Preparation for the Next Life is a contemporary novel set in New York. It chronicles the relationship between illegal Chinese immigrant Zou Lei and PTSD-suffering Iraq War veteran Brad Skinner.
Zou Lei is from a Muslim area of Sinkiang (or I guess now they spell it “Xinjiang”) Province in western China, the daughter of a Chinese soldier father who mostly was absent as she grew up, and a Muslim mother. The remote area of her childhood sounds more like the 19th than 20th, let alone 21st, century. When her parents die, she sees little future for her there, and takes the gamble to come to America.
Skinner was both physically (he has grotesque mortar scars all over his back) and emotionally seriously damaged by his wartime experience, which included seeing a close buddy suffer massive injuries in an attack, and then make futile attempts at recovery and rehabilitation on the way to a lingering death. He has come to New York with the chunk of money he had upon leaving the army, for seemingly no purpose beyond drifting somewhere new until he finds himself and finds some way forward in life.
Zou Lei’s life in America is a predictable one of incessant hard work in menial jobs, cramped living with crowds of other immigrants in motel rooms and squatter apartments, constant deception and exploitation at the hands of anyone who thinks they can benefit off her, and fear of the law. Early in the novel she is arrested and put in jail, where she spends months having little or no clue what is going to happen to her.
Most of the immigrants she is thrown together with where she lives and works are also Chinese, but she seems to make little in the way of significant personal connections with them. In part this is because they speak a bewildering array of different dialects, which in some cases are close enough that if they strain they can understand the gist of what each other are saying and in other cases might as well be two completely different languages. But there also seems to be some kind of “every man for himself” cultural or circumstantial thing going on that makes most of them unreceptive to friendship and mutual aid.
Skinner has enough money that he probably could live reasonably well, at least for a short time, but instead he floats around homeless for a while and then rents a very cheap room in the basement of a trashy private house. He makes no effort to get a job; it’s doubtful he’s functional enough at this point to get or keep one if he tried.
Neither one is exactly a great catch, though I’d say on the whole Zou Lei has considerably more to offer, or at least would in better circumstances, but they each are lonely people tired of facing terrible struggles alone, and so when they meet they fall for each other almost immediately.
Preparation for the Next Life is an extraordinary book, especially when you consider that this is Atticus Lish’s first novel. The descriptive detail is amazing. He gives you everything you could ask for to be able to get inside these characters and understand how they experience their world. Everything about the sights, sounds, smells, etc. of the creepy, forbidding, exciting, grimy, overwhelming New York underworld they live in, every significant psychological nuance of their interactions with each other and with other characters, are painstakingly presented in meticulous detail. This book should be put in a time capsule for people a hundred or a thousand years from now to know what life on the streets was like in early 21st century America for those despised, harassed, or most often ignored and forgotten, by the mainstream.
With Zou Lei there’s the constant sense of vulnerability. She’s in a foreign land with minimal resources; even if she decided to give up and go home, how would she ever get there? What little she has in money or possessions you feel could be robbed from her at any time, since she has to carry it around with her or leave it stashed in a completely insecure place where she lives with strangers. She could end up back in jail, or worse, at any time at the hands of the law. As a woman, she’s more physically vulnerable—more likely to be preyed upon and less likely to be able to protect herself when she is.
On the other hand, Skinner has options. He has money, though not a huge amount. He has family not very far away in Pennsylvania, though apparently he’s not particularly desirous of being with them at this point in his life. He’s unhappy with how he has been treated by the army and by the Veterans Administration, but as a veteran and as an American citizen he can push further for assistance from the government if he chooses to, with a realistic chance of getting it, and for that matter there are non-governmental resources potentially available for someone like him, at least more so than for someone like Zou Lei. Granted, these aren’t the most appealing of options, but he has more ways to leave his present miserable circumstances than does Zou Lei.
Then again, you could say that because of his emotional condition these options really aren’t so available to him. These options (not to mention other options like getting a job) would likely be available to a person with initiative who wasn’t suffering from crushing depression and anxiety, who didn’t abuse drugs and alcohol, and who was capable of setting and pursuing intermediate and long term goals and such, but that’s not Skinner. Zou Lei has much more in the way of intangible resources, so you can make a case that she’s the less vulnerable one, the one that there is more hope for.
Indeed, as the story develops, if anything Skinner drifts farther away from functionality, while Zou Lei seems to have a certain strength that enables her to endure all the bullshit that life puts in her path.
But once they come together, their primary way of dealing with their vulnerabilities, crises, and emotional problems becomes to rely heavily on each other. This is truly a harsh world they inhabit; their love doesn’t so much give them a way out of it as make it more tolerable.
In the second half of the book, a menacing new character takes on a greater prominence. Jimmy Turner, the son of Skinner’s landlady, returns home after an extended stint in prison. The family is already of a sort to make the folks in Winter’s Bone seem attractive and cultured; the addition of Jimmy to the household only brings the average down.
Jimmy and Skinner have virtually no interaction, but they are certainly aware of each other, and instantly dislike and distrust each other. Soon Skinner finds evidence that Jimmy is snooping around his room when he is out. The landlady, though she has mostly been friendly with Skinner so far, and though she is fully aware what kind of a person her son is, senses a conflict in the works and lets Skinner know in no uncertain terms that family loyalty will trump any other evidence and so she’ll be siding with Jimmy when the time comes.
I suppose Lish could be faulted for telegraphing the ending, in making the fact that Skinner and Jimmy are on a collision course too obvious too soon. But I don’t know that that’s really a flaw. I remember reading something Hitchcock said about suspense, to the effect that sometimes it’s equally or more effective to let the audience know, at least in general terms, what’s coming, and let the anticipation of it build, rather than spring it on them as a total surprise. (As I recall, the example he used is that a traditional shocking movie scene would be to have a person walking through a house and then suddenly someone leaps out at him when he and the audience have no idea he’s there, but that it can be even better if the audience can see the hidden character before the person walking through the house does, so they have to helplessly watch the poor fellow unknowingly move closer and closer to his impending doom.)
As bad as Skinner can be at times, including even toward Zou Lei, he’s always a sympathetic character. Maybe not as much as Zou Lei, but it’s hard not to root for him, as Lish goes out of his way to make sure you understand how badly he has been damaged by factors out of his control, and how he really is doing his best.
On the other hand, he gives you similar background information on Jimmy, showing that the deck was stacked from early on against him developing as any kind of decent human being, and yet he’s just such bad news that it’s much more of a strain to feel the same empathy for him. It only becomes harder to feel anything positive toward him after a horrific rape scene that is probably one of the five or so most brutally violent, disturbing atrocities I’ve read in a novel in my life.
You know Jimmy and Skinner will clash and you know it will get ugly when they do. You can only hope that Skinner will prevail, and that neither Zou Lei or any other innocent third party will get caught in the crossfire.
There’s a great deal more I could say about Preparation for the Next Life, so much that impressed me. There are amazingly intense accounts, for instance, of Skinner or Zou Lei running and walking for hours through a variety of New York neighborhoods following one or another of their fights (it becomes harder and harder for them to remain amicable as Skinner’s emotional problems only seem to get worse), all through the night and all through the day, sometimes following or chasing one another, sometimes looking for one another, sometimes just having to do something physically extreme as a kind of symbolic gesture or emotional release when the enormity of the challenges of their relationship threatens to overwhelm them.
But the more I mention that stood out to me, the more other things I feel obligated to mention that stood out to me roughly as much, and soon I’ll be giving away the whole book.
By the way, on a stylistic note, what’s the deal with writers not using quotation marks? I was going to say “nowadays” or something like that because I’ve seen it a lot more in books I’ve read recently, but even though I’ve read the books in question recently they weren’t all written recently. I’m thinking, for instance, of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy from 1985 (in fact, I mentioned this point in writing about that book), this book from 2015, and I’m pretty sure one or more others that I’ve read in the last year that I’m too lazy to look up to confirm. (David Foster Wallace is sort of an example; he typically uses single quotation marks where double quotation marks is the convention.) Why is this a thing? What’s the value in defying this particular grammatical convention?
Anyway, Preparation for the Next Life is a story mostly of injustice, inhumanity, and indifference, of how people mistreat each other, especially those who are down and are least able to protect themselves. Other than Zou Lei and Skinner’s behavior toward each other (which is itself far from ideal, especially Skinner’s treatment of Zou Lei), there are rarely more than the smallest or briefest examples of people just treating each other decently, offering kindness and friendship, making themselves available for a genuine human connection. There is love and there is perseverance in this novel, but what mostly pervades it is bleakness and harshness.
Maybe the one thought I’m left with as much as any is that no one deserves to be invisible, that everyone has a story worth knowing. The down-and-out type people you pass on the street and take no notice of (or more likely don’t pass on the street because you avoid being in the kind of places they are most likely to be found)—the homeless, the mentally ill, the petty criminals, the foreigners, the drunks, the runaways, etc.—have good and bad qualities like anyone else, have memories, dreams, and disappointments like anyone else, and probably deserved a much greater opportunity at a better life than they ever got.
As Willy Loman’s wife Linda insists in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, “He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”