The Multiplicity of Tragedy in Rachel Kushner’s ‘The Mars Room’

This week’s California Book Club newsletter: CBC Clubhouse, May releases, and a podcast.

rachel kushner, the mars room
Chloe Aftel

You learn when you’re young that evil exists,” says Rachel Kushner’s central protagonist, Romy Leslie Hall, in The Mars Room, which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its May 20 gathering (click here to sign up). “You absorb the knowledge of it. When this happens for the first time, it does not go down easy. It goes down like a horse pill.”

Kushner’s novel focuses primarily on Romy, a woman in her late 20s serving two consecutive life terms, plus an additional six years, at a California women’s prison for murdering her stalker, whom she met at a seedy strip club where she worked as a dancer. In addition to charting Romy’s life as a newly incarcerated person, Kushner writes of her life before then—that she was neglected as a child, which led her to a world of drinking, stealing, and addiction as a teenager in San Francisco. Romy’s arrest and imprisonment are complicated by the fact that she has a young son, who is in the custody of her mother, who also battles addiction.

Yet Romy is a character who speaks with an unsentimental remove from her circumstances. It is not exactly weary dejection or bleak passivity but a frank knowing. There is a poignant moment early in the novel when Romy and several other women are being moved to the correctional facility on a bus and a woman slips to the floor. We come to learn that she has died: “The last passenger, she was moved off the vehicle in a stretcher, by medics who pronounced her dead and placed her on the floor of receiving with a tarp over her face.” Kushner is keen not to depict her protagonist as uniquely marginalized or exclusively extraordinary. Instead, we see Romy as part of a larger landscape of women who have seemingly been discarded, left on their own to live in the darker corners of society—or, worse, to die.

In this way, The Mars Room is capacious in its perspective, and we encounter a multitude of voices. We are situated not only inside the prison with Romy but also outside it through a few characters, namely Gordon Hauser, who is Romy’s GED instructor, and Doc Richards, a corrupt cop who shows us the streets of Los Angeles. This multiplicity neither distorts nor exaggerates the realities of these women but shows us a network affected by incarceration. For a novel about prison, this variety offers much movement and liberty, which is a testament to Kushner’s literary prowess.

As you continue to read Kushner’s novel, I invite you to join your fellow California Book Club members in the Alta Clubhouse for an ongoing conversation about The Mars Room:


cdcr bus


In preparation for our upcoming CBC gathering, consider this close reading of the opening scene of The Mars Room. Alta

prison books


Have you been enjoying The Mars Room? Here are five titles that pair well with the novel. Alta

new may book release


Check out our list of highly anticipated books coming out this month by writers from California and the West, including Marisa Silver’s The Mysteries; Jonathan Parks-Ramage’s debut novel, Yes, Daddy; and many more. Alta

the scapegoat, sara davis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux


In a review, Michael Schaub mulls over what makes Sara Davis’s The Scapegoat such a brilliant and bold debut novel. Alta

the hard crowd, rachel kushner
Scribner Book Company


Listen to a podcast interview with Rachel Kushner, in which she discusses The Hard Crowd, her decades-spanning collection of essays. KCRW

raymond chandler
Los Angeles Times


A rediscovered essay by Raymond Chandler arguably reveals a “more personal and lighthearted” side of the writer. Los Angeles Times

ashley c ford
Sylvie Rosokoff


“I think my book fits in the places where I’m always trying to write, the gray areas, areas that people don’t talk about,” Ashley C. Ford says about writing of incarceration and unconditional love. Publishers Weekly

john steinbeck
Literary Hub


In 1938, John Steinbeck received a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for the play adaptation of his novel Of Mice and Men. His reaction to the award is considered rather unconventional. Literary Hub

california book club bookplates

Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.


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