Wednesday, October 28, 2020

THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner

In one of my favorite literary quotes, Randall Jarrell defines the novel as "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it." Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room is Jarrell's kind of novel, a good book with a host of flaws. First the flaws. Too much of The Mars Room seems obligatory, cliched, scripted by popular culture. There has to be a prison break in the novel, for example, not because Romy's escape is at all credible but because that's the expected climax of a prison story. There has to be a tough Latina, an outrageous intersexual, etc. not because they add anything to the novel but because that's how our culture imagines women's prisons post-Orange is the New Black. Elsewhere, the entire Richard "Doc" Richards storyline could've been excised by a more stringent editor, and the book would've lost nothing except a character who wandered into Kushner's imagination from the world of James Ellroy. Likewise, Romy's victim Kurt Kennedy seems to have been lifted from a Robert Stone novel. In fact, the entire novel seems to steer too close to Stone, as Kushner's earlier The Flamethrowers foundered on the rocks of DeLillo. (I'm the rare Kushner reader who considers Flamethrowers the weakest of her three novels and Telex From Cuba probably the least flawed.)

So what's so good about The Mars Room? A pathway into the novel's profoundest insight can be found in its ending, which I initially rejected as a failed attempt at epiphany that collapses into the hoariest Romantic nature cliches. Further consideration, however, led me to revise this opinion. The ending's nature epiphany and Romy's ambiguous capture (or killing) actually succeed as an encapsulation of the Kunderan "secret the novel asks about" (quoting from my favorite passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Kushner's deepest theme is something we might call "the prison in the garden": the transformation of America, in its citizens' imaginations, from a land of Romantic promise to a carceral state. No, that ending isn't flawed at all; it's Kushner's ticket to the Great American Novel sweepstakes, her book's major statement about the way we live now.

Another plus is Kushner's prose. Like much well-reviewed contemporary litfic, The Mars Room impresses me most at the level of sentence, paragraph, voice. Kushner arc welds some marvelous metaphors, ably ventriloquizes a diverse set of characters, and can orchestrate a paragraph of free, indirect narration into a soliloquy that ironically reveals a character's ultimately fatal narcissism. (I'm thinking specifically of the long paragraph on pages 304-305 of the hardcover, in which Kurt Kennedy thinks around his visit to Cancun and his obsession with Romy/Vanessa.)

But even with these important positives, the book still feels rather 'thin,' a minor novel trying desperately to be major. Given that I had the same thought about Jesmyn Ward's two recent National Book Award winners, this probably points to a larger problem in our culture--about which, see the parenthetical last paragraph of my post on Jesmyn Ward, below.

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