BOOK REVIEW: Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish – March 2017

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

This novel, the first by Atticus Lish, is angry, depressing, self-righteous, overwritten, and pretentious. It’s also, in a way, brilliant and ground-breaking. A weird descendant of Dos Passos and Pynchon combined, it’s darker than both, and harder to read than either. Stylistically percussive, disjointed, and excruciatingly detailed, its energy is bounding and relentless.

The story concerns Zhou Lei, an illegal refugee from Northwest China where the Uighur people live, who scrapes by working in fast food places with no day off; Skinner, an American soldier tossed into civilian life after three tours of duty in Iraq, his duffel stuffed with antidepressants, pain-killers and anti-anxiety medication; and Jimmy, out of jail for the first time in ten years, the son of a violent, alcoholic father and a brutalized mother, whom he lives off of in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Queens. If you’re thinking the story might be a downer, you’re correct.

Skinner and Zhou Lei, who meet through their common obsession with working out, use weight lifting, calisthenics, and running to clear their heads and work off the poisons that experience has deposited in their systems. They run and walk for miles on end, singly and together, through the dismal outer reaches of Queens. Zhou Lei, who has already been imprisoned for months on no charges, is terrified of being caught by the immigration authorities; she lives in a cubicle with a black mattress that she rents in a Chinese neighborhood where she hopes to blend in, but remains friendless because her dialect differs from those spoken by her co-workers. Her aim in life is to survive.

Skinner, who has a little cash, wants oblivion and surcease from physical pain. He has horrible shrapnel scars on his back and is slowly descending into the depths of PTSD. To keep his mind blank, he drinks, reads pornography, and works out. Unfortunately, he rents a barren room in the basement of Jimmy’s parents’ house where he and Zhou Lei spend most of their time, and there he comes into contact with the ex-con, a man so battered and full of rage he’s dying to waste someone, anyone, it doesn’t matter who.

All this, one infers, is supposed to add up to a critique of the United States of America at the present time. If Zhou Lei is a victim of the Patriot Act, and Skinner of the Iraq war, Jimmy is a casualty of the U. S. prison system; they’re all victims of a society where anyone who can’t keep a job or stay healthy or act normal is left to fend for themselves. The characters do so in a concrete hell devoid of beauty or comfort, for the true protagonist of the novel is the environment they inhabit: an urban wasteland–bleak, dirty, hostile, stinking, cacophonous, and overwhelmingly ugly. Here’s Skinner on the subway:

The stops kept coming. He had gotten a long way out. Across the field of rooftops, he saw cranes. Down below, he saw a car turning on the littered street and heard a burst of the hammer drill from an auto repair.

 . . . When they got to the last stop, he got off because he had to and went out on the street. It was crowded and a woman bumped into him with her shopping bags coming out of Caldor. He raised his hooded head and looked at her and she apologized. Along the curb, he noticed people sitting in the Asian squat selling wallets, belts, New York hats, backpacks and DVDs. It was very loud with people yelling. A truck was idling blocking the intersection, the engine spinning, and he could hear the diesel exploding in the shaking block of steel. Someone honked and Skinner watched.

 

Well, nothing unusual here, you might think. Lots of places look like this. But in Preparation for the Next Life, for four hundred pages the reader is assaulted by exhaust fumes, grinding machinery, blaring horns, anonymous crowds, and garbage strewn streets. A place of refuse and wreckage where nature has been obliterated, art is non-existent, and human relations replicate the law of the jungle. The only exception is the budding tenderness between Skinner and Zhou Lei, which, as you might imagine, never comes to fruition.

Lish brings together the results of failed government policies (war, immigration, detention) in a setting that testifies to other failings, economic and environmental. There’s the precocious registration of detail in the urban slum; the linguistic power and skill that produce the novel’s forward momentum; the ability to convey the mental derangement suffered by his male characters and to make readers care about what happens between the would-be lovers. The political and social ills he criticizes are indisputable, as is his right to condemn them. But as a statement about life in this country, or life in general, the book is adolescent. It feels as if it’s being written by someone who’s been hurt, is determined to exact punishment from whoever’s in charge, and has decided to take it out on the U.S. government. So what? You could say, it’s a free country. But what I don’t understand is this:

Preparation for the Next Life received the PEN/Faulkner Award for 2015, the New York City Book Award, the Cohen Prize for Fiction, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and chosen as a Best Book of the Year by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Publisher’s Weekly, and Buzzfeed. Why does the literary establishment give its highest honors to a talented, hard-working guy who’s discovered that there’s no tooth fairy, and no Santa Claus? With the advent of post-modernism, I thought we’d outgrown that. I had to force myself to finish the book and I’m not sorry I did; it opened my eyes to some things. But “dizzying,” “astounding,” “a triumph,” “a reminder of what fiction is for”? Not by me. ~