practically to represent your block, your gang, to rep hard, to have pride, to BE hard. Maybe you had a lot of siblings to watch and possibly you knew almost nobody who had finished school, or worked a stable job. People from your family were in prison, whole swaths of your community, and it was part of life to eventually go there. So, you were born fucked.”

I don’t disagree that there is a good deal of truth in that point of view, but there are still choices to be made. Romy’s life is a cautionary tale of what will happen if you are born at a disadvantage and consistently make all the wrong choices.

This book made the Man Booker shortlist for 2018. Not surprised; it fits with the overarching theme of social and political angst this year. Personally, I thought it structurally a bit of a mess but the stories of the characters did keep me engrossed. I liked it, but don’t think this is the Booker prize winner.
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1,172 reviews8,380 followers
August 12, 2018
Life is brutal. And the life we lead is directed by choices we make and often sacrifices, which are choices in and of themselves, lead us down paths that make us feel helpless, out of control; ironic when a choice you make leads to that state of helplessness. Rachel Kushner examines that 'control' and does so excellently in this novel. Looking at the prison system is one way of examining control—where everything is rigid and pre-determined, leaving its members with no will. But on a larger scale she looks at patriarchy, male entitlement, female power and subverting traditional roles. It's not a pretty book by any means; the stories are often brutal and would make you turn away, plead ignorance in real life. But you can't look away here and you have to grapple with these issues from an imperfect but complex set of characters. This book surprised me and it's one I don't think I'll easily forget. Can't broadly recommend it to everyone because it has some pretty grim subject matter, but definitely worth checking out if you are interested.
August 22, 2018
This is a grim narrative written a flat, dead tone. Its central focus is a 29-year-old female inmate who has been sentenced to two consecutive life sentences plus six years in a California prison for the murder of her stalker, Kurt (“the Creep”) Kennedy. Romy Leslie Hall’s unfit, perpetually depressed mother had named her after the film-star daughter of a German actress acquainted with Hitler. With this less-than-auspicious moniker marking her from the start, Romy proceeded to grow up in neglect in San Francisco, a city whose “clammy fingers of fog” worked their way into the clothes of its nihilistic young. Apparently raped at 11, Romy spent her teens getting “wrecked and wasted”. Her teachers had talked about her potential, but being born to the mother she was, she didn’t stand a chance. She ended up becoming a lap dancer in a notoriously seedy club called the Mars Room. Romy did not share the aspirations of her work colleagues, which included finding men who wanted “the girlfriend experience” and might therefore be manipulated into paying the rent for a year. In the time I spent with Romy, I found her to be a deadened, disconnected protagonist. Given the manner in which Kushner presented her, I was unable to like Romy or, in fact, feel for her in any way.

In the first section of the book, the author gives us some idea of the formative experiences that contributed to Romy’s current criminal status—or perhaps, more accurately, she bangs us over the head with those experiences. They are, of course, unrelentingly bleak. Kushner sometimes appears to try to leaven the grimness of it all with sardonic observations or by reporting the dialogue of the other weird inmates as these women are transported by bus to another prison facility. This is the kind of gallows repartee that seems fairly typical of prison-themed works. Needless to say, it doesn’t do a whole lot of leavening.

A few chapters in, Kushner introduces the stories of other characters: Gordon Hauser, a prison educator who didn’t have the stuff for a life in academia and has turned to corrections work to pay off student loans, and Doc, a corrupt cop and the former boyfriend of a female inmate on death row. There may be more characters. I wouldn’t know.

From the start, this was a book I regularly considered abandoning. With my breaks from the book only growing longer and longer, I finally reached the point where I couldn’t stomach the thought of opening it again. Kushner may be a capable writer. She turns out decent sentences and provides astute-enough observations, but I could not endure the unrelenting bleakness and ugliness I found here. Not having read Kushner before, I can’t say whether this is characteristic of her, but in this book, at least, she appears to enjoy wallowing in the sordid. (At one point, for example, Romy encounters a shirtless young boy who lives in a drug den known as the ” Scummerz House”. He is described as having “hair as blindly colourless as lice egg castings.” Lovely, right? There’s more where that comes from.) I know I was supposed to summon up some sort of sympathy for Romy’s unfortunate lot, but I found her and every other character I encountered in the 131 pages I did read unsympathetic. It was liberating to close this book for the final time—to escape what was increasingly feeling like mental incarceration in a deeply unpleasant reading experience. Two consecutive weeks with Kushner was enough of a sentence for me. Never again.
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