Monday, July 20, 2015

Atticus Lish's ‘Preparation for the Next Life’ is an impressive debut novel of unsettling power

In awarding Atticus Lish the PEN/Faulkner Award for his debut novel, Preparation for the Next Life, the judges said it “scours and illuminates the vast, traumatized America that lives, works and loves outside the castle gates. The result is an incantation, a
song of ourselves, a shout.”

While it’s a book that deserves all the praise it has received, it also provides a real-life, heartwarming lesson for struggling authors everywhere. Lish is the son of Gordon Lish, the legendary editor who worked with Raymond Carver and others. It’s a connection which would have provided an easy route to the highest levels of the publishing business – except that Lish didn’t tell his father he had written a novel. Instead, he sold it to a struggling one-man press, Tyrant Books, for a reported $2,000 advance. Thirty-five hundred copies were printed. Then came the very positive reviews and the press had to scramble to meet demand. Since then, Preparation has also won the $5,000 Carla Furstenberg Cohen Literary Prize in fiction as well as the $15,000 PEN/Faulkner prize.

Preparation for the Next Life is the love story of an illegal Chinese Muslim immigrant, Zou Lei, and an emotionally traumatized Iraq War veteran, Brad Skinner. But, as Patrick Flaherty wrote in The Guardian (4/18/15):

It is clear from the start that Preparation for the Next Life, the impressive debut novel by Atticus Lish, cannot have a happy ending. Illegal immigrant Zou Lei and Iraq war veteran Brad Skinner, both seeking refuge amid the wreckage of post-9/11 New York, come crashing together with the force of classical tragedy. Charged with breathless momentum, the book propels them towards a destiny as devastating as it is hopeful.

Zou is a half-Uighur, half-Han Chinese woman smuggled into the country in a truck and determined to survive, come hell or highwater. Caught up in an immigration sweep, she is released from detention without explanation after three months and makes her way to Queens, New York because, “she was going to stay where everybody was illegal…get lost in the crowd and keep her head down. Forget living like an American. It was enough to be free and on the street.”

Skinner, suffering from PTSD after three tours in Iraq, hitchhikes to New York with guns in his backpack. He and Zou, both initially homeless, meet by accident in a condemned building where he is looking for an erotic massage and they become lovers.

Zou, whose ancestors were nomads, dreams of wandering across America with Skinner, supporting themselves by trading, “wearing sheath knives and cowboy hats and riding horses in a sun-filled land outside the reaches of the authorities.” Instead, their life is supported by her underpaid work in fast-food restaurants, surrounded by people as poor and desperate as she. Skinner, haunted by the atrocities of Iraq, spends his days getting high and lifting weights. Eventually, he rents a room in the basement of a half-immigrant family with a white-supremacist ex-con son.

At its core, this is a book about America’s own nomads, alienated and wandering in search of work and some glimmer of hope. Writing in The New York Times (11/12/14), Dwight Garner expressed it best:

Atticus Lish’s first novel, “Preparation for the Next Life,” is unlike any American fiction I’ve read recently in its intricate comprehension of, and deep feeling for, life at the margins.

This is an intense book with a low, flyspecked center of gravity. It’s about blinkered lives, scummy apartments, dismal food, bad options. At its knotty core, amazingly, is perhaps the finest and most unsentimental love story of the new decade. It’s one that builds slowly in intensity, like a shaft of sunlight into an anthracite mine.

Zou Lei is optimistic, in the face of the odds, about where life is dragging her. After all, things are worse back in China. She is a fierce patriot of a sort. She thinks to herself: “The N.Y.P.D. would not stop her. If they scanned her, they would see an American flag under the scan.”

The N.Y.P.D., as it happens, may be the least of her concerns. The final chapters of this indelible book pulled my heart up under my ears.

And, to quote from Patrick Flaherty in The Guardian again,

[T]his is not a book driven by plot. Much of its beauty and insight into the ordinary dramas of life occurs in scenes that serve no larger narrative purpose, suggesting instead a journalistic will to record the fine-grained detail of New York’s immigrant neighborhoods and the realities of exploitation and precariousness in the lives of America’s underclass.

In his determination to narrate America from the bottom, Lish seems influenced as much by Dickens as by American modernists such as Ralph Ellison and John Dos Passos. He has a faultless ear for the speech of New York’s working poor, and an eye for situations that repeat themselves endlessly in fast-food restaurants, bodegas and shoe stores, where disaffected and underpaid employees meet disillusioned and impoverished consumers at the sharp edge of American capitalism.

…This is, in the end, a profoundly political book.

Melissa Eagan photo
Atticus Lish attended Phillips Academy where he studied Mandarin but dropped out of Harvard after two years. He worked in various blue collar jobs (such as a Papaya King and a foam factory) and then joined the US Marines. He was honorably discharged after a year and a half. He and his wife (a Korean-born schoolteacher) spent a year in a remote part of China teaching English. In his mid-thirties, he returned to Harvard where a fiction course set him on his path as a writer. He spent five years writing Preparation for the Next Life in longhand while working as a technical translator. He is said to be working on a second novel, this one set in Boston.

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