Top critical review
If you can't do the time...
27 August 2018
Occasionally there is an American novel that features neither their president nor a prison. This is not one of those novels.
Romy Hall is a stripper sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for murdering one of her clients. Most of the novel offers her perspective on life in the Californian prison system. This is done with competence, although there is nothing earth-shatteringly new. There are cinder blocks, chains and bunk beds. The women do mechanical jobs, they hang around the yard, they eat slop and get on each others' nerves. They communicate with neighbours by shouting down toilets or through inconveniently set grilles in locked doors. There's the obligatory film crew, death row, butches, fems, visits, phone restrictions...
Then, occasionally, Romy shows us her past life as a stripper and a mother to Jackson. It isn't clear whether she is supposed to be a sympathetic character but she comes across as spoilt, resentful and manipulative. And there are sections that focus on Gordon Hauser, a prison educator who is naive beyond words - the only question is which woman will be his downfall and how many people will get hurt alone the way. Oh, and there are some sadistic diary excerpts [supposedly] written by Ted Kaczynski. This shifting in perspective is occasional enough to be disconcerting - it is still Romy's book.
The characters are not complex. Conan is a butch - probably intersex - always referred to by masculine pronouns. Norse is a white aryan bigot. Buttons is the same, but hispanic. Laura Lipp is a delusional over-sharer. Doc is a male former cop who is in the wrong novel. But mercifully, Romy is not some sweet innocent doing time to protect some greater good. So in this sense, the lack of complexity is probably fairly authentic.
But also authentic is the lack of excitement. Prison is apparently quite boring, which does make one wonder why so many books and films choose prisons for their setting. It is a routine and formulaic life which makes for some less than riveting narrative. It's not bad; any given section seems well written and engaging, but it just doesn't add up to anything that really hangs together. It's not clear what point Rachel Kushner was trying to make.
The Mars Room is a bit generic. As prison novels go, it is quite competent. It's not doing anyone any harm. But neither will it change your life.