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‘A Beautiful, Mournful Novel’

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Jacob Blickenstaff/The New York Times/Redux
Atticus Lish, Sunset Park, Brooklyn, November 2014

Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish, is an astounding first novel about a world so large there is, sometimes, nowhere to go; a world so small the people in it, sometimes, get lost. The book has the boundless, epic exhilaration you expect to find only in a writer as mighty as, say, Walt Whitman. It is a love story, a war story, a tale of New York City in which familiar streets become exotic, mysterious, portentous, foul, magnificent. Some of it reads like poetry. All of it moves with a breathless momentum.

The novel begins with the story of Zou Lei, a woman from a remote desert area of northwestern China inhabited by tribal nomads and herdsmen, horse traders who pay no attention to national borders, whose ancient languages overlap:

The word for man was adam. Apple was alma. Silk, yurt, camel, and khan were pronounced the same in Uzbek and in Uighur. Tibetan women hiked up from Qinghai, carrying blankets and silver things to sell, wearing black cowboy hats and sheath knives….

The songs were the same. The girls sang them turning around, looking over their shoulders, coins around their heads.

Like most of those living in the area, Zou Lei’s mother is a Muslim, a Uighur. The stories she tells her daughter are ancient folktales, stories of Siberian ancestors, traders on the Silk Road. Zou Lei’s father is a Han soldier whom she reveres but rarely sees. On those rare occasions when he is on leave, he teaches her to do pull-ups, holding his child up to reach the iron bar.

Zou Lei’s mother tells her a story about a girl whose father is kidnapped by a witch. The only way the girl can find him is by traveling west, walking across deserts of glass and iron. Exhausted after seven years, she is about to give up when she is rescued by a bird flying above her, shading her way with its wings from then on. The journey west, so familiar for Americans, is given a universal impulse by Lish. After her parents die, Zou Lei herself goes west, to America, one more pioneer, one more immigrant. She cannot bring her father back, but she does find an ex-soldier to love, an American named Brad Skinner.

Preparation for the Next Life follows the scuffed paths of Skinner, the traumatized ex-soldier, and Zou Lei, the soldier’s daughter, from far-off China and Afghanistan to what sometimes seems like even farther-off Queens, New York. The sense of place in the novel is so strong, so particular, and at the same time so boundless and indistinguishable from the world around it that Lish leaves you dizzy and disoriented in your own country, in your hometown. He sees the vicissitudes of life in the radical variations of landscape, from mountains to deserts to cracked sidewalks and weedy abandoned lots, not as obvious urban metaphors but as solid and concrete—vast, untamable geographies of life.

The America Zou Lei first encounters is tawdry and grim and relentless, a land of furtive, poorly paid, exhausting jobs. Every detail is depressing, even the names of the small cities where she first finds work:

She came by way of Archer, Bridgeport, Nanuet, worked off 95 in jeans and a denim jacket, carrying a plastic bag and shower shoes, a phone number, waiting beneath an underpass, the potato chips long gone, lightheaded.

The illegal workers live in a Motel 8. She is given “a shirt with an insignia and a visor, the smell of vaporized grease in the fabric.”

Zou Lei, her hair brown, her nose slightly hooked, her eyes “Siberian,” is different from her roommates at the motel and can speak to them only in halting Cantonese, not in their own dialects. When she asks them to teach her their language, she’s told it’s impossible, there are far too many dialects. Then Lish lists them—People’s Terrace, Peaceful Stream, Placid Lake, Winding South, Cotton Fence, more and more of them, Convergence of Peace, Next-to-the-Zhang-Family Dialect. The names are pretty and exotic to our ears; they seem almost impossibly local. And they suggest all the complexity and richness of each of the women’s lives, of immigrant lives, where we might tend to see simply a Chinese immigrant. In this novel, languages both transcend borders and create them, as do people.

When Zou Lei hears this catalog of dialects, she is not deterred. Undocumented, exploited, isolated, utterly alone with strangers in a Motel 8, she says, “Then tell me how to say heaven is high. She smiled and pointed at the stained ceiling. Heaven is high and the earth is wide.” Zou Lei is, of all the people we meet in this book, the one who most resembles what we would like to think of as an American.

But even with her resolute work ethic, her pioneering spirit and insistent optimism, Zou Lei is an illegal immigrant in post–September 11 America, a place and time that is even less welcoming to immigrants than usual. Picked up by immigration authorities as she exits a bodega, she’s sent to jail with no explanation, no lawyer, no trial. She soon loses track of the days. “You could tell who had been picked up in an immigration sweep. It was obvious who she was. She squatted by herself, as all the migrants did.”

Brad Skinner, the US soldier, was not born in northwestern China, yet he feels himself to be as much an alien in America as Zou Lei. Just discharged from the army after three tours of active duty in Afghanistan, he enters New York City with mortar scars on his back, recurring nightmares, uncontrollable rages, and a duffel bag full of military-prescribed antidepressants, antianxiety medications, and sleeping pills:

Liquor store, groceria, Iglesias de Dios. From somewhere, there was Spanish music. Taillights shot by him and over a bridge. He crossed beneath the highway, in a great tall vault of dark, the steel being knocked by vehicles going over, and climbed pigeonshit-splattered stairs, coming to rooftop level, billboard level—cash for your car—and then he was looking at Manhattan across the black water, a postcard view with all the lights and just the sheer scale of it, the sky violet with energy.

Lish nurtures and encourages the smallest details until they fan out into unexpected panoramas. After her release from jail, still with no explanation, Zou Lei heads for Chinatown in Queens, “where everybody was illegal just like her.”

There was too much to see and she noticed small things. She saw a hairstyle, a black mohawk, the brown scalp shaved on the sides, and when she saw his face, she was right, he was from Mexico and now he did deliveries for a man with a jade bracelet who had learned enough Spanish to tell him what to do. She passed ducks on steel hooks behind grease-smoked windows of kitchens where she would ask for work.

Her new home is a tiny plywood partition within a building crammed with other tiny plywood partitions inhabited by other undocumented Chinese, her new job at a fast food restaurant in the food court at the Flushing Mall. “I’m strong, even though I’m female,” she tells the manager.

I’ve had military training. Take order, shout order, deliver takeout, count the till, dump trash, sweep floor, mop floor, wipe counter, wash dish, bowl, pot, dipper, cleaver, shovel, chopstick, spoon, turn out the fire, shut the light, lock the gate. Every day, work hard, sleep sweet.

Skinner, in contrast, has no thought of getting a job. Living off the pay he got when he left the army, he rents a basement room in a house in Queens in a neighborhood that was once Irish. The owner, Mrs. Murphy, chain-smokes Virginia Slims and is so obese she never leaves the house. Her husband is an Irish immigrant, an abusive drunken union plumber; her grown daughter lives at home, sulking and squabbling with both of them; her son, Jimmy, who is not her husband’s son, is in prison.

Skinner’s loneliness when he arrives in New York is acute. He is so haunted he can no longer see even a basketball game on a bar TV screen the way the rest of us do. “They fled across the court and then they stopped and smelled the air. They never knew who was going to hit them with the ball.” He lives in a different reality, one hazy with prescription drugs, beer, and guilt. Just before coming to New York, he learned that his closest friend, his only friend, died. They were wounded together, side by side:

When his friend exploded, something had struck Skinner in the back…. He scrambled to his friend, he felt him in the sand, and tried to pull him up…. The sand was filling up with Sconyers’ blood. He was letting him die…. The sand became a sucking, sloshing pit that soaked them both and overflowed with blood…. The blood wet his hands and arms, it got on his weapon, and got in his face and mouth and eyes, and he tasted it, his friend’s blood. And the blood itself had weight and the sand had weight, and they combined as a blood mud that dragged them down.

Lish’s combination of glancing observations and throbbing rhythm is particularly powerful in his visions of war, creating an alarmingly straightforward, staccato blur of bewilderment and pain. This is a writer who hears his words, his sentences, his punctuation, who hears meter. His description of Skinner and Sconyers’s first mission in Afghanistan, minimalist, precise, yet sweeping in its scope and humanity, becomes a terrifying poetry:

Occasionally, they heard battles being fought and at night they watched the lightning flashes and felt the thudding in the ground. It was hard to sleep. People said I miss my girl. I wanna get some. They manned a checkpoint and shot up a car. Their doc from Opa-locka poured a bag of clotting factor in an Iraqi’s chest. Mom’s head was gone. White-faced, Sconyers ran and got a beanie baby for their daughter. They poured canteen water on doc’s hands and it smoked on the road. Someone took a picture of the front seat.

Skinner survives the mortar attack with serious damage to his back. After months of rehab, he recovers, in pain but intact. His friend Sconyers is a different story. Sconyers lost a leg and half his head. The last Skinner heard from him was an e-mail from a rehab center:

Skin my friend it been a long time. i wanted to write but had to learn first. This device i use my mouth. u should c me. i seem retarded b/c my mind trapped.

It is a brave and cheerful e-mail, informing Skinner that they will have to put off their trip to New York and talking about plans to go to college. The next news Skinner gets is that Sconyers is dead. He slipped into a coma; his parents have just disconnected the machines keeping him alive. The trip to the city that he and his friend dreamed about is made alone, Skinner “holding to the idea that if he partied hard enough, he’d eventually succeed in having a good time and would start wanting to live again.”

For both Skinner and Zou Lei fitness is a preoccupation. Constrained in their different ways, they both find freedom in the pursuit of physical health and strength. Controlling their bodies is the only control they have left. Physical exercise, and a trust in the extreme discipline it requires, are what bring the vet and the immigrant together, and what bind them. They first meet when Skinner, wandering through Chinatown in search of a massage parlor, comes upon Zou Lei in a corridor behind the restaurant where she works. On her break, she is, characteristically, doing calisthenics. Much of their time together over the course of the book is spent traversing the boroughs by foot, running or walking, she in her worn cheap sneakers, he in his desert army boots. They travel through neighborhoods and boroughs as if they were rugged unsettled territories, deserts, mountains, steppes.

Some of Lish’s most beautiful and most original writing appears in these passages. He peels away urban clichés other writers would embrace in their search for grit or reality. But Lish’s passages are so resilient and unexpected that he seems to have discovered not just the dirt beneath the clichés, but the rich soil they’ve grown out of. Skinner and Zou Lei navigate weeds and pit bulls and weeping asphalt, delivery men hauling dead hogs on their shoulders, children playing soccer with a can, abandoned buildings and buildings swarming with people. The hustling urban intensity and the intensity of their loneliness have been seamless, surrounding them. As they fall in love, the city seems to change, physically, around them:

It was a clear day after a rain and the trash was pulped on the street.

They hiked out of Chinatown until they were far enough away to see the red lacquered Chinese eaves and the fire escapes and then kept going…by the expressway and the autorepairs whose signs were in Chinese. The road took them by a cemetery…. They fell into a rhythm, going for miles, and she lost herself, their hoofs beating the drum of the earth as they marched.

When they made it to the rise where Jewel Avenue crossed over the fields and they could see in all directions—the old condominium towers, the sheets of water, the rooftops and the distance—they stopped and looked at it all. They were at the center of a wheel. Skinner put his arms around her.

That’s a view, he said.

The view opens itself up, and their lives seem to open as well. There is possibility. The topography is boundless, the city “uncontained. It covered a massive area and graded out into the world. There was no definite end at the horizon.” The romance of Zou Lei and Skinner does not erase the squalor of their lives. Nor does Lish romanticize that squalor. But they are happy, Skinner determined to drink less, to stop smoking, to heal. For Zou Lei, the fear of jail, of deportation, of money for her next meal, all recede as the horizon expands. Her American soldier will protect her. She will work hard and save money. She swells with American pride and confidence, with the immigrant’s American dream:

You could do anything—sell toys, oranges, ice in the summer, phone cards so that people could call home. Singapore. Philippines. Yemen. Iraq. Ivory Coast. Salvador. You could give out flyers for all-you-can-eat, compramos d’oro—get a cart and roll it over hill and dale now that he is with you.

Zou Lei experiences a joyous sense of freedom in her feelings for him, a freedom that she identifies as American and that she believes identifies her as an American. The police won’t stop her now, and even if they did, if they “scanned her, they would see an American flag on the scan.”

Skinner and Zou Lei find love and trust in his basement apartment filled with pizza boxes and empty beer cans. They are, Zou Lei says, “an army of their own, a two-person unit,” set to fight the battle of his mental recovery and her immigration status. She sneaks food for him from the restaurant, they go to a shabby gym together, they travel the city around them, and they are hopeful. But even tucked away in the basement apartment, they are not safe from the world.

There are strange, new, heavy footsteps in the Murphys’ kitchen above: Jimmy, after ten years in prison, is home. Jimmy turns out to be a nightmare emerging from a nightmare. Prison was a “war zone.” The exercise that means liberty and control to Skinner and Zou Lei was something very different for Jimmy, the military precision of squats and lunges not about control but being controlled, done in unison like a column of soldiers. “They jogged together under the Indiana sky…controlled from a central module by Midwesterners with deep resonant country voices.” And after a decade away from the real world, Jimmy is as marginalized as the Chinese immigrant and the mentally ravaged vet:

Gradually, he started talking, his voice so rough and hoarse, it sounded as if his vocal cords were dragging on concrete. Whatever he had to say had nothing to do with ordinary life. It was about the way the rules on the Greyhound to the city were poorly thought out and unfairly applied. He had seen the authorities being made fools of in their bus stations by people selling sex and drugs.

Having learned nothing but violence and dependence in prison, Jimmy moves back in with his family, and the pathos of this hulking man in his boyhood room becomes the pathos of the entire American prison system:

The posters were rolling off the walls. He shut the door and a poster rolled down, the back of the paper white and empty. Before hiding it, he opened up his prison box and looked inside: letters, cards, a copy of Outlaw Biker, a Lipton’s Cup-a-Soup, Psalms, a shaving mirror, a pair of prison-issue white boxer shorts issued by CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America, a Capri Sun juice pack, an old Heavy Metal magazine, a red cowboy bandana.

He cadges money off his mother and is truly offended at the expectation that he get a job. The relationship between him and his mother is presented with fastidious, horrifyingly accurate insight into maternal love and denial. Mrs. Murphy shakes her head and shrugs her shoulders and swigs her beer. Jimmy wasn’t brought up to steal, Jimmy just needs time to adjust, Jimmy didn’t get enough discipline from her husband, Jimmy needs time to find himself.

Jimmy, the red-blooded Irish-American, born in Queens, member of the union, is indeed lost in Queens, lost in America, lost in the world, but unlike Zou Lei and Skinner, he doesn’t seem to know it. He is so unconscious that we are afraid of him. And we are right. Lish has created a devastating, satisfying villain, for we can see what weakened Jimmy, what distorted him, and we still cannot stop ourselves from despising him.

Upstairs, an ugly, dysfunctional family rages. Below in the basement, Skinner is deteriorating. Sleepless, angry, drugged, and resentful of the love he once craved from Zou Lei, his mood swings become worse and worse. Zou Lei’s hours are being cut back at the restaurant, too, given to an American-born high school student. The city again changes for her: taking a run toward the buildings she has always thought of as inspiring mountains, the mountains her mother told stories about, she sees only garbage and oil rags stuck to pavement. “The tall buildings that resembled mountains were simply government projects, silent in the ticking heat. That was all they were.”

Skinner begins to fight with Zou Lei, insulting her, pushing her away, then, always, begging her forgiveness. Back and forth they go, suffering and frightened. When Skinner realizes he can marry Zou Lei and save her from deportation, Zou Lei is ecstatic:

When she came outside in the purple dusk at quitting time, he was waiting. They ate pizza slices while the streetlights came on, went down past the gas station and walked along the river.

She was so moved she didn’t talk for nearly a mile….

Today I know what is a real American, she said.

She breathed deep, took in the space, the distant lights across the black water. She could not believe her fortune. How life surprised her.

But the bureaucratic barriers, the legal questions, the full array of government obstacles for someone with no documents, are overwhelming. Both of them begin to sink beneath the weight of governmental failure and fear, beneath the weight of their own failure and fear. Lish is unflinching as Skinner spins out of control. Skinner is violent, selfish, weak. He treats Zou Lei badly, so badly that we understand how little control he has over his behavior and his life. But the tremulous thread that holds them together is still there, and when, in the aftermath of one terrible fight, Skinner holds a gun to his head, Zou Lei is still there, too:

With the lightest touch, as if she were holding a nightingale in one of her mother’s stories, she placed her hands on his arm and gently guided the weapon down from his head. She had to take his fingers off the handle one by one, lifted the firearm out of his grasp and set it as far away as she could in the corner.

Lish can write of the brutality of battle and prison cells and city streets so well because he understands fragility so well.

Preparation for the Next Life resonates all too clearly in the political climate we live in, have lived in for so many years. The novel consciously unfolds amid the greatest contemporary failures of this country—immigration policy, poverty, racism, prisons, war. The characters breathe those failures; they live in a place where no other atmosphere is available to them. But they also live in Queens in New York City in the United States of America. Lish’s beautiful, mournful novel is animated not just by desperation and failure or by cruelty and malice, but also by the possibility, centuries of possibility, that immigrants have discovered here. For Zou Lei, like so many before her, one of those possibilities is going west, again.

Zou Lei boards a Greyhound bus and winds up in the blazing sun of Arizona, where she eats rice and beans, speaks Spanish more often than she speaks Chinese, suffers slights and indignities in a different accent, a different key. The tragic dignity of her journey continues; there is another desert for her to traverse. She is a nomad, like her ancestors. Above her a hawk flies over roofs and valleys, then lands in the mountains, waiting for her to catch up, as foreign and universal as the bird of her mother’s Uighur folktale, as American and universal as hope in the Dickinson poem. Atticus Lish has written a transcendent novel.