The Shape of Prison in ‘The Mars Room’

The role of Ted Ked Kaczynski's disturbing diary entries in Rachel Kushner’s novel.

ted kaczynski, unabomber
Stephen J. Dubner

There are several short chapters in Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room—which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its May 20 gathering—that might give you pause. A few of them are lists of instructions and rules that all incarcerated people in Stanville—the women’s correctional facility where the novel’s protagonist, Romy Leslie Hall, has been sent to serve two consecutive life sentences for murder—must abide by (“No orange clothing,” “No clothing in any shade of blue,” “No white clothing,” etc.). And then there are passages that appear in a different typeface, ones that chart the surrounding environs and nefarious plans of an unnamed speaker. These entries typically follow chapters oriented primarily on Gordon Hauser, a graduate school dropout and Romy’s GED instructor.

We come to learn that these disturbing passages are from the diary entries of Ted Kaczynski (commonly known as the Unabomber), a former assistant mathematics professor who became a recluse in Montana and, later, a domestic terrorist. In the novel, after a friend gives Hauser Kaczynski’s journals as a kind of joke, he becomes fascinated by them, and they contrast quite dramatically with the content of the rest of the novel.

At first, reading these chapters is a bit disorienting. But the thematic coherence becomes readily apparent: after all, Hauser, much like Kaczynski had, soon retreats into the fringes of society and isolates himself from the greater world. However, their differences are notable: while Kaczynski resigned himself to murder and terrorism in his attempt to solve the world’s ills and protect the environment, Hauser believes change is possible from within the system (though he also seems to become rather disillusioned by this belief). The Mars Room does not position Kaczynski as a point of utter fixation for Hauser, but his passages seem to hover above the central narrative of the novel, adding texture to the outside landscape of Stanville, which appears marred and marked by the prison.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that the connections (however loose) between Hauser and Kaczynski are decidedly intentional and up to great interpretation. To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Kushner about her narrative flourishes on May 20, click here.

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