The Mars Room: A Novel by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room: a novel by Rachel Kushner
Reviewed by Lloyd I Sederer, MD

Source: Scribner

The line between being a murderer or not is not a bright one. It is more readily breached than we imagine.

Romy Leslie Hall, a single (white) mother of a latency aged boy, is doing hard time. She is in the fortress called Stanville Women’s Prison, in the Central Valley of California, with three thousand other incarcerated women whose felonies add up to an ocean of tragedy mixed with ever brewing violence. Romy is serving two life sentences, plus six years.

There is no hope of her ever getting out. But worse, no hope of her ever seeing her son. The State has ruled that her latency aged boy is a ward of the state and that her ‘parental rights are terminated’. When her mother, who had been guardian, died, Romy was foreclosed of ever having have any further contact with her son, even obtaining any information about him, whatsoever.

The Mars Room is the name of a San Francisco strip club where Romy made a living. This had become her destiny, having been raised by a seriously neglectful mother. Without limits, support or guidance, her life became, by the time she was ten, one of risk, alcohol, drugs and abandon.

As a stripper, Romy discovered the grievous hazards of the job, including being stalked and threatened. The remedy to this occupational hazard can sometimes be murder.

This is Rachel Kushner’s third novel. She had already achieved considerable recognition for her terse, vibrant prose and brilliant depiction of the human condition. The Mars Room is an acidic indictment of the social indifference and poverty that breeds misery and puts many women (and men) on a path to incarceration, at a great cost to their humanity as well as ours. Prison, as Ms. Kushner points out, adds “…new harm to old”.

She takes us deep into the dark cells and covert corners of jails and prisons. Ms. Kushner judges the jailers and our legal system far more than she does those jailed, whom we see through the lens of their poverty, adversity and trauma. No place in prison offers any haven: general population, administrative segregation, special needs. The best place to reside, as she describes, is death row, except you are there because you are doomed.

Ms. Kushner has a journalist’s capacity to observe how unjust the justice system in our country can be. Yet, as a nation we continue to advance the hammer of enforcement, with no appreciable evidence of its providing safety to our communities. The US has the highest rate of prison incarceration in the world.

Kushner’s characters are rich in personality and heartache: Romy, of course, and Conan, Teardrop, Sammy, Button, the Norse, and Laura Lipp on the inside — and Jimmy Darling, Kurt Kennedy, Eva, Leatherman, Liverman and others on the outside. And there is the prison teacher of English, Gordon Hauser, whose character could fit into a work by Dostoyevsky. They all become so real to the reader, as only great fiction can deliver.

This is a powerful novel and a social commentary. The Mars Room is a book about what it means to have had little chance in life, and what it is like to “do time”. It takes us into the lives of people who are as alike as they are different from us. There but the grace of God go I. As a reader, we realize what Ms. Kushner means when she quotes Nietzsche, “…each man is entitled to as much of it [the truth] as he can bear.”


Dr. Lloyd Sederer is a psychiatrist, public health doctor, and medical journalist. His new book is The Addiction Solution: Treating Our Dependence on Opioids and Other Drugs (Scribner, 2018).

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