From twice National Book Award–nominated Rachel Kushner, whose Flamethrowers was called “the best, most brazen, most interesting book of the year” (Kathryn Schulz, New York magazine), comes a spectacularly compelling, heart-stopping novel about a life gone off the rails in contemporary America.
It’s 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision.
Stunning and unsentimental, The Mars Room demonstrates new levels of mastery and depth in Kushner’s work. It is audacious and tragic, propulsive and yet beautifully refined. As James Wood said in The New Yorker, her fiction “succeeds because it is so full of vibrantly different stories and histories, all of them particular, all of them brilliantly alive.”
“Kushner is going to be one we turn to for our serious pleasures and for the insight and wisdom we’ll be needing in hard times to come. She is a novelist of the very first order.” —Robert Stone
“Kushner is a young master. I honestly don’t know how she is able to know so much and convey all of this in such a completely entertaining and mesmerizing way.” —George Saunders
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This reading group guide for The Mars Roomincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
From twice National Book Award–nominated Rachel Kushner comes a spectacularly compelling, heart-stopping novel about a life gone off the rails in contemporary America. It’s 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision. Unflinching, electric, and deeply empathetic, The Mars Room is a masterful meditation on what in people is breakable, what is unbreakable, as well as the existential meanings of class, and criminality, and the impossibility of forgiveness in our prison system.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. At the beginning of the book, before she is incarcerated, Romy Hall, the central protagonist of The Mars Room, says, “I said everything was fine but nothing was. The life was being sucked out of me. The problem was not moral. It had nothing to do with morality. These men dimmed my glow. Made me numb to touch, and angry” (page 26). What role do morality and virtue play in the telling of Romy’s story? Does morality factor into who is judged guilty and who is judged innocent?
2. The San Francisco depicted in this book is perhaps not a classic one of, as Romy puts it, “rainbow flags or Beat poetry or steep crooked streets,” but “fog and Irish bars and liquor stores all the way to the Great Highway” (page 33). Was the San Francisco depicted in the novel a surprise to you? What significance do you read into the scene with the “Scummerz” and the young boy making noodles on the stove? Why is everyone from her past and all her memories so remote and vanished? Is this the nature of childhood and the erasure of cities, or something else more complicated and individual to do with Romy?
3. The overwhelming majority of people, and certainly middle-class people, will never spend a single day of their lives in jails and prisons. Should those who don’t have that dark destiny worry for those who do? What impression do you have, after reading The Mars Room, about individual agency, and who goes to prison in this country and who doesn’t?
4. “Sammy was my big sister and I was Button’s, and Conan was something like the dad. We had a family” (page 241). In order to cope with their difficult surroundings the women of Stanville create familial bonds with each other. Do these women nurture one another or is their “family” more of an alliance of protection? What are the benefits of a “family” arrangement? The risks?
5. After recounting an emotional story from childhood, Conan says, “There are some good people out there . . . some really good people” (page 252). Discuss the acts of generosity in this novel. Which ones stand out? These women seem to start at disadvantages. They take wrong turns. The prison system lacks mercy or a shot at redemption. Would many of these characters’ lives have been different with more, or greater, acts of generosity?
6. Straining the edges of a reader’s compassion perhaps is the character Doc, the “dirty cop” who had been involved with Betty LaFrance and is eventually strangled by his cellmate. Why do you think Kushner included him and his story in the book? Does he achieve a kind of unexpected likability, and if so, how?
7. Romy says, “To stay sane you formed a version of yourself you could believe in” (page 269), and earlier, “Jackson believed in the world” (page 156). Kushner makes a connection between the wide-eyed optimism of youth and the crushing realities of what the world can be for those born without power or wealth, and for those who have made irreversible mistakes. Discuss the role that Jackson serves in the novel. What does he symbolize to Romy?
8. “Part of the intimacy with nature that you acquire is the sharpening of the senses. Not that your hearing and eyesight become more acute, but you notice things more” (page 299). This is presumably the voice of Ted Kaczynski, but its placement suggests a link to Romy’s escape into nature. Why does she end up alone in the woods? What does this say about the human need for connection with the outside? In what other ways does Romy seem to be shut off from the outside world? What role could a connection with nature play in rehabilitation?
9. What role does gender play throughout the novel? What differences did you see between the experiences of incarcerated men and incarcerated women? How did gender factor into Romy’s trial and sentencing?
10. Serenity Smith is a transgender woman whose presence generates an outsized reaction from the women of Stanville. Discuss the controversy among the prisoners concerning this character. How do their surroundings contribute to their reaction to her? And what does Serenity’s predicament say about the structure of prison? What is society to do with people who cannot assimilate into the caged spaces allotted for them?
11. Hauser can be seen in different lights. Was he a predator, or was he a man who meant well but could not resist temptation? Discuss the effects of his actions on Romy.
12. The Mars Room comes from the name of the strip club where Romy works before she is incarcerated. What does the phrase “Mars Room” bring to mind? What do these two worlds—a central California women’s prison and a San Francisco strip club—share?
13. In the final moments of the book, Romy is in the forest, bathed in light: “I emerged from the tree and turned into the light, not slow. I ran toward them, toward the light” (page 336). There is something both heavenly and hellish in this description. Discuss the dichotomies: Is the scene ultimately despairing or hopeful?
14. In the final paragraph of the book, Romy reflects on giving Jackson life. She calls giving life “everything.” Is this a comment on her own life, or some manner of reinterpreting life as extending into other regions beyond the one she’s been given and that has been taken away? Is it some way of being part of something in the world that is larger than she is and that goes beyond her? What is the import of the final sentence? Is your sense that the world, at the end, is a human world, a natural world, both, or neither?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Discuss the works of Henry David Thoreau and how his essays and transcendental ideas might relate to The Mars Room. In a similar fashion, consider the crimes, anger, and solitude of Ted Kaczynski. What does it mean to be a misanthropist? And what does it mean to be a misanthropist with rigid ideas about society and how it should be organized?
2. Watch a classic prison film, such as Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman, or Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law.
3. Kushner is an accomplished author and journalist, with a wide range of interests. Get to know more of her work by taking a look at her previous novels, Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers.
4. Kushner was interviewed by the New Yorker about her novel The Mars Room. Share the article with your group to learn more about Kushner’s inspiration, her process, and her views: https://www.newyorker.com/books/this-week-in-fiction/fiction-this-week-rachel-kushner-2018-02-12.
5. Get involved in helping members of your community who are impacted by incarceration: you can send books to prisoners through numerous organizations, or offer aid to family members of prisoners, such as through Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, or find an individual plan that appeals to you to help others. If you or someone you know has been impacted by incarceration, share your story with your book group. After reading The Mars Room, perhaps they will be primed to listen carefully, without judgments.
Rachel Kushner is the bestselling author of The Flamethrowers, a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times Top Ten Book of 2013; Telex from Cuba, a finalist for the National Book Award; and The Mars Room. She lives in Los Angeles.
“Like Denis Johnson in ‘Jesus’ Son,’ Kushner is on the lookout for bent moments of comic grace…The Mars Room is a major novel.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“The Mars Room affirms Rachel Kushner as one of our best novelists…her stories slink in the margins, but they have the feel of something iconic.”—Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly
“Kushner is a woman with the chops, ambition and killer instinct to rub shoulders with all those big, swinging male egos who routinely get worshipped as geniuses.”—John Powers, Fresh Air
“[A] tough, prismatic and quite gripping novel…wholly authentic…profound…surprisingly luminous.”—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
"A searing, tragic look at life in the prison-industrial complex, covering poverty, sex work, mass incarceration, education, trauma, suffering, love, and redemption. Somehow, Kushner's rapid-fire, imaginative prose makes it seems effortless.”—Vogue
“Kushner is a masterful world-creator, and her accomplishment here is unparalleled.”—Nylon
“Kushner’s writing and thinking are always invigorating, urgent, and painterly precise.”—Vulture
“Stunning… a gorgeously written depiction of survival and the absurd and violent facets of life in prison.” —Buzzfeed
“Reading The Mars Room is a profoundly affecting experience, very nearly overwhelming, and yet it absolutely must be read. Kushner’s first two novels (Telex from Cuba, The Flamethrowers) were National Book Award finalists. It would be baffling if The Mars Room does not win this year’s.” —Cory Oldweiler, amNewYork
“[A] stunning new book… Kushner deploys the masterful storytelling she’s known for…an unmistakable voice. “—Town and Country
“Brilliant and devastating…Kushner does a masterful job evoking the isolation and hopelessness intrinsic to a life behind bars…Kushner's greatest accomplishment in The Mars Room is the character of Romy…The other characters are all perfectly rendered as well…Kushner doesn't make a false move in her third novel; she writes with an intelligence and a ferocity that sets her apart from most others in her cohort. She's a remarkably original and compassionate author, and The Mars Room is a heartbreaking, true and nearly flawless novel.”—Michael Schaub, NPR.org
“[Rachel Kushner is] one of the most gifted novelists of her generation—on the same tier as Jennifer Egan and the two Jonathans, Franzen and Lethem…[The Mars Room is]a page turner… blackly comic…Part of Kushner’s achievement here is that she makes this character, for all her shortcomings, so appealing…It’s one of those books that enrage you even as they break your heart, and in its passion for social justice you can finally discern a connection between all three of Kushner’s novels…In The Mars Room, the neglected become the focus, and it’s apparent that Kushner’s imagination, almost Dickensian in its amplitude, also embraces some of Dicken’s reformist zeal…so powerful and realistic you come away convinced that all…escapes are illusory, and that even for those who get out, prison is still a life sentence.”—Charles McGrath, The New York Times Book Review (Cover Review)
“Gorgeous…The Mars Room sings.” —Sasha Frere-Jones, Bookforum
“A revelatory novel about women on the margins of society…it’s a true feat of Kushner’s extraordinary writing that such profound ugliness can result in such tumultuous beauty.”—Maris Kreizman, Vulture
“Stunning…Heartbreaking and wholly original.” —Bustle
“A probing portrait of contemporary America.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Kushner’s great gift is for the evocation of a scene, a time and place.” —Harper’s
“This essential novel is about women ignored or denigrated or discounted in our society, and the adult men who obsess over them and abuse them and abet their self-destruction. Kushner is a bit of a magician, exploring bleak territory with pathos and urgency that makes it nearly impossible to stop reading.”—AM New York
“Much of the action of Rachel Kushner’s brilliant new novel is set in California prisons…But the moral scope of The Mars Room is really too large for it to be considered a prison novel. Through its vividly rendered characters, it asks the reader to ponder bigger questions—Dostoyevskian questions—about the system of justice, the possibility of redemption and even the industrialization of the natural landscape…Kushner is both tough and darkly funny in writing about her characters’ situations, and she writes not so much for us to empathize with them, but rather to understand them. The Mars Room is a captivating and beautiful novel.”—BookPage
“Kushner is back with another stunner…without a shred of sentimentality, Kushner makes us see these characters as humans who are survivors, getting through life the only way they are able given their circumstances.” —Library Journal
“Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers was one of the best books of 2013 and its predecessor, Telex from Cuba, earned the Los Angeles-based writer her first National Book Award nomination. Unlike Kushner's first two books, The Mars Room is set in 21st-century America, at a women's prison where Romy Hall is serving two life sentences. Kushner's writing is clipped and sharp, as she tells the story of Hall's adjustment to life behind bars — and how she got there.” —The Week
“Absorbing… here’s what stands out most about the novel and what makes it unique. Like her first two books, National Book Award finalists Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, The Mars Room is impeccably researched without ever seeming dry or preachy… insightful…authoritative…haunting.” — Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle
“[Kushner’s] best book yet, another big step forward.”—Jonathan Franzen, The Guardian
“An enormously ambitious project profoundly rooted in a particular time and place… Kushner’s greatest achievement in this unique work of brilliance and rigor is to urge us all to take responsibility for the unconscionable state of the world in which we operate blithely every single day.”—Jennifer Croft, The Los Angeles Review of Books
“[An] electrifying take on the chaos of 1980s San Francisco.”—Sloane Crosely, Vanity Fair
"Kushner’s got the talent to justify the hype…The Mars Room builds to a redemption that comes from hard truth, sharp and broken and shaped by an author of exceptional power and grace.”—Jeff Baker, The Seattle Times
“Rachel Kushner cements her place as the most vital and interesting American novelist working today...The Mars Room makes most other contemporary fiction seem timid and predictable."—Michael Lindgren, The Millions
“The book is beautifully written, without sentimentality or agenda, and at times even [with] a sly and dark humor.” —Holly Silva, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“[Kushner is] an exceptionally talented and philosophically minded writer.” —Jessica Zack, The San Francisco Chronicle
“Potent…an incendiary examination of flawed justice and the stacked deck of a system that entraps women who were born into poverty…The Mars Room is more than a novel; it’s an investigation, an exercise in empathy, an eyes-wide-open work of art.” —Kelly Luce, Oprah
“Phosphorescently vivid.”—Megan O’Grady, T Magazine
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