The Mars Room

The Mars Room

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 bluffin...

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Title:The Mars Room
Author:Rachel Kushner
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Edition Language:English

The Mars Room Reviews

  • Perry

    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 an

    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.

    is, quite remarkably, an improvement on her exquisite craftwork in creating the 20-something free-spirited artist Reno in

    , 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: "

    "

  • Trish

    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.

    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

    , 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

    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,

    , 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

    photograph called

    , Berlin, 1992. There is a scene towards the end of this novel that has all the terror and propulsion of the escape scene in

    . 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,

    Romy tells us women in prison like to read about women in prison. Well, this one’s for them.

  • Esil

    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

    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:

    . 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.

  • Elyse

    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 *Au

    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.

  • Meike

    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 characte

    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

    . 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,

    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.

    , 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".

  • Angela M

    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 tha

    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.

  • Debbie

    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 instan

    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

    by Denis Johnson, a book I read recently and liked. Turns out, the author mentions Denis Johnson and his book

    (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

    , and after reading it, she said:

    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

    applies to

    , 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

    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.

  • Emily May

    2 1/2 stars. It's taken me a long time to admit that I just didn't like

    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

    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 dy

    2 1/2 stars. It's taken me a long time to admit that I just didn't like

    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

    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).

    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

    . 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.

    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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  • Shelby *trains flying monkeys*

    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 f

    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.

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