Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Mars Room: a very short review

About a year and a half ago, I read Rachel Kushner's first book, Telex from Cuba. It definitely left me wanting me to read more of her work, so this summer I picked up The Mars Room.

It so happened that I picked it up at Powell's in Portland, browsing through the aisles with my mother. She looked at my selection, and made no comment, until I persevered, at which point she said, "she's not exactly my cup of tea."

Actually, I'm not sure that Kushner is anyone's cup of tea.

And I don't think she wants to be.

Kushner is that sort of writer who looks you in the eye and tells you that, yes, that shirt actually doesn't fit you. And it's not your color, either. She's a brutally honest ripper-off-of-the-bandage, let's-get-on-with-it sort, given to setting forth the truth and perhaps even rubbing your nose in it as well. The women in her books run away from home, disobey orders, ride motorcycles, get tattoos, dance in cabarets.

And go to prison.

The Mars Room tells the story of Romy Hall, on her way to a Woman's Prison in the Central Valley of California. Initially, we follow the story from Romy's perspective, both in real time as she arrives at prison, as well as in flashbacks of her earlier life, leading up to this point, revealing why she is here.

Over time, we meet other people in Romy's life, and we start to learn about their stories too; not in as much depth, but more and more as the book goes on.

Some of these shifts in perspectives provide balance and structure, via different points of view.

Other times, they provide sheer horror, as when we are suddenly plunged into the head of the sexual predator at the core of Romy's story; this part of the book is particularly powerful stuff, ghastly and terrible.

As befits a book with such subject matter, this is no elegant novel filled with figurative and romantic prose. Rather, Kushner deploys a blunt style. This is the sort of book that sits across the table from you, slapping you in the face:

I said everything was fine but nothing was. The life was being sucked out of me. The problem was not moral. It was nothing to do with morality. These men dimmed my glow. Made me numb to touch, and angry. I gave, and got something in exchange, but it was never enough.

Nothing ... sucked ... not ... nothing ... dimmed ... numb ... angry ... never.

Slap. Slap. Slap. You can hear it. You can feel it.

Kushner is well aware that she is telling a tale about people whose tales you never hear:

Who were those people, [...] and where did they go? A lot of history is not known. A lot of worlds have existed that you can't look up online or in any book, even as you think you have the freedom to find things out that I cannot, since I don't have access to the internet. [...] you'll find nothing, no trace, but they existed.

And if someone did remember them, someone besides me, that person's account would make them less real, because my memory of them would have to be corrected by facts, which are never considerate of what makes an impression, what stays in the mind after all these years, the very real images that grip me from the erased past and won't let go.

This is the power of great fiction, isn't it, to be free from needing to be "corrected by facts," so that it can tell the real story:

All the talk of regret. They make you form your life around one thing, the thing you did, and you have to grow yourself from what cannot be undone: they want you to make something from nothing. They make you hate them and yourself. They make it seem that they are the world, and you've betrayed it, them, but the world is so much bigger.

The lie of regret and of life gone off the rails. What rails. The life is the rails. It is its own rails and it goes where it goes. It cuts its own path. My path took me here.

"The world is so much bigger," indeed. And full of "history [that] is not known."

Kushner is still young, and I suspect she'll write many more books. And I suspect I'll read many of them.

What part of that bigger world will she take us to next?

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