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The Mars Room

A Novel
Narrated by: Rachel Kushner
Length: 9 hrs and 41 mins
4 out of 5 stars (691 ratings)

Regular price: $18.89

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Publisher's Summary

Featuring original music by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon! 

From twice National Book Award-nominated Rachel Kushner, whose Flamethrowers was called "the best, most brazen, most interesting book of the year" (Kathryn Schulz, New York magazine), comes a spectacularly compelling, heart-stopping novel about a life gone off the rails in contemporary America. 

It's 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women's Correctional Facility, deep in California's Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision. 

Stunning and unsentimental, The Mars Room demonstrates new levels of mastery and depth in Kushner's work. It is audacious and tragic, propulsive and yet beautifully refined. As James Wood said in The New Yorker, her fiction "succeeds because it is so full of vibrantly different stories and histories, all of them particular, all of them brilliantly alive." 

©2018 Rachel Kushner (P)2018 Simon & Schuster

What members say

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Amazing novel !

From start to finish the novel is read like a stream of consciousness poetry reading at a hole in the wall nightclub. Kushner does such a great job of narration in this audible book, I’m worried I won’t be able to enjoy her other works, which are narrated by others. Given my own prior professional career I can say Kushner’s novel provides more insight into the mindset of those trapped in the modern day prison system than any book I’ve ever read. The amount of time she must have spent researching her novel is evident. So happy to have discovered such a talented writer and look forward to enjoying many more of her novels in the years to come.

13 of 13 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars

Too bleak for me; well-written

I have mixed feelings about this "immersive" novel. Kushner has done her research, sharing some vivid details about life inside the California women's prison system, life as a sex worker, doing drugs and mostly living on the streets at a tender age. She shares those vivid details in the straightforward, unsentimental voice of her main character, Romy Hall, sentenced to two life sentences for killing her stalker. Kushner makes Romy's voice strong and sure, with no self-pity, and a fatalism that breaks the reader's heart from time to time. There are richly painted portraits of the other inmates and their feisty - or sad - ways. When one teenager gives birth in prison intake, the way she and her child are treated stain the United States with shame.

There are a couple of devices Kushner uses that don't work so well. One character has an obsession with the UniBomber, so excerpts from his diary appear. It breaks up the narrative, but for no good reason. Toward the end of the book, the murder victim tells his side of the story, but we have no attachment to him, and the placement is awkward.

My biggest challenge was that I almost gave up on the novel, it was so bleak. Being born poor, to a drug addict in the most expensive city in the U.S. is indeed bleak, so what was I thinking? I stuck with it because once inside the prison, the other characters and their life forces balanced the bleak portrayals of a rain-drenched, hungry childhood. But the Guardian got it right when it said: "This may not be an enjoyable novel, but it marks you like a tattoo." I'm just not sure I wanted to be marked.

Kushner herself narrates, and her tone and voice are pitch-perfect for Romy, who doesn't expect much from the world. The production would have been improved if there had been men reading the male voices.

9 of 9 people found this review helpful

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Painfully beautiful story well delivered

I am wary of novels read by the author because not all gifted writers are also gifted orators. This was a layered and sparkling story with narration that was interesting and convincing.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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I can't think of any way this book could have been

As a great admirer of Kushner's previous novels I was expecting to love this and I did. Unflinching, unvarnished - like being inside the characters heads. A superb achievement. She did a wonderful job with the narration as well.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Enters your brain - one time listen

This gripped me from the beginning. I could not stop listening. Unlike “You” and “Hidden bodies”, I felt no sympathy for the characters . I wanted too, but this is hardcore and I hope it will end up as a show because the “cool” chicks in “Orange is the new black” world not make it here a day.

Get ready to listen in one-sitting.

13 of 15 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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A Bleak Tale Done the Right Way

The Mars Room is a tale of hopelessness and despair. It is said that Kushner researched the California women's prison system for years while writing this novel, and her efforts are evident in the grim details of this tale of despair. The story provides a look into the lives of those who start out at a disadvantage from birth. It is a story about bad choices, about not having the mental capacity to avoid bad choices, and, ultimately, the result of bad choices. The Mars Room is well written and narrated by the author herself, and Kushner's style and voice is perfect for our doomed female stripper/prisoner/protagonist. This was my first read/listen from the Booker Long List this year.

Overall rating 4.29 stars

8 of 9 people found this review helpful

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  • Joe Kraus
  • Kingston, PA, United States
  • 03-10-19

An Unblinking, Postmodern Take on Loneliness

There are a lot of ways into this powerful novel, but, as I got toward the end, it occurred to me that it’s most insistently about the nature of loneliness.

That’s a bigger claim than it seems, since this novel is so clearly about other things as well. For one, it’s about the way women suffer in the penal system, how the poor and unfortunate can lose everything because they don’t know how to defend themselves. Here, for instance, Romy might not have gone to jail at all, or might have gone for something dramatically less than two life sentences-plus, if she’d had an attorney able to demonstrate that she’d been the victim of sustained and disturbing sexual stalking.

It also reflects one kind of post-modernist school. A quick search tells me she understands herself as inspired by Don DeLillo (a fine inspiration to select, I’d say) and there’s evidence here of someone who acknowledges the difficulty (impossibility?) of rendering characters in all their dimensionality yet who attempts it all the same. This is a novel of ideas, but it’s simultaneously a story of characters, above all Romy, who recognize the extent to which their denied the full experience of life. One reflection of that is the impressive way Kushner de-eroticizes the business of sex. There are graphic parts here – Romy is a stripper, after all – but we get them as transactional experiences.

And this is also a powerfully feminist novel, one where the experience of women matters in and for itself, independent of men or even masculinity. Yes, most of this is set in a women’s prison, but it’s deeper than that. Romy defines herself on her own terms, on the basis of her own desires and choices. She’s not concerned with what others think or even what they might think. She is entirely of herself, and she shows a refreshing self-awareness throughout.

But I’m struck by the nature of loneliness here because I think part of what Kushner is expressing – depressingly – is that the human condition makes true connection much harder than we can imagine. In what may be my favorite quote in a novel full of rich language and insight, Romy describes her first time shooting up heroin as, “an experience exactly the way a young girl dreams love can be.” The idea is all there in that moment. Romy falls “in love,” but it isn’t with anyone. It’s self-absorbed and detached.

We see this at the level of the story itself. I hope it isn’t much of a [SPOILER] to report that Romy loses everyone she cares even remotely about. The novel opens with her stuck on a bus taking her to the maximum-security prison where she’ll spend the rest of her life, and it follows her through life inside, the eventual death of her mother, the loss of her son as he’s adopted away from her, and through to her brief pointless escape. No one gets in. No one matters. The man she’s killed thinks of her by her stage name as he stalks her; she thinks of him as “Creep” Kennedy. Each casts the other as a character in a private experience, transparently so.

We see it as well at a macro level. I’ve been struck by a species of contemporary novel, informed by postmodernism, that I describe as the “rhizomatic” novel. I think of Colum McCann in particular, but it includes Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Joan Silber’s Fools among others. The striking feature of those novels is that we see a fragmented story that, from a novelist’s eye view if none of the characters’, connects disparate characters in an interconnected web.

In this case, though, Kushner does the opposite. For all that her characters overlap in their encounters, they affect each other only incidentally and without enduring influence. The close of the novel, for instance, brings her heartbreaking realization that, with her recapture, she’ll never get to know her son’s experience. “He is on his path as I am on mine,” she says, and that truth extends in other directions. She learns only very late that her best friend, Eva, has died, and she learns that from Eva’s father who confesses to having been so estranged from his daughter that he didn’t know of the death for years himself. Our second most significant character, Gordon, a would-be English professor who teaches in the prison for a time, agrees to mail a letter from a woman he thinks is crazy; he never knows that it results in the near murder of another character, and he never has cause to reflect on what he might have learned from his throw-away favor for someone. And the Unabomber makes an appearance, writing his manifesto against technology – and against the possibility of human connection – at the same time but isolated and removed from everyone else.

That is, there is something that might look like a vast web connection these characters, but it tears the moment we put any weight on it. None of these characters ultimately influence the others. They’re in dark situations that overlap, but even darker is the sense that we can never come to know them since they can never get beyond the narrow limits of their own experience. It’s a grim picture of a lonely world.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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  • cr
  • CA, USA
  • 12-05-18

Lackluster performance of a disjointed story

I really struggled through this one. The narration is monotone and the story is disjointed and never fully comes together. I don't think it deserves all the accolades it is getting. Over hyped in my opinion.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Sad

I did not have any problem with the author narrating her own book. I did not have any difficulty distinguishing between characters or points of view. I do not regret listening to this book. It was dark and sad, but there are a lot of dark and sad stories that exist in our world. The criminal justice system is very flawed. I just wish there were something that I as an individual could do to help people, to help change the system. The story is dark but so lyrical in places. I feel rather guilty that I will be leaving these people behind to engross myself in lighter reading for my next book, just as we forget the people behind bars.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Great! Especially if you’re from Sf!

This book creates a comprehensive look into the circumstances that lead people to prison. It also gives a beautiful description of San Francisco from the late 80’s and early 90’s in the sunset district. As a native of that area I loved it! It is written wonderfully and have not been so captivated by a novel since I was in high school.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful