FINALIST for the MAN BOOKER PRIZE and the NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD
LONGLISTED for the ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL
“Gritty, empathetic, finely rendered, no sugary toppings, and a lot of punches, none of them pulled.” —Margaret Atwood via Twitter
“A page turner...one of those books that enrage you even as they break your heart.” —The New York Times Book Review (cover review)
“Brilliant and devastating...a heartbreaking, true, and nearly flawless novel.” —NPR
“With her richly textured third novel, Kushner certifies her place as one of the great American novelists of the twenty-first century.” —Entertainment Weekly
From twice National Book Award–nominated Rachel Kushner, whose Flamethrowers was called “the best, most brazen, most interesting book of the year” (Kathryn Schulz, New York magazine), 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.”
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
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 one to what you might know: it was not about rainbow flags or Beat poetry or steep crooked streets but fog and Irish bars and liquor stores all the way to the Great Highway, where a sea of broken glass glittered along the endless parking strip of Ocean Beach. It was us girls in the back of someone’s primered Charger or Challenger riding those short, but long, forty-eight blocks to the beach, one boy shotgun with a stolen fire extinguisher, flocking people on street corners, randoms blasted white.
If you were visiting the city, or if you were a resident from the other, more admired parts of the city and you took a trip out to the beach, you might have seen, beyond the sea wall, our bonfires, which made the girls’ hair smell of smoke. If you were there in early January, you would see bigger bonfires, ones built of discarded Christmas trees, so dry and flammable they exploded on the high pyres. After each explosion you might have heard us cheer. When I say us I mean us WPODs. We loved life more than the future. “White Punks on Dope” is just some song; we didn’t even listen to it. The acronym was something else, not a gang but a grouping. An attitude, a way of dressing, living, being. Some changed our graffiti to White Powder on Donuts, and many of us were not even white, which becomes harder to explain, because the whole world of the Sunset WPODs was about white power, not powder, but these were the beliefs of not powerful kids who might end up passing through rehab centers and jails, unless they were the chosen few, the very few girls and boys, who, respectively, either enrolled in the Deloux School of Beauty, or got hired at John John Roofing on Ninth Avenue between Irving and Lincoln.
When I was little I saw a cover of an old magazine that showed the robes and feet of people who had drunk the Kool-Aid Jim Jones handed out in Guyana. My entire childhood I would think of that image and feel bad. I once told Jimmy Darling and he said it wasn’t actually Kool-Aid. It was Hi-C.
What kind of person would want to clarify such a thing?
A smart-ass is who. A person who is safe from that image in a way I was not. I was not likely to join a cult. That was not the danger I felt in glimpsing the feet of the dead, the bucket from which they drank. It was the proven fact, in the photographed feet, that you could drink death and join it.
When I was five or six years old I saw a paperback cover in the supermarket that was a drawing of a woman and her nude body had two knives coming out of it, blood pooling around her. The cover of the book said, “Killed Twice.” That was its title. I was away from my mother, who was shopping somewhere in the market. We were at Park and Shop on Irving and I felt I was not just a few aisles away but permanently sucked out to sea, to the engulfing world of Killed Twice. Coming home from the market, I was nauseous. I could not eat the dinner my mother prepared. She didn’t really cook. It was probably Top Ramen she prepared for me, and then attended to whichever of the men she was dating at the time.
For years, whenever I thought of that image on the cover of Killed Twice I felt sick. Now I can see that what I experienced was normal. You learn when you’re young that evil exists. You absorb the knowledge of it. When this happens for the first time, it does not go down easy. It goes down like a horse pill.
At age ten I fell under the spell of an older girl named Tyra. She had glassy eyes and olive skin and a husky, tough-girl voice. The night I met her I was in someone’s car, driving around drinking Löwenbräu lights. Lowie lights, green bottles with a baby-blue label. We picked up Tyra on Noriega, at a house that was an informal foster home for girls. The man who ran it, Russ, forced himself on the girls at night, unpredictably but predictably. If you stayed there, sooner or later you were going to be visited at night by Russ, who was old, and muscular, and mean. The girls complained about being raped by him as if it were a form of strictness, or rent. They were willing to endure it because they didn’t have other options. The rest of us did nothing about it because Russ bought us liquor and what were we to do, call the police? One of them was known for taking girls out to Point Lobos instead of to the police station on Taraval.
Tyra called shotgun in a menacing way and got in the front, put her feet on the dash. She was already buzzed, she told us, slur- ring her words in a way I found glamorous. She wore diamond earrings. They flashed from her little-girl ears as she drained a Lowie light and pitched her empty from the window of the car. Maybe Tyra’s earrings were fakes. It didn’t matter. Their effect was the same. For me she had the magic.
That year I’d had a chance to know a nice girl, with two parents, middle-class. She came to my house for a sleepover. The next week at school she told everyone that at my house we ate Hostess pies for dinner and threw the wrappers under the bed. I have no memory of that. I’m not saying it isn’t true. My mom let me eat what I wanted for dinner. She was usually with whatever guy she was seeing, someone who didn’t like children, so they’d be shut up in her bedroom with the door locked. We had an account at the corner market and I’d go down there and get goodies, chips, liters of soda, whatever I wanted. I didn’t know to pretend to live some other way to make an impression on another kid. It made me sad what this girl said about me and about our house. I was sad even as I stuck a pin in her ass as she got off the 6 Parnassus after school. Stood by the back doors, and as she exited I jabbed her, right through her pants. Everyone did that. We stole the pins from home economics. It was normal, but it made tears roll down your face if someone did it to you.
That diamonds are supposedly forever was something Jimmy Darling joked about. Every mineral here on earth is forever, he said. But they make it seem like diamonds are especially forever, in order to sell them, and it works.
A few days later Tyra called me and we made a plan to go to Golden Gate Park on a Sunday, to the bridge, where people roller-skate and hang out. Tyra came to my house, since I lived a few blocks from the bridge.
She said, “I need to beat this bitch’s face in.” I said okay and we went to the park.
The girl whose face Tyra had an appointment to beat in was already there, with two older brothers. They were not from the Sunset; later I learned they lived in the Haight. The brothers were adults, both mechanics at a garage on Cole Street. The girl, Tyra’s opponent, was tall and delicate-looking with a shiny black pony- tail. She was wearing pink shorts and a shirt that said whatever. Her lips were tinged with the bluish effect of opalescent gloss. Tyra was athletic and tough. Nobody wanted to fight her. She and this leggy girl with the ponytail took off their skates. They fought on the grass, in their socks. The socks softened nothing.
Tyra threw a fierce kick, but the other girl grabbed her foot, and Tyra lost her balance and was on the ground. The girl jumped on top, pinned Tyra’s chest with her own knees, and began punching Tyra in the face, alternating fists, left right left, like she was kneading dough, punching it down to size. Punching it and punching it, dough that was a face. Her brothers shouted encouragement. They were rooting for her, but if she were losing, they would not have stepped in, I knew. They were there as believers in the honesty of a fight and the pride of fighting well. She punched and punched. Her arms seemed too skinny to carry any force on contact, fist to face, but eventually they produced their damage. It never occurred to me to jump in. I watched Tyra get pummeled.
When the girl felt she had sufficiently made her point, she let up. She stood, retightening her ponytail, and pulled her shorts out of her ass crack. Tyra sat up, trying to wipe away her tears. I went to help her. Her hair was tangled. She was covered in dead grass clippings.
“I got a good lick in,” she said. “Did you see how I kicked that bitch in the chest?”
Both of her eyes were swollen almost closed. Her cheeks had turned to hard shiny lumps. She had an open gash on her chin from the girl’s ring. “I got a pretty good lick in,” she repeated. It was the best way to look at things, but the truth was she had been brutally beaten up, and by a prissy girl in a whatever T-shirt, an unlikely winner who was not an unlikely winner, it became clear the moment the fight began. The winner was Eva.
I did not become friends with Eva that day, but later. Whenever that later was, a year maybe, the memory of her and her punches was undiminished. I knew something about her. Most girls talk a big game, and then they scratch and pull hair, or don’t show up for the fight.
I suppose you could say I traded Tyra for Eva, like I traded Ajax for Jimmy Darling. But in both cases, the first was there to lead me to the second. Life allows for assessments, and reas- sessments. And anyhow, who wants to be stuck with a loser?
Eva was a professional. One of those girls who always had a lighter, bottle opener, graffiti markers, flask, amyl nitrate, Buck knife, even her own sensor remover—the device that department store clerks used to remove theft prevention clips from new clothes. She stole it. The rest of us ripped out the sensors forcibly before leaving the store with our stolen loot. A sensor in a dressing room was a giveaway, so we took them with us, crammed up under our armpits, which muffled the sensor, deadened it to the detection alarm. We were not kleptomaniacs. That’s a term for rich people who steal by compulsion. We were finding innovative ways to acquire makeup and perfume and purses and clothes—all the normal things a girl would be expected to have and want, and which we could not afford.
All my clothes had holes in them from where the sensors had been attached. Eva removed them from her stolen clothes properly, with her magic device. Once, she walked right into I. Magnin, clipped the wires from a rabbit fur coat with wire cutters, put it on, and ran for it. The wires fit through the arms of the fur and leather jackets, with large hoops dangling from the ends of the sleeves like giant handcuffs.
Eva went through a tomboy phase and stopped wearing fur jackets. She dressed like one of the Sunset guys, Ben Davis pants with a janitorial key ring dangling from a belt loop. The more keys on the ring, the better. It didn’t matter if they opened any- thing, except beer bottles. She wore a black Derby jacket, with the gold paisley padding on the inside, the trademark shoulder- to-shoulder seams. Like the boys, she completed that look with steel-toed boots—for kicking peoples’ heads in should the need arise.
One night I encountered a group of guys sitting in the dark drinking 151 in Big Rec, older people I had never seen, from Crocker Amazon, which was something like enemy territory. They wanted to show me Polaroids of Eva. Is this your friend? In the photos, Eva was passed-out drunk and stripped of her tough-kid uniform, with a baseball bat between her naked thighs.
Eva fist-fought guys and won. She one-upped everyone with drugs and drink. These boys with their photos, they knew what it meant to have done that to Eva and they wanted me to see.
I never told her, and even thinking of what happened later, Eva a crack addict in the Tenderloin, the Polaroid photos with the bat was still the worst thing that anyone had done to her. She did plenty to herself, but that is different.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Mars Room includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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. Unflinching, electric, and deeply empathetic, The Mars Room is a masterful meditation on what in people is breakable, what is unbreakable, as well as the existential meanings of class, and criminality, and the impossibility of forgiveness in our prison system.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
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 in the novel a surprise to you? What significance do you read into the scene with the “Scummerz” and the young boy making noodles on the stove? Why is everyone from her past and all her memories so remote and vanished? Is this the nature of childhood and the erasure of cities, or something else more complicated and individual to do with Romy?
3. The overwhelming majority of people, and certainly middle-class people, will never spend a single day of their lives in jails and prisons. Should those who don’t have that dark destiny worry for those who do? What impression do you have, after reading The Mars Room, about individual agency, and who goes to prison in this country and who doesn’t?
4. “Sammy was my big sister and I was Button’s, and Conan was something like the dad. We had a family” (page 241). In order to cope with their difficult surroundings the women of Stanville create familial bonds with each other. Do these women nurture one another or is their “family” more of an alliance of protection? What are the benefits of a “family” arrangement? The risks?
5. After recounting an emotional story from childhood, Conan says, “There are some good people out there . . . some really good people” (page 252). Discuss the acts of generosity in this novel. Which ones stand out? These women seem to start at disadvantages. They take wrong turns. The prison system lacks mercy or a shot at redemption. Would many of these characters’ lives have been different with more, or greater, acts of generosity?
6. Straining the edges of a reader’s compassion perhaps is the character Doc, the “dirty cop” who had been involved with Betty LaFrance and is eventually strangled by his cellmate. Why do you think Kushner included him and his story in the book? Does he achieve a kind of unexpected likability, and if so, how?
7. Romy says, “To stay sane you formed a version of yourself you could believe in” (page 269), and earlier, “Jackson believed in the world” (page 156). Kushner makes a connection between the wide-eyed optimism of youth and the crushing realities of what the world can be for those born without power or wealth, and for those who have made irreversible mistakes. Discuss the role that Jackson serves in the novel. What does he symbolize to Romy?
8. “Part of the intimacy with nature that you acquire is the sharpening of the senses. Not that your hearing and eyesight become more acute, but you notice things more” (page 299). This is presumably the voice of Ted Kaczynski, but its placement suggests a link to Romy’s escape into nature. Why does she end up alone in the woods? What does this say about the human need for connection with the outside? In what other ways does Romy seem to be shut off from the outside world? What role could a connection with nature play in rehabilitation?
9. What role does gender play throughout the novel? What differences did you see between the experiences of incarcerated men and incarcerated women? How did gender factor into Romy’s trial and sentencing?
10. Serenity Smith is a transgender woman whose presence generates an outsized reaction from the women of Stanville. Discuss the controversy among the prisoners concerning this character. How do their surroundings contribute to their reaction to her? And what does Serenity’s predicament say about the structure of prison? What is society to do with people who cannot assimilate into the caged spaces allotted for them?
11. Hauser can be seen in different lights. Was he a predator, or was he a man who meant well but could not resist temptation? Discuss the effects of his actions on Romy.
12. The Mars Room comes from the name of the strip club where Romy works before she is incarcerated. What does the phrase “Mars Room” bring to mind? What do these two worlds—a central California women’s prison and a San Francisco strip club—share?
13. In the final moments of the book, Romy is in the forest, bathed in light: “I emerged from the tree and turned into the light, not slow. I ran toward them, toward the light” (page 336). There is something both heavenly and hellish in this description. Discuss the dichotomies: Is the scene ultimately despairing or hopeful?
14. In the final paragraph of the book, Romy reflects on giving Jackson life. She calls giving life “everything.” Is this a comment on her own life, or some manner of reinterpreting life as extending into other regions beyond the one she’s been given and that has been taken away? Is it some way of being part of something in the world that is larger than she is and that goes beyond her? What is the import of the final sentence? Is your sense that the world, at the end, is a human world, a natural world, both, or neither?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Discuss the works of Henry David Thoreau and how his essays and transcendental ideas might relate to The Mars Room. In a similar fashion, consider the crimes, anger, and solitude of Ted Kaczynski. What does it mean to be a misanthropist? And what does it mean to be a misanthropist with rigid ideas about society and how it should be organized?
2. Watch a classic prison film, such as Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman, or Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law.
3. Kushner is an accomplished author and journalist, with a wide range of interests. Get to know more of her work by taking a look at her previous novels, Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers.
4. Kushner was interviewed by the New Yorker about her novel The Mars Room. Share the article with your group to learn more about Kushner’s inspiration, her process, and her views: https://www.newyorker.com/books/this-week-in-fiction/fiction-this-week-rachel-kushner-2018-02-12.
5. Get involved in helping members of your community who are impacted by incarceration: you can send books to prisoners through numerous organizations, or offer aid to family members of prisoners, such as through Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, or find an individual plan that appeals to you to help others. If you or someone you know has been impacted by incarceration, share your story with your book group. After reading The Mars Room, perhaps they will be primed to listen carefully, without judgments.