Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room—which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its May 20 gathering—begins and ends with seemingly quiet departures. The opening of the novel takes us into Stanville prison, where the protagonist, 29-year-old Romy Leslie Hall, must serve two consecutive life sentences, plus an additional six years, for murdering her stalker, who frequented the strip club where she worked as a dancer, and the end of the novel follows Romy’s escape from the correctional facility after she has exhausted all of her options to protect her young son, Jackson, who’s become a ward of the state after the death of Romy’s mother, his caretaker.
It feels somewhat apt to argue that everything in the novel leads unsurprisingly to the story’s end. It is neither a tidy denouement nor an unbelievable resolution. We must remember: before her imprisonment, Romy had grown up in the Sunset district of San Francisco with her divorced mother, who was addicted to painkillers. She was sexually assaulted at the age of 11 and later became addicted to drugs as a teenager and did sex work as an adult. In other words, Romy lived a difficult and complicated life, one in which she had to make do and find a way to survive.
While Romy is in prison, she meets Gordon Hauser, a GED instructor and graduate school dropout who is mildly attracted to her and develops a keen interest in her education. Romy comes to the conclusion that Hauser might be the answer to guaranteeing her son’s well-being, but she is sorely mistaken and soon after breaks out of Stanville while the guards are quelling a riot. She manages to make her way to a wooded mountain but is eventually discovered by the authorities, all while thinking about her son—what she has done for him and his opaque future.
This ending is effective, tragically so—it is rounded in its shape, cohesive in that it bridges and echoes all the narrative elements we’ve encountered thus far. The Mars Room is an ambitious and sprawling novel, one that takes us into the orbits of those whose actions and misfortune landed them in prison. The end of the novel, then, carries this weight of injustice (to be clear: not regarding the crimes committed per se, but rather the circumstances and environment that make committing crime necessary for survival—for Romy in particular), the complexities and jagged edges of moral judgment, and the demand for visibility—that we must learn about lives society often encourages us to ignore, that we must consider their interior and emotional landscape. Indeed, The Mars Room certainly leaves us wistful for a different outcome or a different life that could’ve been available for Romy, but Romy’s tenacity feels admirable and even necessary. And that, among many things, just might be the point.