THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner
I’m not sure if I’m going to manage the entire Man Booker longlist this year – stay tuned to find out – but I’m prioritizing the books that I’m the most excited about, as well as the books that I’m having the easiest time getting my hands on. The Mars Room fell into the latter category. But this is exactly what I love about literary prizes, because I never would have picked this book up ordinarily, and I ended up loving it.
The Mars Room is an incisive and unsentimental look at the US prison system, through the eyes of Romy, a young mother who finds herself at the beginning of two life sentences. Kushner then explores this narrative from numerous vantage points – the socioeconomic factors that lead to incarceration; the brutal realities of prison life; what it means on a psychological level to be confronted with a life sentence.
While I felt Kushner’s political agenda in writing this book was clear, it was actually rendered much more subtly than I had been expecting, which I appreciated. Romy was a thoroughly convincing protagonist, and it never felt like she had an unrealistic understanding of the political structures at play in her own story; she simply relayed her own reality to the reader, and Kushner was able to expertly tie that into the larger context. I think I’d describe this book as first and foremost a novel about humanity. These characters have all done terrible things, and Kushner makes no effort to excuse or glorify or sensationalize any of it. But she still treats each of their stories with compassion, and is interested in the question of when a person stops being a victim (of abuse, of poverty, of systemic violence) and is able to be classified as a villain.
The interplay between the natural and the artificial is another element that I found intriguing, and I thought it came together beautifully in the novel’s conclusion, but I did think the execution of this element could have been stronger on the whole. I guess this ties into my biggest criticism of this book, which is that Kushner isn’t quite able to justify the chorus of voices in which her novel is narrated. Alongside Romy, we have chapters narrated by other inmates, by one of Romy’s teachers who works in the prison, by the man who used to stalk Romy (which led to the altercation which landed her in prison). We also have excerpts from the diaries of Ted Kaczynski, more commonly known as the Unabomber, which is the element that eludes me the most when I think about how this novel is structured. I think this may have been an attempt to draw parallels to Kaczynski’s self-imposed primitive lifestyle and the manufactured and inhumane law and order of the prison system, but Kushner seems to expect her reader to do most of the legwork with this comparison, scattering Kaczynski’s diary entries throughout the narrative in a haphazard fashion. The perspective from an unrelated male inmate in a separate prison likewise struck me as superfluous, or else not integrated into the narrative in a way that ever justifies its inclusion.
But mostly I found this to be a very intelligent and quietly thought-provoking read, and though it isn’t exactly a pretty book, I wouldn’t describe it as gratuitous, either. Kushner elucidates harsh realities and it results in a dismal and disturbing narrative at times, but it’s never without compassion for the individuals whose stories she’s telling.
More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews: