Summary and book reviews of The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room

A Novel

by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner X
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
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  • First Published:
    May 2018, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2019, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Book Summary

From twice National Book Award–nominated Rachel Kushner comes a spectacularly compelling, heart-stopping novel about a life gone off the rails in contemporary America.

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 bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision.

Stunning and unsentimental, The Mars Room demonstrates new levels of mastery and depth in Kushner's work. It is audacious and tragic, propulsive and yet beautifully refined. As James Wood said in The New Yorker, her fiction "succeeds because it is so full of vibrantly different stories and histories, all of them particular, all of them brilliantly alive."

The trouble with San Francisco was that I could never have a future in that city, only a past.

The city to me was the Sunset District, fog-banked, treeless, and bleak, with endless unvaried houses built on sand dunes that stretched forty-eight blocks to the beach, houses that were occupied by middle- and lower-middle-class Chinese Americans and working-class Irish Catholics.

Fly Lie, we'd say, ordering lunch in middle school. Fried rice, which came in a paper carton. Tasted delicious but was never enough, especially if you were stoned. We called them gooks. We didn't know that meant Vietnamese. The Chinese were our gooks. And the Laotians and Cambodians were FOBs, fresh off the boat. This was the 1980s and just think what these people went through, to arrive in the United States. But we didn't know and didn't know to care. They couldn't speak English and they smelled to us of their alien food.

The Sunset was San Francisco, proudly, and yet an alternate...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. At the beginning of the book, before she is incarcerated, Romy Hall, the central protagonist of The Mars Room, says, "I said everything was fine but nothing was. The life was being sucked out of me. The problem was not moral. It had nothing to do with morality. These men dimmed my glow. Made me numb to touch, and angry" (page 26). What role do morality and virtue play in the telling of Romy's story? Does morality factor into who is judged guilty and who is judged innocent?
  2. The San Francisco depicted in this book is perhaps not a classic one of, as Romy puts it, "rainbow flags or Beat poetry or steep crooked streets," but "fog and Irish bars and liquor stores all the way to the Great Highway" (page 33). Was the San Francisco depicted...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Mars Room is clever, instructive, darkly funny, and unforgettable – a brilliant exploration of the gap between self-perception and societal judgment.   (Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

Full Review (687 words).

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Media Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
A probing portrait of contemporary America.

Nylon
Kushner is a masterful world-creator, and her accomplishment here is unparalleled.

AM New York
This essential novel is about women ignored or denigrated or discounted in our society, and the adult men who obsess over them and abuse them and abet their self-destruction. Kushner is a bit of a magician, exploring bleak territory with pathos and urgency that makes it nearly impossible to stop reading.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Heartbreaking and unforgettable… [The Mars Room] deserves to be read with the same level of pathos, love, and humanity with which it clearly was written.

Booklist
Starred Review. This is a gorgeously eviscerating novel of incarceration writ large…Rooted in deeply inquisitive thinking and executed with artistry and edgy wit, Kushner's dramatic and disquieting novel investigates with verve and compassion societal strictures and how very difficult it is to understand each other and to be truly free.

Kirkus Reviews
A searing look at life on the margins…This is, fundamentally, a novel about poverty and how our structures of power do not work for the poor, and Kushner does not flinch…gripping.

Buzzfeed
Stunning…A gorgeously written depiction of survival and the absurd and violent facets of life in prison.

Reader Reviews

lani

Prison injustice
I feel I may be in the minority, but...I was fully prepared to fall head over heels with this novel. It has all the elements that I love and am interested in but as I plowed through it, I finished it with a sense of emptiness. It contains important ...   Read More

Sandi W. (Illinois)

Blatant Sex....
I waited impatiently for this book to be published and obtained by my library, then I picked up the CD set. I got through 4 of 9 discs - barely. I really wanted to like this book. I have never read Rachel Kushner before - and may never again - if ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Ted Kaczynski, The Unabomber

In The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner provides excerpts from Ted Kaczynski's journals to draw parallels between the Unabomber and her character Gordon Hauser, the man that teaches an English class at Stanville Prison. Ted Kaczynski was a reclusive U.S. domestic terrorist responsible for mailing or planting 16 bombs from 1978-1995, killing three people and injuring 23. "Unabomber" was a moniker given to Kaczynski by the FBI during their investigation, standing for "University and Airline Bomber."

Ted Kaczynski, The Unabomber Kaczynski began his life as a remarkable genius, attending Harvard University for his undergraduate degree and earning a PhD in mathematics from the University of Michigan at age 25. He went on to teach at the University of California, Berkeley for ...

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