Rachel Kushner and The Mars Room

The American writer Rachel Kushner was born in Eugene, Oregon in 1968. She was the daughter of two scientists, got a “job” sorting books at a Feminist book store when she was 5, and entered UC Berkeley as a Freshman at age 16. She got her MFA at Columbia. She is the author of three novels: Telex from Cuba (2008), an examination of pre-Revolution Cuba; The Flamethrowers (2013), a panoramic depiction of the 1970s New York art scene; and The Mars Room (2018), a fugue of a novel that paints a picture of the despairing lives trapped in down-and-out San Francisco and the California penitentiary system.

Like many contemporary writers, Kushner’s work is socially conscious. She is more morally ambiguous and frank about the complexities of social problems than many other writers, but, at the same time she is – obliquely – more furious, probably because she’s usually the most knowledgable person on the subject. She also walks the walk – Kushner advocates for incarcerated people, has taught classes in correctional facilities, and deeply researched America’s incarceration system, covertly touring prisons as a pretend correctional student. The Mars Room, shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, was the result of Kushner’s research and advocacy. And while Kushner herself might have a clinical mind guarding her caring heart when it comes to her subject matter, the voices of her characters show no restraint – they are desperate, gone from cold survival in their outside lives to eternal, calculating minutes in prison.   

Kushner has repeatedly named Don Delillo as a major influence in her writing, but her style is much less starchy, and her characters leap off the page. While many contemporary writers depicting the present (or relative present ) tend to either crowd their fiction with disposable ephemera or place their stories in timeless settings that feel modern, Kushner however takes a slice of California between 2003 and 2008, and completely envelops it in an impervious amber of language. The Mars Room’s reality feels as interminable as its characters’ prison sentences, and its moral questions equally intractable.

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