“Immersed in Beauty and Barred from Seeing It”: San Francisco, Gentrification, and Incarceration in Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room


  • Aaron Obedkoff Concordia University


Gentrification, incarceration, prison abolition, contemporary fiction, American literature.


This paper analyzes Rachel Kushner’s 2018 novel, The Mars Room, in relation to the work of critical geographers including Neil Smith and Ruth Wilson Gilmore in order to trace a connection between processes of urban gentrification and mass incarceration in an American context. Kushner’s novel follows Romy, a former exotic dancer and sex worker who is serving a life sentence after murdering an abusive client. The novel cycles between two distinct timeframes and details Romy’s experience in–and eventual temporary escape from–the fictional Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, as well as the events leading up to her incarceration. Kushner dedicates particular focus in these flashback scenes to the rapid gentrification of San Francisco beginning in the early 1990s and the resultant precarity of Romy’s life in the increasingly expensive city. By drawing a distinct relationship between the hostile socio-economic conditions of San Francisco and Romy’s decision to begin taking clients, Kushner equally gestures towards the interrelation between the processes of gentrification and incarceration which is exacerbated by the retrenchment of the social welfare state. This paper seeks to demonstrate how The Mars Room accurately depicts the real-life gentrification of San Francisco at the time in which the novel is set, and in the process will refer to a range of scholarship which establishes that such processes correspond to a higher rate of arrests in effected areas. Given that Kushner is a committed advocate for the abolition of the prison system as it currently exists, it will ultimately be argued that works of socially-engaged fiction like The Mars Roomcan be instrumental in the imaging of alternatives to the current carceral order. 


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