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Rachel Kushner’s Prison Novel


At the Bookforum website, Sasha Frere–Jones reviews Rachel Kushner’s new novel The Mars Room, about a women who is imprisoned after killing her stalker and receiving two consecutive life sentences for it. Frere–Jones notes that while Kushner’s two previous novel were fast-paced, globe-spanning tales, The Mars Room slows down to focus on the cramped spaces and quiet realizations of prison existence. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

This is how The Mars Room finds the universal without a backdrop of big social eruptions. Good People do not encounter difficult situations and earn Valuable Wisdom. The telos here is not moments of epiphany and improvement but a kind of spiritual pragmatism that plays the same inside and out. Everyone needs to hear “Shut the Fuck Up” clearly, at least once.

Stripped of world historical forces and their halo, the novel has to focus on the tighter circles of family and work. The companies here are the strip club and Stanville. In the previous novels, men in uniform come from elsewhere, but in The Mars Room, the dipshits of control are in the same building as the protagonists: prison guards too lazy to move from their towers, bouncers too callous to get the story straight. (In a book long on empathy and short on scorn, the only subset to really get the boot from Kushner is men who are paid to sit.) The emotional compression of family is mimicked by both workplaces, neither of them normative (unless making sandbags for the state is normative, which it probably is). The slow torque of the book embodies the limited range of the imprisoned being multiplied by the infinity of a life sentence. The Mars Room uses a handful of years behind bars as the fixed hub of the present, and Romy’s memories become the spokes.

Image of Rachel Kushner via Vulture.