Published by Scribner
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Fiction, Literary, Social Issues
There isn’t any status in it unless you’d be impressed to know that the Mars Room is not a middling or mediocre strip club but is definitely the worst and most notorious, the very seediest and most circuslike place there is.
In stark contrast to all that was warm and lovely in Monday’s book, Tin Man, I’m back today with a book that probably worked because it was completely different. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner is harsh—all jutting angles and discordant tones and so utterly dissimilar to Tin Man that I couldn’t mentally compare the two and find one to be lacking. The Mars Room is a strip club in San Francisco where Romy Hall worked as a lap dancer. Virtually unparented for most of her life, Romy fends for herself in the way she knows how. When one of her regulars took his obsession with her too far, she killed him, but without proper representation his unhinged stalking never comes to light in her trial. Life has nowhere to go but down after that, not that it was ever looking up.
Romy has only just arrived at Stanville Correctional facility to begin her two life sentences when she learns her mother is dead. Not emotional or impactful news for her, except that her mother was taking care of Romy’s 7-year-old son. Her inability to get any answers about his whereabouts leads her into a mental and emotional freefall and is at the center for every choice she makes after that.
Romy is the main character in The Mars Room, but Kushner uses her as the base around which the novel’s other players run. There is Gordon Hauser, who teaches class at the prison and is drawn to her because she is educated and engages in learning. He has his own share of issues—being rightly troubled by the way he sees guards abusing inmates,
Still, Geronomina, and Sanchez, and Candy, all of them were people who suffered and along the way of their suffering they made others suffer, and Gordon could not see that making them suffer lifelong would accrue to justice. It added new harm to old…
but not making the best decisions in response.
There are other inmates, each with their own lives of marginalization and a lack of options. Each layers their story onto the other in what becomes a miasma of misery and desperation. These are people with few choices and most of them bad.
For the most part these stories add to Romy’s without detracting but there are other brief chapters that spring from one of Hauser’s conversations with a friend. They’re the writings of an unnamed character who could be either Thoreau or the Unabomber. What?! They interfere with the story, bringing it to a full stop and I was never able to figure out either who was speaking or their purpose.
The Mars Room will draw the inevitable comparison to Orange is the New Black and rightly so. It is about a woman’s prison and it does highlight, in pitch black perfection, the darkness of life in these facilities, but just as there are a million tales about young women coming-of-age, and I read and enjoy many of them, so there is room for more representation in this group. And even though the novel’s grip is loosened in the chapters that felt like complete non-sequiturs, Kushner is still doing what I like my fiction to do—showing me life outside my own experiences.
The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not, until you don’t exist, and then your plans are meaningless.