The Mars Room ~ by Rachel Kushner

I put off reading this for some reason I don’t know now because I genuinely enjoyed her priors, The Flamethrowers and Telex from Cuba (my reviews on this site). And no surprise, this was also very, very good – I’d either forgot how good Kushner is or I didn’t want to be disappointed in a comparison. I’ll be reading it again for the Booker Group in a few months but I suddenly wanted to read it now. Fwiw, I live about one hunded miles south of Chowchilla and the main prison where this story takes place. It is the only woman’s prison facility in California where the female death row prisoners are held. But it could be about many prisons because there is a kind of universal element to poverty and legal trouble. As it turns out, The Mars Room is probably Kushner’s best book. 🙂

The Mars Room
by Rachel Kushner
2018 / 352 pages
read by Rachel Kushner – 9h 41m
rating – 9 / contemp fiction

The narrative is comprised of the situations of several characters, one 1st- person. They’re mostly prisoners, but there is a teacher who has a major role as well as a few of the prisoners. The characters are mostly almost likable folks who got into trouble, but there are a few who are revolting. Some are fascinated by more famous convicts – Susan Atkins, for instance, who was held there. (Manson’s gang).

The novel takes its title from a strip club in San Francisco where the first-person character, Romy Hall , worked prior to her arrest and many of the back-stories are set there as well.

The stories of the individual characters are the stories of people living in poverty and grit who get caught up in the legal system and land in jails and prisons for various reasons, usually of their own doing, sometimes not so much. Sometimes being out of jail for awhile is just a bit of a vacation. Few of them really had a fair chance at life, especially after contact with the “system.”

But the book is more than just plot – it’s a kind of statement about our socio-economic reality and how the judicial system is impacted and the results of the inequalities are visited on the lowest strata. Thoreau is addressed – along with Ted Kaczynski (the uni-bomber).

Kushner did quite a lot of research for the novel, visiting the prisons and interviewing inmates because this book is about people – poor people. The convicts are not (usually) where they are for light-weight activities and partly as a result there is trouble in the prisons, too.. But the system, rules and guards do their own share of making trouble. Life in prison seems to swing between very difficult and inhumane.

I’m not going to get into the main plot threads because there would unavoidably be spoilers. Let me only say that they are nicely interwoven through the brilliant character sketches and it doesn’t make for a “feel good” tale, but it’s real and avoids “gritty” by focusing on enormous humanity. The threads work together to create a whole world with “real” people, thugs and cons, strippers, addicts, gays and transexuals. – precious few of them are actually innocent of their crimes. But life goes on – it’s a sad book. Still, I know I’ll be rereading this one.

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