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The Mars Room
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Booker Prize for Fiction > 2018 Booker Shortlist: The Mars Room

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message 1: by Trevor (new)

Trevor (mookse) | 1842 comments Mod
The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner


Meike (meikereads) This is a great book, its place on the longlist is well-deserved!

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.

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.

Here's my review.


Robert | 2106 comments My review of the Mars Room:

https://deucekindred.wordpress.com/20...

Makes Hubert Selby Jr's Last Exit to Brooklyn look like Adrian Mole's Diary


Nadine in California (nadinekc) | 224 comments I also liked her writing. She has a great way with...

....pithy description:
the "ambient filth" of a drug house

....caustic comment:
"The neighbor next door...had emus....They were like people, violent and unpredictable, with brains the size of walnuts."

...and just all-round great metaphorical description:

"I didn't want to be subjected to his happiness, which seemed to be based on nothing, a thin layer of good cheer stretched over emptiness."

She can also drop some profound ideas into very economical sentences:

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

And one more:

"The lie of regret and of life gone off the rails. What rails. The life is the rails. It is its own rails and it goes where it goes. It cuts its own path. My path took me here."


Neil | 1978 comments I know there is a lot of love for this book (see above), but I struggled with it, so I am keen to hear more views of it. I think I may have missed something.

To me, it felt like a lot of short stories mashed together all seeking to make different points and I couldn't make it hold together. Part of it was published in The New Yorker as a short story and it felt to me like other parts had been built around that but without filling in the cracks.

I can appreciate the writing is good, but I found it frustrating to read.

Looking forward to the discussion!


Roland Freisitzer (rolandf) | 66 comments This is a book I really wanted to like. For the idea behind it and for a lot of the writing, which mostly is quite brilliant, to say the least.

To sum it up, for me it didn't work as a whole though, no matter how good many moments were. I felt that Kushner wanted a bit too much, there are just too many ideas, too many stories, too many views (some of them too shortlived or small to interest) to keep the focus on the idea. Somewhere around the last third of the book I really had to refrain myself from skipping pages. Which could of course be my fault...


message 7: by Alysson (last edited Jul 24, 2018 12:48PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alysson Oliveira | 85 comments To be honest: I think I'd love (or at least like a lot) anything Rachel Kushner writes. I'm totally biased here. And I totally agree with what Meike wrote above.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 670 comments Kushner is one of my favorite authors and The Flamethrowers one of my all time favorites. This book will be hard to knock out of my first place. My review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show....


Anita Pomerantz | 127 comments Robert wrote: "My review of the Mars Room:

https://deucekindred.wordpress.com/20...

Makes Hubert Selby Jr's Last Exit to Brooklyn look like Adrian Mole's Diary"


I enjoyed reading the review; I am just starting this book now. Ironically I just finished Requiem for a Dream . . .so your thoughts about the anti-American dream already resonate with me.


message 10: by Lascosas (last edited Jul 24, 2018 04:16PM) (new)

Lascosas | 448 comments I had a 7 hour bus.ride.today, and spemt most of it reading this book, whoch I am now.40% through. Let me start by saying this is the first book I've ever read that included a Reading Group Guide! And that probably highlights the difference between what I look for in a novel and the reader this book is aimed at.

I find it an annoying tear-jerker of a book, with simplistic black and wbite views of social ills, and a writing style aimed solely at hooking the reader. I am loathong the author's attempt to manipulate me.

Sorry for the typos, I'm in central Mexico writing in a dim bar with sketchy internet. But I had to say something about my rotten reading experience.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6102 comments The divergence of views on this book is intriguing


Robert | 2106 comments Anita wrote: "Robert wrote: "My review of the Mars Room:

https://deucekindred.wordpress.com/20...

Makes Hubert Selby Jr's Last Exit to Brooklyn look like Adrian Mole's Diary"..."


Thanks! I appreciate your comment.


Meike (meikereads) Alysson wrote: "To be honest: I think I'd love (or at least like a lot) anything Rachel Kushner writes. I'm totally biased here. And I totally agree with what Meike wrote above."

Thank you, Alysson! :-)


message 14: by Ang (new)

Ang | 1685 comments Gumble's Yard wrote: "The divergence of views on this book is intriguing"

Yes, and I expect my views will land with Lascosas' so I'm looking for it at the library rather than purchase it...


message 15: by Sam (new) - rated it 3 stars

Sam | 1713 comments I was not a fan of the book as literary fiction. I thought the voices and story lines didn't synthesize enough, felt too many prison novel cliches were reaffirmed, and thought Kushner lost a bit of control at the ending. I also thought her choice of a murderer as central narrator of a prison novel discomforting and a poor choice.

I'm sure most of you remember Jack Henry Abbott, but for those that don't, he was a prisoner, convicted of murdering a fellow prisoner, who while incarcerated, contacted Norman Mailer while Mailer was researching The Executioner's Song. ( Or so the story goes) Mailer helps Abbott get his writing published and helps Abbott to get paroled coincident to the release of In the Belly of the Beast: Letters From Prison, which is empathetic to the plight of the prisoner. The book is getting glowing reviews and Abbot is being toasted by New York literati when, six weeks after prison release, Abbott has confrontation with waiter at restaurant over use of bathroom and subsequently stabs him resulting in a manslaughter conviction. Needless to say it was a scandal and IMO has resulted in a stigma towards prison novels in genre of literary fiction.

Kushner's book brought all of that back to my mind when reading it. I presume if there is a stigma in my mind, then there is a chance it is there in others and IMO, it would take a GREAT book to dispel it. The Mars Room wasn't that book. I think it is a good book club choice, and I like that the author pays some attention to what some call the industrial prison complex, where profiteering takes place at the expense of prisoners, their friends, and their families, but even here it falls short since Kushner has given no voice of friend or family related to the main character to express that inflicted pain. The book would not make my shortlist.


Maddie (ashelfofonesown) | 113 comments The first longlisted book I finished! It is compulsorily readeable in the weirdest of ways because I was neither particularly enjoying the story nor was I attached to the characters in the slightest, but I read it in two sittings. I agree with Sam, however, I think as a "literary fiction" piece, it falls flat.

My biggest criticism of the book is how aloof the narrative voice feels; I'm very passionate about the issues Kushner addresses in the book, as it is something that is very close to my reality (being a law student), but the way she handled it felt very "cold" to me... It's more of an exposé piece of facts about the american prison system instead of a real criticism, I thought. I also didn't feel much for the characters. One reviewer here on GR summs up my thoughts perhaps better than I could: "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." (x).

My review is here.


message 17: by Jen (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jen | 114 comments Maddie wrote: "The first longlisted book I finished! It is compulsorily readeable in the weirdest of ways because I was neither particularly enjoying the story nor was I attached to the characters in the slightes..."

I had a similar response to this as you, Maddie. It all felt rather cold and an effort to convey facts / information. I almost wish Kushner had tackled these important issues in a non fiction format. I'm glad I read it, but wouldn't highly recommend it.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6102 comments Very interesting debate.


message 19: by Neil (last edited Jul 25, 2018 11:33PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Neil | 1978 comments I think what Maddie and Jen are referring to is what I mentioned in my review as the book feeling like Kushner had a checklist of topics to cover and worked through ticking them off as she went. I agree with their comments.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6102 comments I would be interested in the views of the books champions.


message 21: by Neil (new) - rated it 2 stars

Neil | 1978 comments Me, too! Meike and Robert are declared fans at the start of this thread and have argued well in their reviews.


Robert | 2106 comments Gumble's Yard wrote: "I would be interested in the views of the books champions."

I don't see The Mars Room, as such, a criticism of The U.S. prison system but rather as a metaphor for what is the real prison. After all, in a certain way Romy and all the inmates are placed in jail due to the absurdities of the outside world, in fact the people who caused those actions, are ironically more dangerous than the people locked up!

There's a bit more in the life/prison angle for Romy's outside life is just as restricted - She does not have really any freedom and bounces from strip club to the cramped home she lives in. When she does try break free, she is hounded by the ex boyfriend. No matter if she is inside or outside bars, Romy is trapped.

Which ties up with the American Dream that is portrayed in The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, Fight Club and Freedom. These all show people who have an ideal but the dream slips away (with the exception of Freedom, Walter discovers that love is the answer - but that is another debate)

With the Mars Room, this dream does not exist. There is no ideal, there is no future. It's all despair, it's all rotten to the core. We are now living in the realms of the American Nightmare. I think Kushner does a brilliant job at pulling this off.

We are definitely living in an American Nightmare. Look at Childish Gambino's This is America:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjW...

Take films like Lady Bird or The Florida Project. America is not Great Again and The Mars Room - according to me is a summary of that.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6102 comments Fascinating Robert.

From the interviews I have read with the author (which seem more focused on her lifelong interest and six years of immersive research into the prison system) I think you possibly may be extending her thought processes in writing the novel.

But I think it’s the sign of a great novel and an intelligent and thoughtful reader that this can happen, a great novel should start a conversation rather than end it.


Robert | 2106 comments Gumble's Yard wrote: "Fascinating Robert.

From the interviews I have read with the author (which seem more focused on her lifelong interest and six years of immersive research into the prison system) I think you possi..."


Ah ah - this is a fault of mine. I tend not to read interviews after I've read the book. I'll have to correct that.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6102 comments Normally it can uncover hidden depths in the book. In this case your review served better.


message 26: by Sam (new) - rated it 3 stars

Sam | 1713 comments Robert wrote: "Gumble's Yard wrote: "I would be interested in the views of the books champions."

I don't see The Mars Room, as such, a criticism of The U.S. prison system but rather as a metaphor for what is the..."


Interesting views Robert. To support your argument, there is a very dystopian theme threading the books on this list and not just limited to an American role. An argument can also be made that this is a 21st century example of Naturalism, more specifically American Naturalism, in the line of Dreiser, Crane, London, and more recently, as you mentioned, Steinbeck. There is good in this novel. I think a lot may depend on how sympathetic you are to the character of Romy.


Robert | 2106 comments Sam wrote: "Robert wrote: "Gumble's Yard wrote: "I would be interested in the views of the books champions."

I don't see The Mars Room, as such, a criticism of The U.S. prison system but rather as a metaphor ..."


Great!! I had a feeling that Naturalism would be a common theme, it was already emerging in the two books I read. I can't wait to see it in the British selection of Nominated novels.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 670 comments I thought Kushner's depiction of what a women's prison and its inhabitants to be a new angle to an old story. There are lots of stories about men in prison but not so many about women. I found Romy to be a good character to show how not only the prison system but the justice system as a whole is flawed.


Tommi | 514 comments Just finished, and really enjoyed it. Not flawless because some elements felt a bit too disjointed, but I liked her language a lot (thank you Nadine for those great examples in message #4). I underlined quite a bit.

No time for proper reviews now as it’s August and back to work and studies, but I will definitely return to this.


message 30: by Eric (new) - rated it 1 star

Eric | 257 comments This one's been a struggle for me. If other books from the longlist were accessible, I'd be moving on to those. Also curious (not being facetious here at all), are others seeing similarities here with the TV show Orange is the New Black? I saw one season of the show, and have read about half the book, and I'm curious if anyone else has a take. Am I just drawing parallels because they're both about women in prison?


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6102 comments Eric I have not seen that programme but a number of Goodreads reviews from respected reviewers do seem to say “I may as well have watched Orange is The New Black” or something similar.

Half way through this so far.


message 32: by Eric (new) - rated it 1 star

Eric | 257 comments Gumble's Yard - Thanks for the response. I suppose I could have viewed others' reviews as well. Oops! I am rather surprised by two things though - that no one here has mentioned it, and that this book is gathering 5 star reviews.

How are you finding it at about the same point I am? Not to tip your hand as to what your review will look like.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6102 comments I am impressed with the set up and the immersive research the author has done (the opposite of Donal Ryan it seems to me) and it's a subject I feel is very important.

Too early to say how the multi narrator approach will work, which seems the main criticism on this forum.

Interestingly Ryan has said he avoids research as he finds otherwise his books turn into pseudo non fiction.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6102 comments And I loved the imagery of the caged Thanksgiving Turkeys .... America's foundational family feast relies on the incarceration of thousands of Turkeys, which I saw as a metaphor for how American society seems to have as its dark side mass incarceration.


Anita Pomerantz | 127 comments I am two thirds of the way through, and while I have read some non-fiction books that read like fiction, this may be the first novel I have read that reads more like non-fiction. I love non-fiction so that's not a knock per se, but it is notable.


Maddie (ashelfofonesown) | 113 comments Eric-
I did not mention it on my review because I didn't want to seem redundant but I agree there's a lot of parallels between Orange is the New Black and this book. And, in my perspective, the show did a better job discussing and portraying the issues the book only touches upon without any real depth. But that seems to be the opinion of those who did not enjoy it (as opposed to the ones that did). So I guess it's a matter of perspective?


message 37: by Eric (new) - rated it 1 star

Eric | 257 comments Thank you, Gumble's Yard and Maddie.

I'm no fan of Orange is the New Black. I'm still not sure if that is tainting my reading of the novel, or if what I dislike about the television show are the same things I dislike about the novel. It's almost certainly the latter.

Just to unnecessarily cover this base, I'm no fan of America's prison system, and addressing things as they stand now is an important topic.


message 38: by Jen (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jen | 2 comments I thought it was a good book (I'm still working on writing up my review) but I couldn't get away from Orange is the New Black either -- which I think provides a much more in-depth look many of the themes that are in this book. I do think the book is brilliantly written but it was hard for me to read without thinking of the show.


message 39: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 9654 comments Given that graphic novels are now apparently eligible, TV box sets would actually seem quite a logical extension


Laura (lauramulcahy) | 59 comments This is a really, really well written book, but for some reason, I struggled to finish it. I definitely agree with the positive reviews about this book, but I feel more aligned with the argument that Kushner tried to accomplish too much, and it didn’t work.

A lot of stories, aside from Romy’s, felt underdeveloped and unfinished, which was a shame, because I felt a lot of characters had brilliant potential— I would’ve loved to have seen further development on Serenity’s story, for one.

I think another issue with this novel is its request for us to sympathize with baby killers and brutal cops. It isn’t impossible— if characters are well developed enough, then it can happen, but Kushner fell short on her character development, which caused the novel to crumble a little.

In one way, it’s intriguing to read a novel full of actual morally corrupt characters who /did/ commit the crimes they’re accused of, but at the same time, there’s a reason why it was easier to get attached to Andy Dufresne of The Shawshank Redemption than to Romy Hall.

Really interesting debate unfolding here, though! It’s interesting to see how much this novel is dividing opinions!


Maddie (ashelfofonesown) | 113 comments I'm not the biggest fan of the show either but like Jen and Laura I couldn't help but compare the two and ultimately, despite not loving the show as much as everyone seems to, my reaction to the book was even poorer.

Nonetheless, there's no denying the amount of research that went into this and those bits were very interesting to read but as a work of fiction, it failed to engage with me unfortunately (for the reasons already discussed).


Robert | 2106 comments Gumble's Yard wrote: "And I loved the imagery of the caged Thanksgiving Turkeys .... America's foundational family feast relies on the incarceration of thousands of Turkeys, which I saw as a metaphor for how American so..."

Oh wow!!! I like that!


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6102 comments You inspired it with your own take on the book Robert.


Nadine in California (nadinekc) | 224 comments Maddie wrote: "I'm not the biggest fan of the show either but like Jen and Laura I couldn't help but compare the two and ultimately, despite not loving the show as much as everyone seems to, my reaction to the book was even poorer."

I'll complete the square by being someone who wasn't drawn into Orange... on TV but liked the book very much. Maybe that's not fair, since I only watched a few episodes, but it just felt very Hollywood to me, with its quota of pretty vs character actors. (Granted, Romy is pretty, but that's essential to the plot.) I was fascinated by many of the characters in the book and would love to read more about them in a future book, but I'm fine with their relatively brief treatment in Mars Room because otherwise they would have diluted Romy's story. I wouldn't be feeling this if the writing wasn't so strong though....


Maddie (ashelfofonesown) | 113 comments If this makes the shortlist I might pick it up again and keeping the positive reviews in mind, find more redeeming qualities to this but I doubt I will change my mind much considering I just didn't care about Romy and the prose isn't my favourite (two very important t selling points to me, especially in literary fiction).


message 46: by Lascosas (new)

Lascosas | 448 comments What I look for in a novel is language. Beautiful, original, innovative. Clearly that is absent from this book, which is concerned solely with characters developed just enough to add to the mural of criminal justice reform. Maybe I would dislike this book less if I felt it had anything new to say. But it doesn't. As a novel the characters are stereotypes and under-developed. And a detail that highly annoyed me was the 'could you get me wire cutters, please.' Do you have any idea what size those cutters must have been to accomplish their required task?

This book takes place in California. Unless you avoided all California newspapers for the last 15 years, if you lived in California you would know that the story of prison overcrowding, three strikes, lack of availability of medical care, etc etc has appearing in literally thousands of articles. Why? Because a very smart and determined set of attorneys filed suit against the State of California in Federal court saying that prison conditions were cruel and inhuman punishment under the federal constitution. The focus was on the male prisons, but similar problems existed in women's prisons. The attorneys were not arguing that sentencing rules were wrong, because that is a state issue. The argument was that while you can incarcerate as many people as you want, there are minimum standards that must be met within those prisons. The federal judge agreed, and ordered California to implement very substantial changes in the prison system, particularly to reduce overcrowding and improve medical care. California responded by appealing, delaying and refusing to do anything. The judge slowly ratcheted up the requirements, and set stiff timelines.

The reason this case dominated the press for so long isn't that people had any great sympathy for the prisoners. They didn't and don't. The reason is that the state only had two options: release thousands of prisoners; or build tons of new prisons and prison medical facilities. No one had any interest in releasing the prisoners, and the powerful prison guard union went on high media alert to tell us everyone released would rape, steal and murder. But then the state budget office provided the cost of complying with the court order by building new facilities...and it would be several times the cost of the entire higher education budget. It wasn't doable. Editorials, voter initiatives, scholarly studies blah blah blah.

Today, California has some of the more innovative programs to deal with felons, and voters approved some changes to the three strike rule (though not others, and refused to abolish the death penalty, even though we rarely execute anyone). So generally, California built more medical facilities, hired more medical staff and eased up on sentencing. But despite all of that debate over more than a decade in California, there is very little evidence that people have much sympathy for felons, male or female. They simply understand better that the costs are too high to put as many people behind bars as most people would like.

And frankly, I don't see what Mars Room adds to this debate. Would you want those characters living on your street?


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6102 comments I have found the debate above fascinating. I think I have taken longer writing my review as reading the book, as I have tried to understand the reasons Kushner has written the book the way she did which has given rise to lots of the criticisms.

My attempt is here.

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

The Unabomber I think is (almost but not quite) unjustifiable; the wire cutters and escape completely unjustifiable - and I think undermine the level of detail and realism in the book.

However I think this was a great book and has, of the ten books I have read, the most powerful image (the ending to the opening chapter) and the most ambiguous ending paragraph of any book on the list.

Comments on the review would be very welcome.


message 48: by Lascosas (new)

Lascosas | 448 comments Gumble's Yard-
I found your review very well considered, and thoughtful. You found the book important, I didn't. You found the characters/situations Proustian, I found them closer to comic book simplistic.

But I do appreciate your review, and the well articulated counter argument to those of us who are dismissive of the book.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6102 comments Thanks Lascosas, I had largely formulated my review and then saw your well argued comments which possess a knowledge of the situation that I do not have; but thought I would complete my review as originally intended and let the real champions of the book (its far from my favourite on the list) address your points.


Anita Pomerantz | 127 comments Just finished, and I'm in the like camp.

I love when authors can take characters who really aren't good people and make them sympathetic (Lolita), and for me, this book did that. Especially the chapters about Romy's stalker. In fact, the last several chapters actually changed the book for me - - it was squarely in three star land, but I thought the ending was compelling.

On the negative side, the book just reads too much like non-fiction. I felt like it was one where learning about the prison system was overshadowing other elements, and as a result I could easily pick it up and put it down. In a novel, I expect a different kind of narrative arc that makes me want to go back for more and wish I had ten more minutes to read. This book didn't read that way for me at all. Fortunately, I really like non-fiction too . . .

I love and completely agree with Robert's insightful commentary in message 22. I'm not sure I would have been able to articulate that as well, but when I read his thoughts, they completely resonate with me. . .the heart of the novel even if the novelist didn't intend it that way from the get go. To me, this aspect is what elevates it.


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