Mars Room (Kushner)

The Mars Room 
Rachel Kushner, 2018
Scribner
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781476756554



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." (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—1968
Where—Eugene, Oregon, USA
Education—B.A., University of California, Berkeley; M.F.A., Columbia University
Awards—Finalist, National Book Award
Currently—lives in Los Angeles, California


Rachel Kushner a writer who lives in Los Angeles. She was born in Eugene, Oregon, and moved to San Francisco in 1979. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and earned her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University in 2000.

Kushner lived in New York City for 8 years, where she was an editor at Grand Street (magazine) and BOMB (magazine). She has written widely on contemporary art, including numerous features in Artforum. She is currently an editor of Soft Targets, praised by the New York Times as an "excellent, Brooklyn-based journal of art, fiction and poetry."

Her first novel, Telex from Cuba, was published in July 2008. It was the cover review of the July 6, 2008 issue of the New York Times Book Review, where it was described as a "multi-layered and absorbing" novel whose "sharp observations about human nature and colonialist bias provide a deep understanding of the revolution's causes." It was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. (From Wikipedia.)

Kuskner's second novel, The Flamethrowers, issued in 2013, also received extraordinary praise. James Wood of The New Yorker extolled: "the first twenty pages could make any writer's career," while Dwight Garner of The New York Times said, the book "unfolds on a bigger, brighter screen than nearly any recent American novel I can remember. Jonathan Franzen in his NY Times review called Kushner "a thrilling and prodigious novelist."



Book Reviews
[Kushner’s] best book yet, another big step forward.
Jonathan Franzen - Guardian (UK)


A
searing, tragic look at life in the prison-industrial complex, covering poverty, sex work, mass incarceration, education, trauma, suffering, love, and redemption. Somehow, Kushner's rapid-fire, imaginative prose makes it seems effortless.
Vogue


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


(Starred review) [H]eartbreaking and unforgettable…. Romy is a remarkable protagonist; her guilt is never in question, but her choices are understandable. [The] novel…  deserves to be read with the same level of pathos, love, and humanity with which it clearly was written.
Publishers Weekly


Kushner is back with another stunner… without a shred of sentimentality, Kushner makes us see these characters as humans who are survivors, getting through life the only way they are able given their circumstances.
Library Journal


(Starred review) In smart, determined, and vigilant Romy, Kushner, an acclaimed writer of exhilarating skills, has created a seductive narrator of tigerish intensity... This is a gorgeously eviscerating novel of incarceration writ large… [is] executed with artistry and edgy wit.
Booklist


Another 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.… [T]he honest depiction of prison life is so gripping. An unforgiving look at a brutal system.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
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's title 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?
(Questiions issued by the publishers.)

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