Sympathy and Pessimism in ‘The Mars Room’

How Rachel Kushner conveys the realities of incarcerated people.

the mars room, rachel kushner
DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS

Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room—which Alta’s California Book Club will discuss at its May 20 gathering—is a darkly comic and devastating novel. For one, the protagonist, Romy Leslie Hall, is a 29-year-old woman serving two consecutive life sentences and an additional six years for murdering her stalker. Romy has lived a tough life: she was sexually assaulted at the age of 11 and had no choice but to navigate the fringes of San Francisco. At the time of her incarceration, we learn that she has a young son, who has been left in the care of her mother, who later dies, leaving him a ward of the state.

Though these details alone are heartbreaking, what makes The Mars Room even more poignant and tragic is that there are many other women—perhaps the majority of incarcerated women—who have similar narratives of early abuse and trauma or who grew up in conditions wherein their safety and well-being were not guaranteed and, thus, had to survive by any means possible, even if their actions had detrimental and brutal consequences.

Kushner’s success in The Mars Room (assuming we should call it a success) is that she maps the lives of the women with unflinching clarity, though often at a harrowing (albeit intentional) distance. It is the clarity that garners a sense of sympathy (however tenuous) and the remove that produces a kind of pessimism about the novel’s thesis—that the prison industrial complex hardly addresses the root of society’s problems, that the most vulnerable and abused people often face the harshest penalties.

Sympathy might be inadequate to describe what Kushner wants readers to get out of the narrative (to become a witness? to offer intelligibility to that which is obscured?) precisely because, in many ways, The Mars Room asks us what sympathy can do and what it means to use our judgment to assess other people. The criminal justice system certainly does not hold much sympathy for perpetrators of crime—for those who themselves might be victims of another’s crime and abuse. Consider, for example, the moment in which Romy is in court and her public defender is unable to convey the context of her crime, which ultimately leads to her harsh sentencing.

The question of judgment and who is worthy of sympathy saturates the novel up until its very last pages. Ultimately, The Mars Room invites us to consider whether compassion and imagination are enough to move us—literally and figuratively.

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

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