Man Booker 2018: The Mars Room

18th September 2018

The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner

Jonathan Cape, London 2018

Reviewed by Claire Steele

Rachel Kushner’s third novel is a thoroughly compelling account of the frailties and strengths of the human condition. Kushner writes with a keen regard for history and politics. This is a novel in which implacable human epiphanies are exposed and explored with great compassion.

The Mars Room of the title is a strip club, where the protagonist Romy Hall worked before serving two consecutive life sentences for the murder of her stalker. Given that most of the novel is set in Stanville Prison it is worth paying attention to the title. Named for the God of war, the red planet, ‘The Mars Room’ directly frames the ideological parameters of the world into which Kushner invites us. This will be a battleground, a place where all that society wishes to make an illicit profit from will be on view. Its costs may be shaming but its pleasures will be consummate.

Kushner takes us into a closed world where we are encouraged to look more thoroughly and listen more carefully to the things that make us human. If Stanville Prison offers us a controlling system through which to consider questions of justice and humanity, then what Kushner suggests is that as a society we are going nowhere (not for at least two life sentences). Behind this closed system operates an even more imprisoning regime, exemplified by the Mars Room, a place where the gender wars are played out large, and exploitation, power, capitalism and poverty are all starkly lit and brought to intensely detailed life. Romy’s voice is edgy, uncompromising, analytical:

“At the Mars Room, I did not have to show up on time, or smile, or obey any rules, or think of most men as anything other than losers to be exploited but who believed they were exploiting us, and so it was naturally quite hostile as an environment, even as it was coated in pretend submission – our own.”

The binary oppositions of good and bad are challenged with similarly intransigent binaries: rich and poor, male and female. Kushner does not deal in heroes and victims, or in innocence and guilt – she deals in the more nuanced currencies of vocabulary and makes us look again at what we thought we knew:

“Did you ever notice that women can seem common while men never do? You won’t ever hear anyone describe a man’s appearance as common. The common man means the average man, a typical man, a decent hardworking person of modest dreams and resources. A common woman is a woman who looks cheap. A woman who looks cheap doesn’t have to be respected and so she has a certain value, a certain cheap value.”

Again and again, Kushner alerts us to language, reworking it and exploring its boundaries even as it delves into the depths of the human heart and the scope of what people are capable of dreaming, destroying, grieving and creating. ‘The Mars Room’ is a fierce and loving response to the contemporary world, and confirms the uncanny power of fiction to place us in someone else’s experience and make everything there feel absolutely familiar and real. Kushner’s commitment to the things that bind us and her imaginary largesse is ultimately heartening, and her conclusions, though bleak, are altogether exemplary.

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