Preparation for the Next Life
Preparation for the Next Life is Atticus Lish’s testosterone-driven debut novel, but the ex-Marine is not new to the world of publishing. In a 1982 New York Times interview, Don Delillo praised his writing for its “simple exuberance.” Lish was only nine at the time; his father, Gordon (the editor best known as the prose crafter of Raymond Carver) was Delillo’s friend. Delillo’s novel The Names, came and went with mixed reviews, but the “simple exuberance” with which young Atticus’ work was described is undeniably present in its immersive, clean, straight-forward storytelling.
The story begins with Zou Lei, an illegal Chinese Muslim immigrant avoiding deportation while living in Chinatown. She teaches herself broken English on motel TVs, biding time with exercise while she saves money to buy a passable identity. We see her as a child in the Taklamakan desert where “everything smelled like leather, a sourness, a charcoal dust and manure.” And then back to present day hustle selling bootleg DVDs or working at various food courts in taped-up sneakers.
Then there’s Skinner, an Iraqi war vet who’s recent release from his second stop-loss tour has him floundering in his attempt to assimilate back into society. His severe PTSD and nightmares rife with burning-bodies don’t help. He mixes meds with booze to deal with a severe shrapnel injury and depression. He is perpetually incoherent, bed-ridden and paranoid.
Skinner finds Zou Lei when, randomly, he enters the shaky tenement where she resides; he strikes up a conversation, and there’s immediate chemistry. The overall athletic determination in Zou Lei’s daily routine adds a mild comic affect to the story. This is ultimately the connecting factor which bonds the couple. “She took a step forward with a bent knee and placed his large hand on her thigh. Man, he sighed. She let him slide his hand around her hip. Good? She asked. She flexed for him. Damn.”
What blooms as a mutual romance between Skinner and Zou Lei, quickly becomes a quest for individual survival among the decay of other desperate bodies. These people have seen it all, and rather than brace themselves for another inevitable wave of damage inflicted by world, they are armed and ready for battle as their “us versus them” attitudes cast shadows at bodegas and liquor stores alike.
It’s clear why Joy Williams praised Preparation for the Next Life as “powerfully realistic, with a solemn, muscular realism.” Lish’s prose is cold and unapologetic. His gut-curdling flashbacks are sometimes unsettling. His realism is the opposite of emotional luxury. But Lish’s honesty is what makes us aware of things we take for granted—whether it’s the security we are given as citizens or the warmth in our sanctuaries of creature comforts. And within this honesty, we also see that love is both challenging and essential—unexpected yet precise when the timing’s right.