Written by: Joe Lollo
Prison literature as a genre is something that interests me a lot because of the many different ways that it can be classified – memoirs, fiction, exploitation novels, etc. The Mars Room is interesting because it combines the styles and characteristic elements (more on this later) of a variety of prison lit subgenres to create a fantastic yet realistic story about the flaws in our justice system and in society as a whole. It’s vulgar, intense, and downright dark at times, but Rachel Kushner’s dedication to her fictional world and extensive research of the prison system makes this a worthwhile read.
While there are a lot of characters, the story seems to treat them like they all matter. Romy Hall, the primary character, is serving two life sentences for murdering the man who stalked her in front of her son Jackson. Before this, she worked at the titular “Mars Room”, a strip club, while working hard to make sure her son had a better childhood than hers. Romy seems to reflect how inmates are people too, and how the American penal system that won’t allow someone to tell their side of the story, the flaws in our penal system. Her chapters are written in the first person, feeling like a prison memoir and a subjective account of real-life experiences, which adds to her control of the narrative – the only way she is really free – and through the recalling of her abusive childhood and almost-too-free adulthood, readers can build empathy by getting a glimpse of what an inmate could have gone through.
Another noteworthy character is the single “free world” person whose perspective is offered, a prison teacher named Gordon Hauser. He is a former literary scholar who gets a little too involved in the lives of some of the inmates, especially Romy because he buys her books he loves and tries to contact CPS for the whereabouts of her son, but values education and believes that reading and writing can set you free – a mindset he brings to the prison. While Romy reflects the notion that inmates are people too, Gordon represents the mindset that Kushner wants readers to have – that of seeing that these people are exactly that – people – and understanding how ill-equipped we are to determine who is breaking the rules. His third-person narrative is much more objective and is written almost like a classic pulp novel, to show that his free-world status gives him less control over the prison, but he still wants to change the environment that these people are living in.
Dark but gripping, it shines a light on a part of society we see very little of. Within the first few chapters, it is easy to learn that not everything is as black-and-white as it seems to be, in terms of morality. Some of these characters have served long sentences for minor offenses because they couldn’t share their side of the story, whereas others were killers and stalkers who were free to do what they wanted with little to no repercussions. It is all about the flaws in our society – and the bias that people in charge can have, contributing to more flaws. The inmates’ lives are this way because of their choices, but however, their circumstances, knowing what they came from and their lives before incarceration make it difficult to be unsympathetic. In forcing its main characters to spend their lives in an unjust environment, the novel provides a stirring study of the rules we live by, which makes it an interesting read as a result.