The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room.jpg

The Mars Room
by Rachel Kushner
352 pages
Scribner (May 1, 2018)
Advance copy provided by publisher
 

There are some things about the criminal justice system, either on a state or federal level, that most people wouldn't even think to wonder about unless they were in the middle of them; it's amazing the amount of knowledge one can learn, after committing a crime. I began highlighting passages in The Mars Room within the first five pages and I ended up with over thirty items; it is now nearly impossible to select my favorites. 

Everything in prison is addressed to the woman for whom the red wedge is painted on the clock face, the imbecile. I’ve never met her. Plenty I have met in prison cannot read, and some cannot tell time, but that doesn’t mean they are not shrewd and superior individuals who can outsmart any egghead. People in prison are clever as hell. The imbecile the rules and signs are meant to address is nowhere to be found.

Romy Hall, the central voice of The Mars Room, is a former dancer at a strip club on Market Street in San Francisco. She is serving two life sentences, plus an additional six years, for attacking and killing a regular who began shadowing her on his Harley, turning up at her local market and, when she moved to Los Angeles to get away from him, on her front porch. The night she encountered him there, her young son, Jackson, was asleep in her arms; the extra six years on her sentence were for endangering a minor.

Instead of focusing on Romy's story, Kushner carefully introduces other characters with ties to the California Department of Corrections: attorneys, visitors, correctional officers, and victims. While some would argue will argue differently, I do not consider The Mars Room a "prison novel," per se; rather, it is a novel about the way in which individuals are affected by the prison system and a reminder that many, outside of the inmates, carry a life sentence on their shoulders. 

Much discussion among the women about the scum of the earth who worked as guards. He did not have the courage, or maybe it was the will, to ask if these women had ever known a prison guard. And why would he defend prison guards? He hated them himself. But if a person got outside their own bubble they would see that prison guards were poor people without reasonable options. One had just blown his head off in a guard tower at Salinas Valley. He could have told them this, engaged in corrective arguments with these women at the party. But wasn’t it obvious?

Kushner's writing is phenomenal; the details are authentic and the characters are humanized in a way that detracts from the dehumanization of their environment. This isn't Orange is the New Black which, in my opinion, is playacting and tailored to the masses; this is what prison life is like, for the majority, and Kushner's sources definitely shared an accurate image of their experiences.

It's a dark, often heartbreaking tale, but it's worth soaking in because it is a world most will never discover, unless the proportion of incarcerated individuals continues to climb at its current rate. This won't be enjoyed or appreciated by everyone, and I can understand that; maybe it's like a certain type of inside joke: I guess you just had to be there. 

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