REVIEW: Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish
Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life is this generation’s most significant novel about “otherness.” Using the story of two individuals that end up in a relationship as a vehicle to explore life on the fringe, Lish delves deep into the realities, challenges, and feelings of an undocumented immigrant and an Iraq war veteran whose body and psyche have been affected by three consecutive tours filled with fear and carnage. Packed full of details, vivid descriptions, and unflinching honesty, Preparation for the Next Life offers readers a touching and brutal look at the way those on society’s margins manage to keep on dreaming while they struggle to survive.
The narrative kicks off with Zou Lei, an ethnic Uighur from northwest China who barely speaks English. She slips into the country without papers, with no one to reach or ask for help, and is in desperate need of shelter and a job. After a short stint in a prison, effectively serving as her introduction to life in the United States, Zou holds a string of dead-end jobs in stores, kitchens, and even selling DVDs on the subway. Finally, she ends up working in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in Queens where she’s at the bottom of the chain of command and no one understands her language. She is eager to learn and move up in life, but desires clash with the harsh reality of her cramped existence in an overcrowded place that offers her only a roof and a dirty mattress. When not working, Zou occupies her time exercising and developing a relationship with Skinner, a severely depressed and mentally unbalanced veteran with a back full of scars. Skinner goes to New York trying to escape his nightmares and rents a basement apartment in Queens. He spends his time smoking and reading fitness magazines. When they meet, Zou and Skinner find comfort in each other, a way to momentarily put an end to their loneliness, but solitude is only one of their problems.
Lish masterfully juggles a lot in this novel, but there are two items that stand out the most, confirming Preparation for the Next Life as one of the most powerful narratives of the year. The first is the unapologetic lack of sentimentality. Preparation for the Next Life is a love story, but it’s also as far from the romantic aesthetic as one can get. The characters are broken, flawed, deracinated. Lish shows them drinking, having lazy afternoons of pizza and sex, and sometimes seeking each other with the eagerness of new lovers, but being together is only a small respite for their loneliness and not an all-powerful solution to their plethora of problems. There is love and talk of better times in the future, but there’s also crippling depression, callused hands from working, and a gun that sometimes seems to offer the only way out.
The other element that is truly outstanding is his ability to showcase his knowledge about everything from the city of New York to the unifying discourse of struggle and survival that most undocumented workers share.
“Everyone have to be careful, right? You know the saying, every man for self. The man, woman, kid, also. This is the life. You want take my time, what you give me? Think about. That’s America. Everyone come here the same story.”
The prose with which he communicates this familiarity is at once sharp and focused but also unhurried, unexpectedly elegant, and not afraid to explore that strange space outsiders share, a tense space where they are forced to communicate in a language they don’t fully dominate. Lish seems to be aware of what it means to be desperate, and this awareness allows him to recreate the streets of Queens, Zou’s job environment, and the Iraq war in vivid detail. It also allows him to create characters that feel real. Zou works hard without complaining, is generally optimistic, and thinks a better future is possible. On the other hand, Skinner is tormented, taking pain medication for his back, the victim of suicidal thoughts and horrible nightmares. Despite these differences, they somehow manage to embody the same thing: the incessant battle of those on the wrong side of the tracks. The result of this mix of familiarity, truth, and writing skills is a novel that seems to have been distilled from the essence of the many generations of natives and foreigners who have toiled in this country searching for a piece of the American dream.
“They took the subway from Queens down to Canal Street in Manhattan. It was full of African, Bangladeshi, and Chinese vendors, selling I Love New York shirts and counterfeit Rolexes. From here they walked down to the city buildings. The big gray granite buildings took up block after block. At the criminal and family courts, the doorways were four stories high and there were crowds outside waiting to get in through the metal detectors.”
Preparation for the Next Life is devoid of unfilled promises. The narrative successfully and entertainingly moves forward despite the fact that everyone involved is wary of letting hope sneak its way in. And that is a very smart move. In a literary landscape that often favors narratives about well-off Caucasians enjoying what the city has to offer, Lish has crafted a masterpiece full of accents, religions, and grit, the building blocks used to create New York City. Strangely enough, the author’s emphasis on grittiness also contributes to making this novel a memorable and very poignant homage to the Big Apple. Lish’s candid look at life on the wrong side of the tracks is both heartbreaking and beautiful and signals the arrival of a gifted voice with a knack for too-real fiction.
To purchase Preparation for the Next Life, click here to be directed to Tyrant Books’s site.