At the time Rachel Kushner's second novel, The Flamethrowers, was released, I was very much interested in the story. Before it had even hit shelves, I was enticed by the cover and the promise of a thrilling tale within. Well, curse the infinite to-read list. While I've held the best intentions of reading Kushner's work all this time, it took a Man Booker Prize nomination to finally make the commitment, a commitment to read her following novel, The Mars Room.
The Mars Room is the story of Romy Hall and her fellow prisoners at Stanville Women's Correctional Facility. Though I have nothing more than a reader's perspective of what prison might be like, Kushner's story carries significant believability. This is a prison novel that seems wrapped in precision and one might assume, with the flood of details from both inside and outside of the prison walls, that the author has done her research. An article published in The New Yorker points to this attention to detail (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20...). According to the article, this precision is indicative of her work. In each of her three novels, Kushner has immersed herself in the details of the story. For The Mars Room, Kushner began visiting prisons in 2014 and has utilized the help of consultants who've given her information that only an insider could possess, stories that are rendered in the novel with little alteration.
Some may argue that The Mars Room isn't strictly a prison novel as much of the action happens outside of the prison gates, but I get the impression that Kushner is painting the outside as a sort of prison, as well. Outside, there are a set of rules that restrict one from pursuing true freedom. Many of these characters were set on a path, some at birth, some because of something completely outside of their control, that had only one outcome. It's possible to get a sense that Kushner was hoping to establish a connection between the American prison system and the “Great American Dream.”
Outside of the vivid detail, what's most impressive are the characters. It's clear that Kushner spent some time with them. She knows them well, giving each a very developed voice and perspective. These characters go beyond Romy and the other prisoners of Stanville. Kushner tells the story of prison's teacher, of a corrupt cop, of a trans woman in a men's prison. Each of these stories carries with it a whole other world, completely rendered and discerning.
And this is perhaps where The Mars Room turns a bit sour. While these extra characters certainly show Kushner's great ability to work inside the minds' of a myriad of possible characters, their connection to the larger story is in some cases weak or entirely nonexistent. Some of the novel's best scenes certainly come from these diversions, but they detract from what is an otherwise solid narrative. When it becomes clear toward the end that these many threads are not necessarily joined, The Mars Room loses something of its believability in its loss of continuity. While there is a complete novel in here, it is joined by stories that are merely connected by theme.
Certainly, it didn't help that in the end, the story moves in a direction that deviates some from the overarching sense of realism. The conclusion isn't absurd, by any means, but it did strike me as slightly inauthentic. In fact, I'd say this ending would've been sufficient in the work of many less skilled authors, but coming from the author who'd established 300 pages of piercing authenticity, it had a bit too much of the made-for-tv-movie effect.
I will not be surprised or offended to see The Mars Room make this year's shortlist. There are probably too many strikes against it to take home the prize—primarily, or so I believe, that an American author cannot win a third year in a row. In a year when the longlist has been particularly sub par, in my opinion, I think Kushner has a decent chance of being invited to London this October.