When should you read this book? On a road trip through the states, driving past strip malls, gargantuan billboards and barbed wire fences.
This is America
The Mars Room is the name of the strip club where our narrator, Romy, works. That is, before she commits a crime that sees her landed in Stanville women’s prison and separated from her young son, Jackson.
Romy is serving two consecutive life sentences and is trying to come to terms with that idea. In prison, she has time to reflect on the life she led before prison, and what landed her there, as well as the friends she made along the way and where they’ve ended up.
Along the way she develops relationships with her fellow prisoners, learns about their lives on the outside, and tries to manufacture a friendship with the prison teacher, in the hope he can help her contact her son.
Crime and punishment
Observe this magnificent quote from the author herself, talking to the New Yorker:
For the liberal, the criminal is remade to seem relatively innocent, so that the liberal can feel “empathy.” I don’t concern myself with innocence and guilt, or that kind of empathy, where the person with whom one empathizes must be seen as being like oneself, as sharing one’s values. This way of regarding the individual acts of others seems to exclude the larger truth of the organization of society: that some very poor people are destined to commit crimes.
The only guilt really established in an unambiguous manner in The Mars Room is that of the state and an unequal society.
There is such a sense of inevitability in Romy and in all the prisoners that their crimes were committed because of circumstance, and that circumstance is largely dictated by their poverty.
Romy’s friends in the outside world, like the charismatic Eva, succumb eventually to drug use and sex work to scrape a living. As a teenager, Romy is attracted to tough girls who can defend themselves. Her prison companions are damaged in various ways, some having committed crimes when (it is suggested) they were really too young to understand what they were doing.
It also avoids philosophising on the guilt or innocence of individual prisoners, nor does it seek to redeem any of them. This is not a novel about anyone’s journey of self-discovery. Rather, it’s a bleak portrait of a system in crisis.
Most of the novel is told in Romy’s voice, but there are a few chapters which focus on other people. A number of chapters are dedicated to Gordon Hauser, the prison teacher, who is an outsider by being free, and who has moved to Stanville off the back of developing too close a relationship with an inmate at his previous job.
Then there’s Doc, a bent policeman tangentially involved in the story of another inmate, Betty LaFrance, who is on death row for organising a murder which Doc carried out. Doc is as cynical as they come and is incarcerated with other ‘snitches’ and child molesters because he would be in danger in ‘general population’.
Finally, there are random scatterings of diary entries. When I read the book I was utterly clueless as to the relevance of these disturbing miniature chapters, which seem to have nothing to do with the main story.
They tell of the unnamed narrator’s attempts to kill or maim strangers, and I supposed that they were a juxtaposition of the truly criminally-minded, but free, person against the incarcerated criminals of Romy’s ilk, who are in prison not because of some pathology but due to circumstance, at least in part.
On reading up on The Mars Room a bit further it turns out that they are excerpts from the diaries of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Gordon Hauser (the teacher) likes to read his journals, but the entries are interspersed without any clear link.
It’s a novel that isn’t the easiest to make sense of. In the absence of better theories I’m sticking to my original interpretation of the inclusion of the random disturbing diary entries, but can’t escape the feeling there’s something further there that went over my head. Further readings and analysis would be hugely interesting, as the interpretation here is wide open.
The Man Booker
The Mars Room is on the longlist for the Man Booker this year. The shortlist isn’t announced til mid-September but this book is complex, convincing and bleak enough to go the distance. I’m expecting to see it in the shortlist at least – it may even be a good contender for the gong.
Next up: ‘Everything Under’ by Daisy Johnson