Review 1705: The Mars Room

Romy Hall is on her way to prison at the beginning of The Mars Room, having received two life sentences for murder. Because she worked as a stripper and led a not so savory life, she has been denied the opportunity in court to testify that her victim had been stalking her, even following her from San Francisco to L. A., where she moved to get away from him.

On the way to the prison in far eastern California, one woman dies. None of the prison personnel pay any attention. This is just one example of the treatment the women—and sometimes girls—receive.

This novel isn’t just about Romy, though. We hear the voices of quite a few characters, all of whom are incarcerated or are connected to the incarcerated. None of these characters are all bad or all good, but what they have in common is that they have been silenced.

There is Doc, a corrupt cop who has killed just for the pleasure of it but befriends Serenity, who has performed her own sex change operation in jail and is trying to be transferred to the women’s prison. There’s Gordon Hauser, who comes to teach at the women’s prison but gets a little too involved with the prisoners and quits to become a social worker. There’s even Kurt Kennedy, Romy’s stalker and victim. In between, we read paragraphs from Ted Kaczynski’s writing, most of them chilling.

This novel explores some deep territory, the lack of justice for the poor, the futility and vindictiveness of the prison system, the lack of any chances most of the characters had in their lives to begin with. It is gritty, difficult to read, and sometimes heart-wrenching. In general, I’m not that much of a fan of Kushner, but this novel has some powerful moments. I read it for my Booker Prize project.

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Day 1215: The Flamethrowers

Cover for The FlamethrowersSet in the mid-1970’s, The Flamethrowers evokes two distinct but frenetic movements. In New York, it is the art scene, where performance art is coming to the fore and artists are trying to live their art. In Italy, it is revolution and the Red Brigade, where common people are rising up against business and political corruption.

The heroine, Reno, has grown up in Nevada ski racing and has a fascination with motorcycles and speed. She moves to New York to become an artist (although we never see her making any art) and eventually becomes the girlfriend of Sandro Valera, a well-known, older artist.

Sandro’s family in Italy made its money in motorcycles and tires, and when Reno travels to the Great Salt Flats to do a time trial on her Valera motorcycle, she accidentally gets involved in the family business. As a result, Sandro reluctantly brings her to Italy during a time of great instability and confusion.

Kushner evocatively depicts both the New York art scene and the seething streets of Rome, although often the artists seem like poseurs to me. I don’t think the depiction is meant to be satirical, though.

However, Reno as observer seems to be a different person than the risk-taker who went to New York. Further, the narrative, which occasionally jumps to the story of Sandro’s grandfather, who started the company, feels disjointed and as if it doesn’t really add up. Although I was entranced by long passages of this novel, I ended up wondering what it really was about. In particular, the novel relies on Reno’s relationship with Sandro to tie it all together, but that relationship is barely touched on.

This is the first book I read specifically because it is part of my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project.

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