What do we do with people who break laws? If they’re in America, they’re thrown into prison where they are dehumanized. The stigma of the their crime and their prison sentence will follow them for the rest of their lives. In The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner, we follow Romy Hall and a series of characters peripheral to her years in prison after murdering a man. Even though we see both sides of Romy’s story—and those of the other characters—we never lose site of the fact that these characters have committed serious crimes.
We meet Romy on the bus that is transferring her from county jail to Stanville Prison, where she will serve two life sentences for murder. She killed the abusive man who was stalking her. The facts that she beat him to death with a tire iron, she worked as a stripper, and that she had an overworked, unsympathetic public defender lead to her harsh sentence. Her crime also means that she’s left her young son on the outside. Unless someone brings him to visit. She will never see him again. We might be able to sympathize with Romy, but her fellow prisoners are another story. She is incarcerated with people who committed thrill murders, armed robberies, a child murderer, and women who ordered hits on people.
No one is innocent in Stanville. And yet, it’s hard not to feel for at least some of the women in the prison as they are penned in literally and figuratively by all of the rules that circumscribe their existence. It’s no wonder that people call prison graduate school for criminals. The women spend pretty much all their time trying to find ways around the rules to get a little comfort, share news, or secure a bit of safety. This on top of their miserable, poverty stricken lives means that these women are mostly doomed to a Hobbesian existence: nasty, brutish, and short.
Readers can’t help but judge these women. Even though they’ve already been before a judge and jury, The Mars Room seems to beg us to come up with our own verdicts. Knowing Romy’s backstory, from her childhood with an alcoholic, kept woman mother to her years as an addict to her memories of her son and her miserable trial, might make some readers want to give her a lighter sentence. But, as the guards constantly remind her (and us), she killed a man. Her choices ruined her life. What are we do to with people who commit violent crimes? The only answer The Mars Room gives is, “Not this.”
The Mars Room is a hard read. But I found it rewarding as it has given me so much food for thought. It’s a messy novel, appropriately enough, and I enjoyed following the sprawling connections between Romy and the rest of the characters. That said, it was hard to see what is being done across the country in the name of keeping the public safe and making criminals pay “their debt to society.” The Mars Room treads the delicate line between being preachy and entertaining. I hope this book is read widely.