Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish
Preparation for the Next Life is a stunning, hard-edged, deeply felt debut. Lish takes us to places most of us will never see: the mean streets of Queens, inside the American prison system and even into the mind of a psychopath. The writing has a hyper-real, gritty quality that seduces with its engrossing tale of lives lived without a safety net. Absorbed in this book, we might feel a twinge of conscience for taking a voyeuristic turn as a “ghetto tourist” were the writing not permeated to such a degree with empathy.
The book explores the rot at the heart of the American dream, whose hallowed promises are shown hollowed and distorted, just beyond the reach of the books characters. The story focuses on Brad Skinner, a Marine veteran whom the system has used and discarded; Zou Lei, a half-Uighur, half-Han Chinese undocumented worker from Xinjiang Province, China, and Jimmy Murphy, a rage-filled former union sandhog from a twisted Irish family whose time in prison has stripped him of all humanity.
What begins as a romance between Skinner and Zou Lei works to a cataclysmic finish, triggered by Jimmy’s release from jail. If this sounds very adrenaline-fuelled and perhaps slightly off-putting to female readers, it’s not. The writing is so satisfying and the storyline so engrossing that anyone who enjoys great literature in the vein of Dennis Johnson or Roberto Bolaño will not want to put this book down.
While each of the characters is very well developed, Lish writes particularly convincingly of Zou Lei, who is at once very feminine, very tough and has a refreshingly non-American outlook. The author has said she was inspired by a woman he glimpsed at a bus stop in Xinjiang practicing her fighting moves. While Skinner and Jimmy Murphy give the plot a tense polarity and edge, they are each uniquely flawed and inherently unbalanced. Zou Lei in contrast is balanced, relatable, and she anchors the book emotionally. She is the one we root for in what ultimately becomes a battle of titans between Skinner and Jimmy. Her ability to tolerate nearly abject circumstances is admirable: she embraces her new life and all it entails because she knows it is a better one than she would have lead in China.
Zou Lei is a long way from her home on the edge of Xinjiang’s Taklamakan Desert. Her father was a Han Chinese soldier in the People’s Liberation Army. But after he dies while building a pipeline, Zou Lei and her Uighur mother lose their truck stop business and begin a series of increasingly desperate moves east. The book opens with Zoul Lei’s illegal and undocumented arrival in New York State:
... They picked her up on the highway by a plain white shed, a sign for army-navy, tires in the trees. A Caravan pulled up with a Monkey King on the dash and she got in. The men took her to a Motel 8 and put her in a room with half a dozen other women from Fookien and a liter of orange soda. She listened to the trucks coming in all night and the AC running.
After being in the country for a time, working at fast-food joints, she is picked up and jailed for being undocumented. Upon her release, she makes her way to the polyglot borough of Queens, where she feels safe,
People were teeming off the subway. She saw Pakistani women carrying their children outside of a Dunkin Donuts... She started moving with the crowd, looking above their heads and seeing that she was going into a Chinatown, a thicket of vertical signs, the sails of sampans and junks, too many to read, a singsong clamor rising... She passed ducks on steel hooks behind the grease-smoked windows of the kitchens where she would ask for work. Everyone was like her, she thought, and she did not see any police.
Zou Lei and Skinner make an unlikely pair. She spends her days working diligently at physically demanding and sometimes dangerous jobs in a series of Chinese restaurant kitchens. When she isn’t working, she is exercising—her athleticism is an important part of her character, at one point she walks to Long Island in a haze of grief—or looking for a way to become documented and get a green card.
We have the feeling that with a little help, she will get what she wants. Skinner, on the other hand, is damaged goods. Though only twenty-three, he’s seen three tours of duty in Iraq. His term of service was involuntarily extended because the army was short of men. We get a sense of what its like to be grist in the mill of the war machine. Skinner sustains serious head wounds, but his injuries are never properly explained,
No one told him the results of his cranial scan. He had unbearable headaches and double vision. The army gave him reading glasses. There was no mention of PTSD or TBI.
He is not given time to properly heal. But he and his fellow soldiers are offered drugs as they head out,
The battalion was handing out anti-depressants like free candy on your way to the PX to get the magazines and iPods and protein powder and energy drinks you were taking with you back to the war.
After he is discharged, the Veteran’s Administration won’t officially acknowledge Skinner’s PTSD—though he suffers from it—nor the seriousness of his head wounds. Instead he is prescribed pain-killers, anti-psychotics, sleeping pills and a host of other meds, but no therapy. Despite his involvement with Zou Lei, the war has robbed him of his ability to love. His only passion is weight training, but even in the gym we can see something about him is permanently lost, off center,
He took the plate off and carried it over to the steel tree and slid it on. In the mirror, you saw his thick tattooed forearms, his head carried forward and down, as if he were sullen, but that was not exactly it. There were things he did not see. His towel fell and he walked on it.
The couple struggle: she works and he lounges, they fight and make up. And they talk of marrying so that Zou Lei can get a green card. Most of it is pretty depressing. Some of their best moments are when they hike together. The dense urban landscape Lish spends so much time describing then seems almost tranquil. There is hope that the couple might succeed together against long odds,
They hiked out of Chinatown until they were far enough away to see the red lacquered Chinese eaves and then kept going. There was no plan, they just walked, walking down by the expressway and the autorepairs whose signs were in Chinese. The road took them by a cemetery, then a stretch of little houses with pitched roofs and falling-down siding... They fell into a rhythm, going for miles, and she lost herself, their hoofs beating the drum of the earth as they marched.
The lovers’ idyll, unfortunately, comes to an end in the final third of the book, in which there is a palpable cranking up of intensity, leading to some of Lish’s best and most moving writing.
The ending is a show-stopper, tightly written and suspenseful. But the overall feeling is one of pathos. Not all of the characters are lovable, or worthy of love, but mostly they need some basic help—an ID card, some therapy, a chance—in order to live a better life and attain their version of “the dream”. But that help is not coming.
Although Lish is not overtly critical, there is enough in here to know that he is, and rightly so, deeply troubled by the American war in Iraq and the resultant stream of wounded veterans who return home to inadequate care, by the way we jail hard-working immigrants instead of helping them to become (taxpaying) citizens and by how the prison system has become a system of control for whole population of young (mostly) men.
This is a tremendous first novel, notable for its singular style and its great empathy for characters of the sort American society generally overlooks.