‘The Mars Room’ Has a Genius Problem

A Gritty Crime Story Told By a Writer Who Wants to be Don DeLillo

I read The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner. Why did I read this book? It was on the lists. Actually, it was at the top of most of the lists. And sometimes I like to read what’s on the lists.

The Mars Room is a women-in-prison novel, but the title refers to a strip club in San Francisco where the protagonist danced before she went to jail.  The lead character, Romy Hall, grows up in rough circumstances in a non-glamorous San Francisco, gravitates to drug and sex work, has an affair with a hipster filmmaker, births a son out of wedlock, and eventually ends up bludgeoning a guy who stalks her at the club. Then she goes to prison for life, and prison is shit.

I would have read that novel twice. Unfortunately and stubbornly, The Mars Room refuses to deliver on its grim premise. The story exists all jumbled. Somewhere within this overcomplicated puzzle box sits a heartbreaking novel, a la Sister Carrie, about the horrifying injustices American society imposes upon poor women. But you really need to do some heavy sifting to get there. Although Romy begins the book on the bus to jail, the murder doesn’t take place until the last 20 pages. Her early life gets delivered in early pages, as it should, but then also for some reason in later pages. Sometimes she narrates in a clear voice, and sometimes she narrates in elliptical riddles.

To add to the muddle, Kushner includes pages from The Unabomber’s diary. We have to deal with these, and also chapters about “Doc,” an ex-cop who bivouacs in another prison. I ended up skimming the Doc chapters, the literary equivalent of fast-forwarding. They felt like an extended sentence, full of extended sentences. And I didn’t realize the diary pages were from the Unabomber until I read some press coverage about the book. Then there are the multiple chapters that follow the neurotic exploits of a GED teacher at the prison. Others switch points of view to other prisoners, who then vanish uninterestingly. It all starts to feel like a big lump.

For a book touted as an exposé of the injustices of the penal system, a surprisingly small percentage of the book takes place in the jail. Piper Kerman handled this material much better, though in a much less literary way, in the memoir that launched Orange Is The New Black. The Mars Room doesn’t have that kind of pop sensibility. We don’t get hot lesbian sex or hanging out in the library with Taystee. That got old around Episode 20, so there was room for Kushner’s more serious fictional examination of women in the penal system. But instead we get characters conducting a stream-of-consciousness Jesus’ Son book club, a very Gen-X brainiac way of dealing with social injustice.

Like Kushner’s last book, The Flamethrowers, The Mars Room contains more tossed-off wisdom about urban grit and the unfulfilled promises of bohemia and “cool guy” sexism than most writers can deliver in an entire career. Kushner can be subtle and brilliant whenever she wants to be, gifts that cannot be bought. However, because she’s such a Genius, no one will ever edit her more pretentious impulses. She wants to be the next Don DeLillo, made painfully obvious by a weird chapter toward the end of The Mars Room about Richard Nixon at The Grand Ole Opry in 1974. Why was that there?

We all had to endure one Underworld already. Nothing in the core premise of The Mars Room indicates that it needs to grapple with The Soul Of America. Kushner has a tragic, urgent story to tell. I just wish she would have just told it straight, and shoved her prodigious intellect aside.

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of ten semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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