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Rachel Kushner.

Lucy Raven

The Mars Room

By Rachel Kushner, Scribner, 338 pages

Among the myriad definitions of freedom is the opportunity to reconsider oneself, to recognize the self as changeable, to thwart determinism and offer destiny some degree of wiggle room. For Romy Leslie Hall, heroine of The Mars Room, all such opportunities have been terminated, her identity and destiny placed on permanent lockdown: she’s serving two consecutive life sentences at California’s Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility – ostensible retribution for an act of violence that could not have been premeditated and lasted a matter of seconds.

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Details of that act are teased out slowly over the course of Rachel Kushner’s third novel, which concerns itself not with justifying Romy’s crime – though it could be seen as self-defence – but rather with examining the monstrous disappearer of the vulnerable and underprivileged known as the U.S. penal system. With invention, hard-boiled compassion and an arsenal of meticulously researched particulars, The Mars Room, like Zachary Lazar’s recent Vengeance, petitions us to register the dehumanizing absurdities incarceration can inflict on our fellow human beings.

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Romy’s first-person passages are imbued with intelligence, dimensionality, even integrity. Far from passive or resigned, she is nonetheless the product of a fraught, semi-feral San Francisco upbringing lacking in protectors and lousy with predators. Work as an exotic dancer in a Tenderloin strip club, though precarious, offered her some autonomy, while motherhood shaped her maturation and fortified her purpose. Prison separates Romy from her little son, Jackson, who becomes a ward of the state and thus more likely to succumb to the same hazards that befell his mother. When Romy bemoans Jackson’s situation, her captors simply remind her of her crime, which in their perverse moral calculus is cited as the cause of Jackson’s endangerment.

Romy’s only consolations are found in her allies within the prison community and, to a lesser extent, books. Another of The Mars Room’s central figures is Gordon Hauser, a stalled PhD candidate and Stanville’s high-school equivalency instructor. Gordon empathizes with and is drawn to Romy, to whom he supplies books by Charles Willeford and Denis Johnson, authors who wrote with eloquence about the marginalized and institutionalized. A Thoreau scholar, Gordon lives alone in a rented, rustic cabin in Stanville’s desolate foothills, feeding a wood-burning stove while trying not to research Romy’s history via his crappy internet connection. (The novel is set in the early years of our current century.)

As with The Flamethrowers, Kushner’s dazzling 2013 breakthrough set primarily in the New York art world of the 1970s – and which similarly concerns the commodification or pimping out of female beauty – The Mars Room shifts between a variety of deftly differentiated characters, places, events, artifacts and cultural moments to sculpt a mesmerizing, angular narrative guided by theme and atmosphere rather than plot. Only occasionally do we encounter an awkward transition or superfluous detour: Kushner is not without her enthusiasms, such as classic cars or obscure experimental art practices.

Romy’s and Gordon’s stories are easily the novel’s most compelling: Romy’s recollections of her San Francisco childhood, rife with fog, tribalism, intoxication and risk, are drawn in part from Kushner’s own youth and indeed possess the heightened evocativeness of lived experience, while Gordon is the closest thing to an author’s surrogate, a lover of solitude and literature and the outsider able to observe life on the inside.

But Kushner’s polyphony of voices – there are several others, including Romy’s victim – feels appropriate given the general expansiveness of her project and benefits from her mastery of the indelible thumbnail portrait. (Of one of Romy’s mother’s many boyfriends, Kushner writes that he “drove a burgundy Jaguar, wore plaid suits, and drank premixed Manhattans.” Boom.) Kushner’s interest in isolated characters is contingent on their positions in a much broader canvas: it is in the assembly of disparate elements that Kushner’s boldest ambitions emerge. The extended excerpts from the Unabomber’s coded diary or the chapter describing Richard Nixon at the Grand Ole Opry would feel excessively tangential if it weren’t for Kushner’s spirit of lateral montage.

Like the radiant rectangles of Mark Rothko or the studio-constructed jazz epics of Miles Davis, or the big sectional novels of Don DeLillo or Roberto Bolano, Kushner’s works are delivered in sheets of distinct colour and perimeter, their impact best measured when held in juxtaposition. Momentum is neither The Mars Room’s strong suit nor its goal, but it does not lack action or dynamics, and, despite the heart-wrenching stasis of Romy’s prison life, by this novel’s strange end you’ll know you’ve been somewhere. Unlike Romy, you can leave that place whenever you please.

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Jose Teodoro is a Toronto-based critic and playwright.