The Mars Room
(2018), American author Rachel Kushner’s third novel, follows single mother Romy Hall as she begins a double life sentence in a maximum-security prison. The novel won the 2018 Prix Médicis Étranger and was shortlisted for that year’s Man Booker Prize. Irish novelist Rob Doyle, writing in the Irish Times
, called it “one of the greatest novels I have read in years.”
The novel opens in 2003, as 29-year-old Romy Hall is bussed with 60 other prisoners from a Los Angeles County jail to the Stanville Correctional Facility in California’s Central Valley. She will serve two consecutive life sentences (“plus six years”), but, as she says, “I don’t plan on living a long life.”
As her neighbor, Laura Lipp, tells Romy her life story, Romy reflects on her own life, thinking principally of her mother, who is caring for her son Jackson. She also remembers her work as a stripper in “cursed” San Francisco, at a club called the Mars Room. This leads her to remember Kurt Kennedy, the disabled Vietnam veteran whom Romy has been convicted of beating to death. We learn that Kennedy stalked Romy for years, following her from San Francisco to L.A. We also learn that Romy’s lawyer failed to raise Kennedy’s harassment at her trial.
The bus arrives at Stanville. As the prisoners are stripped and searched, another prisoner goes into labor. The guards order the prisoners to stand back, but Romy decides to help her, together with two other new arrivals: Conan London (a transgender man) and Sammy Fernandez. The guards beat them back, and Romy, Conan, and Fernandez are isolated in cramped cages as a punishment. The pregnant girl is left to deliver her baby without medical attention.
Romy and Fernandez are sentenced to a further 90 days of administrative segregation. They share a cell, isolated from the rest of the prison. On the floor below is death-row inmate Betty LaFrance; Romy and Fernandez are able to talk with her through an air vent. Betty tells them her story: she killed her husband for the insurance payout and paid a corrupt policeman named Doc to cover it up. She also tells them the story of another inmate, Angel Marie Janicki, who almost escaped from Stanville by cutting the fence in a blind spot between two guard towers. Betty also teaches Romy and Fernandez how to make “pruno,” a homemade fruit-juice liquor fermented in “a sock stuffed with bread, the yeast.”
Romy enrolls in a GED prep course with prison teacher Gordon Hauser. Hauser offers to give her some books, and Romy feels that he likes her. We learn that Hauser lives in a remote cabin, in self-imposed exile, fretting about the despoliation of the environment around him. Kushner implies that he is an admirer of the Unabomber, by threading the novel with quotations from his manifesto.
Less than 30 days into her stint in Segregation, Romy learns that her mother has been killed in a car crash. Since her mother was caring for Jackson, Romy is deeply anxious about her son. Frustrated at being unable to contact him, Romy attacks a prison guard and is placed naked in an isolation cell.
After 90 days in isolation, Romy is returned to the general population. She shares a cell with Conan, Laura Lipp, and the girl who gave birth on arrival, whose name is Button Sanchez. Romy begins working in the woodshop, where the prisoners make courtroom furniture. She is still frantically worried about Jackson. She manages to contact her lawyer, who is unable to find Romy’s son. Romy finds herself thinking of Angel Marie Janicki and wondering if she could escape.
A letter arrives at the prison from a dyslexic man, “Keath,” seeking a pen pal. It is auctioned off to the highest bidder: Fernandez. She explains to Romy that she intends to seduce Keath so she has somewhere to go when she is released.
Hauser and Romy grow increasingly close. Some of the other inmates observe them together and confirm Romy’s suspicion that Hauser likes her. Romy tells Hauser that she has started making jewelry and asks him to bring her a pair of wire-cutters. He is reluctant, but he believes her story and brings her the cutters. Romy buries them near one of the guard towers.
As the years roll by, Romy develops a plan: she will marry Hauser and ask him to adopt Jackson. Meanwhile, however, prison life and his own cynicism have made Hauser increasingly jaded. Romy offers Hauser a picture of Jackson, but he refuses it. Before Romy can attempt to seduce him, Hauser rebuffs her.
When a prison riot breaks out, Romy seizes her chance to escape. She digs up the wire cutters and breaks through several layers of fencing. She flees into the forested hills around the prison and lives wild, hiding inside a tree, until the prison guards find her and return her to Stanville.