The Mars Room
  • March 22, 2019


  • Rachel Kushner

    1The Mars Room
    2There There

    Tommy Orange

  • Judged by

    Myriam Gurba

There There

It was lunchtime in California and Beatriz, Beatriz, and I snuck into our empty fourth-grade classroom. Kneeling at Mr. Reyes’s upholstered chair, we poked, arranged, and threaded. After admiring our improvised handiwork, we crept back outside. Recess ended. My classmates and I returned, sat, and waited.

Myriam Gurba is the author of Mean (Coffee House 2017). She has toured North America several times with the literary cabaret Sister Spit, and her “multi-media” artwork has been exhibited in galleries and museums. She teaches economics and civics to high school seniors. She loves money. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

Mr. Reyes strutted to the chalk ledge. He snatched James and the Giant Peach off of it. The former Marine opened the novel to a dog-eared page and stretched. He let his Chicano weight collapse onto the 20 needles we’d jammed into his seat. To escape the stabbing, he sailed pelvis first across our classroom, hollering in a way I’d never heard. He sounded like less of a man.

I felt horrified, slightly regretful, and proud. Why was there pleasure in what I’d done? When would I get to do it again?

Reading Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room triggered a similar cocktail of emotions for me, and I sat up straight as I got caught up in the voice of Romy Hall. Romy is a white chick en route to Stanville, a made-up correctional facility, and while riding the bus she muses about her adolescence, giving terse, tough internal monologue. “I was sad,” she begins, and then, to my delight, adds, “even as I stuck a pin in [the girl’s] ass as she got off the 6 Parnassus [bus] after school. Stood by the back doors, and as she exited I jabbed her, right through her pants. Everyone did that. We stole the pins from home economics. It was normal…”

Romy isn’t going to prison for stabbing girls in the butt, just like I didn’t go to prison for assaulting my fourth-grade teacher, but I did get the sense that this fictional white girl is one of “my people.” Some of the women I most love are parolees and ex-cons, and their biographies are proof that girlhood in California is both sunshine and noir. California girlhoods often include swimming pools, tight overalls, and backyard bong rips. They also include violence. Girlhood, and womanhood, everywhere does. It's a systemic requirement.

Scenes like the one on the 6 Parnassus render places familiar to my senses as well as my sensibilities, and The Mars Room’s California rings both matter-of-factly and poetically true. In sum, with this book, Kushner takes her place among the canon of writers, from Joan Didion to Walter Mosley, serving as literary ambassadors of this state and the kaleidoscope of fucked-up states within.

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $5 and Field Notes will donate 100% of the proceeds to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

Staring at Tommy Orange’s There There, I wondered if it would take me to California, too. It did. Like The Mars Room, There There is regional, a work in which California, and America, is evoked as villain, hero, antihero, and black hole. While There There also has noir elements, it’s structured hella differently and I feel comfortable describing it is as such. “Hella” is central to Bay Area vocabulary and most of There There takes place there. Its momentum relies on multiple narrators and perspectives, it’s extremely polyphonic, and one of its voices belongs to Dene Oxendene, an aspiring documentarian and enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes.

It’s Dene who makes the allusion to the self-professed genius from whom the novel gets its title. Dene’s friend Rob asks him, “You know what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland?” Rob annoyingly answers his own question by quoting Stein: “There is no there there.” Rob’s smile and whispery voice make Dene want to punch Rob right there, in his mouth, and Dene wants to shut him down, to explain that duh, he knows the quote’s origins: It comes from Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography.

More than a book about the Bay or even California, the there that isn’t there that Orange writes around is America. Yes, Orange writes around, not through, and Stein shared this American literary concern and conceit. She explored it in The Making of Americans, her metafictional novel, which runs nearly a thousand pages long. While delivering a lecture on the making of The Making of Americans, Stein said, “…as I tell it will sound historical, it really is not historical as I still very much remember it. That is I can remember it. And if you can remember, it may be history but it is not historical.”

There is no there there, therefore, there is no history there.

And yet Orange attempts to create one. His attempt is apparent in the novel’s prologue. Frankly, this part of Orange’s book left me dazzled, breathless, and anxious. It’s written with macho elegance, in a manner I’m familiar with (see Junot Díaz’s prologue to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) and that also tends to leave me with a literary boner. I wanted to keep this boner, and it was fluffed into existence by an omniscient narrator with an apparent taste for historiography. This omniscience operates masterfully without being too dickish and the prologue section titled “Indian Head” references one of my favorite ghoulish legends, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta. As a little Chicanx kid, this story gave me the creeps and at night, I’d curl my toes in bed, fantasizing about whether or not Joaquín’s head floated in its jar with its eyes opened or closed. I also wondered did his head have long eyelashes like mine? Also: Were we related? Lol.

Alas, this prologue is all the there that is there. The rest of the novel wobbles under the weight of too many narrators and perspectives and it especially wobbles under the weight of its youthful narrators. I teach high school so one of the languages I speak is Young Adult and when I encounter forced Young Adult, it chafes. This was the case with all the young adult narrators attempting to move the plot toward a San Francisco Powwow. I hear young people talk all day long and so when I hear an inauthentic young person’s voice, I simply can’t buy in. That’s all. I longed for that masterful voice at the beginning to come back and hold me. I pined for it.

Kushner’s Romy not only held me: She shook, jolted, stomped on me, and pulled my hair a little. Metaphorically of course. I was really into it. Like I said, I love some women who have been to prison. And Romy captures so many of them. I kept writing the same things in the margins of the book. Over and over, I wrote “LOL” and “intelligent” and “yes.” It reminded me of my desire to get a tattoo that reads SHUT THE FUCK UP. It would look so much like my cousin’s. She’s been to prison. Her tattoo is above her heart. It reads: FUCK LOVE.


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Match Commentary

By Jessica Francis Kane & Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Pitchaya Sudbanthad: One of the good things about the Tournament of Books is that it compels me to read books I already should’ve read in the past year. These two had been on my to-read list for a while, and I was glad to finally get to them.

Jessica Francis Kane is the author of a novel and two story collections. Her second novel, Rules for Visiting, will be published by Penguin Press in May. (Preorder it here.)

Pitchaya Sudbanthad is the author of Bangkok Wakes to Rain, published by Riverhead (US) and Sceptre (UK).

Jessica Francis Kane: The Mars Room was on my list, but to be completely honest, I would have waited to read There There. I often have trouble reading a book that is getting so much attention. I like the noise to quiet down a bit before diving in. I like to love or hate a book on my own terms.

Pitchaya: I couldn’t help but imagine that if the childhood incident that Judge Gurba had recollected were to occur now, it’d be all over the internet. Oh, such simpler times we once lived in.

Jessica: In fourth grade the only thing I used pins for was marking a world map as I read my way around the world for various scholastic rewards. But I grew up in the Midwest, though I was born in Berkeley!

Pitchaya: So, Jessica Francis Kane, did you feel “a literary boner” getting “fluffed into existence,” as Judge Gurba puts it, by any of these books?

Jessica: Well, no, Pitchaya, I didn’t. (See: Midwestern childhood.) And you?

Pitchaya: I was, indeed, literarily fluffed. So we have two books here that explore different territories of the American Nightmare underlining more prevalent, rosier narratives. From the imperial entitlement that was Manifest Destiny to the current age of predacious technocracy, California illustrates both cause and culmination of America as we know it now. Even if you aren’t from California, there is no there there. California is near inescapable in movies and TV, the internet we tap on our screens, the canarial cataclysms in the news. It’s not surprising that two books set in California would make it thus far in the Tournament. Do you have any thoughts with regard to California as setting for the books, Jessica Francis Kane?

Jessica: I have asked my parents many times over the years what it was like to live in Berkeley in the early 1970s, but my dad was a post-doc at the university and my mom was busy with me. Then they moved to the Midwest when I was six months old. Basically, they did not buy into the California dream. My father, a New Englander by birth, said he missed thunderstorms.

Pitchaya: That’s good writing weather. And yet some other person would probably say that they’re glad to be without much rain in California. Here’s the thing: Writing about a specific place or group makes it practically inevitable that a writer will be met by counterviews of it. In her decision, Judge Gurba says that the voices of the younger characters in There There feel inauthentic, but I think there’s fallibility in a criteria being so rooted in her own experiences. I don’t doubt her ear, and yet her judgment affirms my longtime sentiment that proclamations of inauthenticity and authenticity can often feel like turf-marking when made by people with claims to a similar experience. When it comes to a cultural somewhere, I believe the personal there can only be one of a multitude of theres. (Full disclosure: I’ve never met Tommy Orange, but we’re represented by the same literary agent.)

Jessica: I liked Judge Gurba’s analysis of the opening of There There. I found it stunning, too. I have no special insight into young adult voices, but I did begin to find the narrators too similar as the book progressed, and by that I mean the rhythms of the sentences were all the same. I also had to flip back and forth a bit to remember the various storylines. Something I never had to do with your own wonderfully polyphonic novel, by the way, Pitchaya.

Pitchaya: Why, thank you, Jessica Francis Kane. I must give full credit to my editor for helping me avoid full-blown cacophony. Both novels here, I feel, are successful in their respective multitudinous voicing, but The Mars Room provides more stable architecture for readers to follow, slowly and methodically working toward the illumination of past history, even as it moves toward a character’s momentous action—while, to me, There There lurches more variably toward a convergence point. I found The Mars Room to be authoritatively consistent; Kushner is a wonderful stylist.

Jessica: Both of these novels are critically important for the lives they reveal: the plight of urban Native Americans and the tragedy of women caught in a cycle of poverty and violence. Choosing between them feels wrong, somehow, but that’s the beauty of the Tournament! The judges must choose, and I like Judge Gurba’s choice here. I think The Mars Room does more with its sentences.

Pitchaya: Sentences! There are many books with beautiful sentences I surmise to have been busily worked and reworked when there hadn’t been much else. Fortunately for us, these two books have lots of else. This round has the feel of a semifinal or championship. Had I been the judge, I’d have flipped a coin and let the universe decide. On to the next.

Kevin Guilfoile: Wait, Jessica and Pitchaya! One more piece of business. I was just digging through Zombie ballots in our underground lair, where it seems a fair share of reader care has been invested in There There. Enough, in any event, to undermine The Overstory. In this particular ToB, The Overstory you see, no longer speaks for the trees. If the Zombie Round were held today, My Sister, the Serial Killer and There There would be our rigor-mortis Hare and Tortoise.

So now we are on to the semifinals. Jessica and Pitchaya, you’ll be back here on Monday to discuss the results when Warlight meets The Dictionary of Animal Languages.


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