Gumble's Yard's Reviews > The Mars Room

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
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really liked it
bookshelves: 2018-booker-longlist, 2018, 2018-booker-shortlist

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 (, visiting and corresponding with prisoners with life sentences at Chowchilla (, mentoring prisoners with writing projects, sending prisoners books and assisting with the parole appeals those convicted for life as juveniles (for example 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 ( 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 ( 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.
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Reading Progress

July 23, 2018 – Shelved
July 23, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
July 23, 2018 – Shelved as: 2018-booker-longlist
August 1, 2018 – Started Reading
August 1, 2018 – Shelved as: 2018
August 1, 2018 – Finished Reading
September 27, 2018 – Shelved as: 2018-booker-shortlist

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

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Neil This is the kind of review I love: you have taken a book I could not make proper sense of and you have given me cause to look at it afresh. I am glad I am not the only one who struggled with the Unabomber! But I think I can see more of what Kushner was probably aiming for after reading this. If it is shortlisted, which it probably will be, I will read it again. Thank you!

Neil I still think that having five aims for a book might be a bit much, though.

Paul Fulcher Great review. Must admit I am really hoping this isn't shortlisted as the one on the list I would least like to read.

Gumble's Yard It is too many aims and I think that’s why the book ends up too crowded.

Thanks for your comments though. It’s taken me day to get this review together.

message 5: by Britta (last edited Aug 02, 2018 09:53AM) (new) - added it

Britta Böhler If I had liked the book half as much as your review I wouldn't have dnf-ed it. (FYI: dnf meant, after about a third, I skipped or skim-read large chunks). And even though you obviously see more in the book than I did, I think you also pointed out one of its major flaws: the book just wants too much. If it had been trimmed down, focussing on Romy and her life, it might have been a good book. For me, there was too much social commentary disguised as plot and not enough story or character depth. For example, I could understand the inclusion of the Kaczynski-diaries from the standpoint of social commentary but in the novel it didnt make sense (at least it didnt for me).

My main problem, however, (apart from the ending) was that Kushner tried too hard to give reasons for people's behavior, tried too hard to explain everything and make their actions understandable. As if Romy's past and her 'negative' experiences just HAD to lead straight to the Mars Room and also to the crime she committed. And I dont mean that from Romy's point of view you wouldn't ask yourself: "If only I hadn't done this or had avoided that." I mean the way Kushner presents Romy's life as a whole. It's too logical and too deterministic to feel real. Plus: Kushner was telling me that feeling sympathy for Romy was ok because, looking at her life, she was worthy of that sympathy. This is the kind of superficial 'do-gooder'-attitude that I find hard to stomach in real life and in a novel it makes things very uninteresting. Sometimes people just make bad choices and there is no explanation for them. And they still deserve to be treated like a human being. I would have appreaciated the book much more if Romy hadn't basically been 'innocent'. As a criminal lawyer, I often found that many people 'outside' the criminal law system couldn't handle the fact that you won't always be able to explain everything or be able to understand exactly why it happened and that people were only willing to forgive a crime if you could come up with a good reason. But maybe thats just the lawyer talking...

Gumble's Yard Thanks Britta. I spent more time researching and writing the review than reading the book.

Gumble's Yard Thanks Sunita.

LindaJ^ Excellent review.

Gumble's Yard Thank you Linda.

It’s a book which has really divided opinion on Goodreads, including between readers who have a record of close agreement and I found myself conflicted when reading it - really liking it in one level but struggled not with much of the structure. So I wanted to spend time trying to get behind its construction.

Michelle Wow! Such a thought provoking review. Been "watching" this title for a while now and have been on the fence about whether or not I wanted to read it but now I feel as if I must.

Gumble's Yard Thank you Michelle. It’s definitely worth reading and I look forward to your own review.

message 12: by Fran (new)

Fran wrote an excellent, well stated review! Great work!

Gumble's Yard Thanks Fran. It was quite a lot of work but the author has given frequent interviews So there was lots to trace.

message 14: by Greg (new) - added it

Greg Why are we so eager to dismiss traumatic events that happened early in other people's lives? You've convinced me to take a look at this book. I have not enjoyed Kushner's earlier work, but will read a few chapters of this one: and that image you mention at the end of the first chapter really caught my eye.

Gumble's Yard Its definitely worth reading Greg

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