‘A Beautiful, Mournful Novel’

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,…

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