The Threat of Silence in Rachel Kushner’s ‘The Mars Room’

Let’s take a close look at the opening of Alta’s CBC May 2021 selection.

cdcr bus

The Mars Room is formally thrilling, with all kinds of unexpected narrative maneuvers. The novel opens with a bus ride, and we, readers, are certainly in for a trip that is both a winding and a straight-shot journey. The central protagonist, Romy, and several other incarcerated individuals are on their way to a prison, which catapults Romy into introspection:

“Chain Night happens once a week on Thursdays,” she says. “Once a week the defining moment for sixty women takes place. For some of the sixty, that defining moment happens over and over. For them it is routine. For me it happened only once.”

Before we even encounter the “me” or “I” of the novel (that is to say, before we realize that this novel is, in fact, being told in the first person), we are offered information about the goings-on of prison life, specifically when incarcerated persons are transported to a different facility—we even get the colloquial term for it (“Chain Night”), which immediately invites us into the world that they inhabit.

Of particular note, however, is the first piece of dialogue that we receive, as Romy details the people with whom she is getting transported. A 15-year-old who is eight months pregnant is chained in a cage, her hands shackled to her sides. She is also crying. One of the other women, fed up with the noise, yells, “Shut the hell up!” This encounter then launches Romy into a memory of when she was similarly told to settle down. She'd just been incarcerated for the first time and couldn’t stop crying, and a woman with whom she shared a cell lifted her shirt to flash a tattoo at Romy; it read, “Shut the Fuck Up.

One can only wonder what it means to have threats calling for silence be the opening words and gestures of The Mars Room. We must remember that we’re already following the lives of women who have been silenced, who have been told that they are irredeemable and must spend the rest of their lives away from society, hushed and hidden. Some of these women speak anyway—Romy certainly does, and so, too, does Laura Lipp, who refuses to quiet down until she has finished telling her story.

The Mars Room is ultimately a story about unveiling, and this is animated by its structure, which flits between different memories, periods, and associations in the span of only a few pages at a time. We come to understand how they all relate to one another at different paces and points. The narrative unravels almost like thought, a bit unformed and somewhat circuitous. In any case, The Mars Room offers unforgettable portraits of those who have to navigate the U.S. criminal justice and carceral system.

To join Alta Journal’s California Book Club conversation with Kushner on May 20, click here.

Rasheeda Saka is a graduate student in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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