How does a life derail into disaster? Two-time National Book Award finalist Rachel Kushner, in her fiercely brilliant new novel, "The Mars Room,'' targets one way: poverty, powerlessness, and prison.
At the novel's blistering center is Romy Hall, a young single mother in the Stanville Women's Correctional Facility in California's Central Valley, serving two life sentences for murdering her stalker. And yes, she did do it, and that's part of Kushner's genius, making us understand that Hall may be guilty, but she still doesn't deserve what she gets or has ever gotten from life. And in truth, no one in Stanville does.
As she did so expertly in her last book, 2013's "The Flame Throwers,'' Kushner presents a dazzling tapestry of contradictory characters, carefully connecting their stories with such astonishing aplomb, we dare not look away. Romy tells us about her pre-prison, drugged-out, hardscrabble life in San Francisco, how she made ends meet by being a stripper/lap dancer at a seedy club called The Mars Room, until she began being harassed by one of her customers. The one thing keeping her going in prison is her desperation to get back her son, Jackson, who is lost in the foster care system after Romy's prickly mom is killed in a car accident.
In prison we meet Conan, Romy's cellmate and friend, who is burly, masculine, and was mistakenly put into a men's prison before being transferred to the women's. And then there is Doc, a dirty, abusive LA cop doing time for killing the hit man his lover employed to knock off her husband, (yes, that's a complicated mouthful) and finds that all the former power he once reveled in is gone.
Kushner homes in on other inmates, guards, and those on the periphery of the system, like Gordon Hauser, a misguided GED teacher who had already been let go from one prison for getting too close to an inmate. He has a cabin in the mountains and dreams of a Thoreau-like life, but when he learns that Romy is smart, reads, and understands books, he feels himself dangerously drawn to her. She's desperate for his help in locating her son, but what makes this situation so interesting, is the question of whether Gordon is actually capable of putting himself on the line for her.
Fascinating, too, is that prison for Romy isn't really that much different than her life in the Mars Room. There are rules and hierarchies. In the Mars Room, having a tattoo spelled correctly is considered almost as much of a plus for a dancer as having taken a shower. Nothing is fair, not the Mars Room's Russian strippers undercutting the regulars' pay. Not Romy's terrible lawyer, who ruined her chances of acquittal because he failed to get her story of being stalked ruled admissible in court. And even though he did such a poor job defending her, she can't sue him for ineptitude, because the legal system is weighted in favor of the lawyers.
Kushner's writing, as always, stuns with its razor's edge beauty. While the prison world is claustrophobic and catastrophic, the outside world is certainly no safe harbor, but is so remote that "traffic lights had ceased to go from green to red and merely blinked a constant yellow." Emotions switch on and off like blowtorches, and even as he can't stop thinking about Romy, Gordon feels as if he was "trying to cross an eight-lane freeway on foot."
The prison descriptions are vivid and wrenching (inmates smuggling contraband in their bodies, recipes for "garbagy'' smelling prison wine, the etiquette for sex behind bars), a kind of life-on-another-planet existence where every hustle to survive can be as shocking as an electric fence. Women make only pennies a day for their woodworking, and what is it that they craft? The gavels judges use to convict them. Burritos, Twinkies, and cigarettes are sent from inmate to inmate in a kind of pulley system through the toilets. But even the small joys the women manage are about sheer survival, like hoarding pills and crushing them into a drink to help them temporarily forget.
There's no forgiveness here, no whisper of redemption. When Romy begs a prison counselor for news of her son, she's coldly reprimanded: "[Y]our situation is due one hundred percent to choices you made and actions you took." Even Gordon sees how stacked the deck is, realizing that every rule sign he sees is really saying, "Your poverty reeks." Still, hope flickers. One inmate advises that to "stay sane you formed a version of yourself you could believe in." You had to imagine that there might be good in the world. But what if that good just wasn't available to you? What could you hope for then?
Sometimes, the novel feels a little fragmented. Different voices pop up and vanish in short chapters, with no reference as to who is speaking. A few back stories lag on a beat too long. A narrative is interrupted by a page or so of rules, disturbing the propulsive rhythm. Still, Kushner offers pay-offs, especially at the end, when Romy's stalker gets his own chapter and confesses how and why he did what he did — you could call this his day in court — and his story is just as full of yearning and despair as Romy's.
Stunning and surreal, "The Mars Room'' takes up big ideas, holding a mirror up to American culture and revealing the tragic truth of a failed justice system, as well as a casual refusal to do enough about it. A crime in itself.
THE MARS ROOM
By Rachel Kushner
Simon and Schuster, 338 pp., $27
Caroline Leavitt's latest novel is "Cruel Beautiful World.''