The Mars Room

by Rachel Kushner

As Rachel Kushner’s magnificent novel opens, Romy Leslie Hall, inmate W314159, is loaded on to a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s bus in the middle of the night wearing handcuffs.

She’s headed to the Northern California Women’s Facility in Stanville to serve two consecutive life sentences for murder.

There’s an eight months pregnant teenager sobbing in the back of the bus. A 300-pound woman silently dies and slides out of her seat during the trip.

The woman sitting next to Romy killed her own child and talks nonstop for hours. At one point she says, in all seriousness, that she sometimes feels safer locked up with felons “with what all goes on out there.”

Kushner deftly carries the story forward and backward in Romy’s life, from growing up with her mother, a glacial “gruff and chain-smoking German woman who gets by on marriage, divorce and remarriage,” to a childhood and adolescence spent on the streets with friends seeking thrills in sex, alcohol and drugs. Eventually, she ends up at the Mars Room, a low-life strip club in San Francisco.

No skills are required at the Mars Room, just the ability to “fake nice-nice to the customers.”

As Romy describes it, “If you’d showered, you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos weren’t misspelled you were hot property.  If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the It-girl in the club that night.”

Two life-altering changes take place while she works there. The first is getting pregnant with her son Jackson, which moves her to get off drugs.

The second is meeting Kurt Kennedy, a customer who increasingly feels he owns her. He stalks her relentlessly in San Francisco, so she moves to Los Angeles. When he shows up on the porch of her new home, she smashes him with a crowbar, killing him. Her public defender is old, tired and has seen it all; her conviction is a foregone conclusion.

The Mars Room is a modern version of Crime and Punishment, but where Rodion Raskolnikov plans a murder for money and believes he can be set free from his poverty, Romy’s crime is defensive. Her poverty and lack of education, discipline, support and good role models rob her of opportunities before the crime, and she certainly has no freedom after.

Kushner makes no excuses for Romy, but her book challenges conventions about justice, punishment and rehabilitation. The legal system worked in a technical and absolute sense after Kennedy’s murder. It failed to protect Romy when the crime was stalking — or earlier when as an 11-year-old she asks an older man in a Mercedes for directions and he takes her up to his hotel room.

Her double life sentences suggest that the system doesn’t recognize rehabilitation. The story highlights the fact that the prison system affects wardens, guards and other prison workers as much as it does the inmates.

Kushner has a gift for vivid, startling descriptions. Here, she is describing a bride, recently out of rehab, marrying a man she met there: “she looked beautiful, like an arrangement of plastic flowers in a funeral home.” Talking about the Mars Room customers, Romy says, “these men dimmed my glow.”

Interspersed through the last part of the book are excerpts from the diaries of Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond and Ted Kaczynski in his primitive Montana cabin. Except for Kaczynski’s bursts of violence and vandalism, the two diaries are eerily similar.

Ultimately for Romy, there is no way out. The reader feels the claustrophobia with her.

The Mars Room was short listed for the Man Booker Prize.

If this book sounds interesting, you may want to read Beverly Lowry’s book, Crossed Over: A Murder, A Memoir, about her relationship with murderer Karla Faye Tucker, who was executed in Texas in 1998. 

About the Author: Rachel Kushner (1968 – )

Rachel Kushner was born in Eugene, OR, the daughter of two unconventional, Beat Generation scientists.  Her parents didn’t marry until her father’s 60th birthday when problems with the IRS forced them to do so.

Her working mother found her a job sorting and alphabetizing books in a radical feminist bookstore when she was five years old in lieu of more conventional after-school care. Kushner later said that set the stage for her career as a writer.

The family moved to San Francisco in 1979. At 16, Kushner went to the University of California, Berkeley, to study political economy with an emphasis in U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.  Two years later, she spent time as an exchange student in Italy. After graduation, she worked in night clubs around San Francisco.

She enrolled in the fiction program at Columbia University in New York and earned a master’s of fine arts degree in creative writing in 2000. Her first book, Telex from Cuba (2008), also was a finalist for the National Book Award.

She was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2013, the same year that her book The Flamethrowers was named a Best Book of 2013 by the New York Times and became a finalist for the National Book Award. In 2015, she wrote The Strange Case of Rachel K, a collection of three short works of fiction.

She lives in Los Angeles with husband Jason Smith and their son Remy.


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