Atticus Lish’s novel, Preparation for the Next Life, published by Tyrant Books in paperback only, is the finest debut novel I have read in at least 25 years. Rave reviews are pouring in from every publication of note that has reviewed his book. Let me say up front that this is a must read novel, a masterpiece.
Lish’s America is partly grim and partly hopeful, dealing as it does with the lives of mainly illegal immigrants in the Queens borough of New York City. Queens has become the home of dozens of new immigrant groups, from Central Americans, to Chinese, to Indians and Pakistanis: it may become a new melting pot, but Lish knows every store, every street, every underground restaurant in all of Queens, an astonishing feat, because he doesn’t just list names of places, but describes them in often ebullient detail. Two marginalized people, Zou Lei, a part Chinese, part Muslim woman from Western China (actually a Uighur) has sneaked illegally into America, first making her way to some of the bleaker parts of Connecticut, where she works in a variety of Chinese restaurants, living in a cheap motel room with dozens of other women of the same background. She never once complains, as the Zou Leis of the world hold fiercely to the American Dream. Although she is caught by immigration officials, and jailed with no known cause, no lawyer, and no charges against her, she will get out, and she flees to China Town in Queens because of the density of the population and her assumption that she is relatively safe there. Her work ethic is phenomenal; he father had been a soldier drafted by the Chinese, who gave her aspects of his own military training, so that every day she does at least an hour of exercise, and she will walk those streets of Queens for up to 20 miles at a time. Those walks take us through a side of immigrant New York that we do not know, but we do know that Atticus Lish has walked all those same streets, and understand their poverty, their density, and their strange beauty.
Her counterpart, and eventual lover, is Brad Skinner, fresh out of the American Army after three tours of duty in Iraq. He was planning to come to New York to celebrate his survival and arrival back home with a best friend from his Iraq days who is killed in a roadside bomb, with Skinner trying to save him but can’t. We are privy to the devolution of Skinner into the nightmare world of PTSD, which has rarely been described so well, detail by detail. These two characters meet by accident in a Chinese restaurant where Zou Lei works, and they form a relationship based on hope for a shared future that we know cannot happen because of her illegal status and his rampaging illness.
Skinner rents a room in the basement apartment of a house in Queens, where a chain smoking mother lives with her witchcraft obsessed daughter, who await the return of the son/brother after 10 years in prison. This man, Jimmy, minimally connected to the world of Irish petty thievery, represents pure evil, and we understand that some denouement will occur between Jimmy and Brad, and it will be an apocalyptic ending for both. But the book’s main focus is on Zou Lei and Skinner; her hope buoys his despair; it’s a relationship that the reader really wants to work, knowing that it can’t as his illness begins to decline into true madness. Zou Lei becomes aware of the existence of PTSD from listening to the radio, but these two powerless people are terrified of the government, each for different reasons, and even when Brad proposes to her to guarantee her citizenship, she is unable to fill out the forms at the marriage bureau with her already forged identity cards. This powerlessness is a key element in the novel, and we see it run through all of these immigrant populations, so that Lish interweaves some of the most important themes in contemporary American life about which most of us know nothing.
Zou Lei and Skinner mainly take long walks all through Queens. She fantasizes that clusters of high rise buildings remind her of the mountains of West China, and thus of her late father and his strength, which keeps her going. She is the stronger of the two characters, both physically and emotionally, but these walks represent what the two can afford living with so little money and an unflappable optimism on her part, and the hope she represents for him. Walking and running through Queens is a major theme of this novel, because walking lets us see the small detail of daily living, at which Lish is an undeniable genius in his documentation of same, and it also represents personal freedom.
Lish writes a kind of prose poetry that reminds me of some of Kerouac, and other beat writers from the 50’s whose prose so mirrored poetry. Lish may be our prose poet of a new generation of American writers. Interestingly, Lish now joins Kevin Powers and Phil Klay, all of whom are former American soldiers who have turned to writing fiction upon their return from America’s most recent wars. This, too, is a new phenomenon, and the life experiences of men like Lish are creating a new fiction that is the opposite of writers like Hemingway, who equated the soldierly life with machismo. Lish’s prose is confident, smart, often joyful, sometimes gritty, and never dull. This is a novel which you won’t want to miss a word of, all 418 pages of it in small print in paperback form.
Atticus Lish is an enormous new American talent, and it is heartening to see so many younger Americans turning to fiction, and refreshing a genre presumed by Post Modernists to be moribund. Since the Post Modern world is mainly visual, writers like Lish prove that the most visual of images are those made by words and translated into images in the readers’ head: that’s great literature.