” Only her predicament existed to her. She went around the elements of her life again: Skinner, papers, cops, marriage, lawyer, money, job, housing, Skinner, his illness, money. Every planet in the orbit was another unknown. ” (Ch.47, p.345)
Zou Lei, a half-Uighur, half-Han Chinese woman smuggled into the country in a truck from Mexico, is determined to survive whatever America throws at her. After three months in detention, she is released without explanation and finds her way to Queens, New York, where she ekes out a living in Chinatown in Flushing and gets lost in a sea of anonymous illegal immigrants. She works in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurants where the other Chinese workers don’t understand her language. She finds a filthy mattress in an overcrowded crash-pad house. To make extra cash, she rides the subway selling bootleg DVDs. She seems like the loneliest person alive, alienated by language barriers and government obstacles.
Former infantryman Skinner seems similarly driven by a nomadic spirit. Discharged after serving three tours in Iraq, he hitchhikes to New York and, by a fluke, while looking for a massage parlor, meets Zou Lei and they become unlikely lovers, bonded over a shared obsession with fitness. Ensued is a relationship that is bound for a tragedy. Skinner suffers from PTSD and is haunted by atrocities he witnessed and committed. Still healing from his mortar wound, his mind addled by alcohols and a cocktail of prescription drugs, he makes no attempt to find work or to make sense of Zou Lei’s predicament. He passes his day drinking and lifting weights while she takes up a series of dead-end jobs that fails to give her financial stability. Above all, she is ever the subject to laws that place limits on her movement and restrict her opportunities. But she survives, through menial and often illegal work, vulnerable to the cruelties of a system reliant on cheap labor.
The army had given him anti-anxiety medication, antipsychotic medication, and something to help him sleep. Whatever else these chemicals did to him, they did not stop him from having nightmares. (Ch.25, p.208)
The book is realistic, scathing, and mournful. Zou is unflinching as Skinner is out-of-control. He is a decent man, but he treats her so badly that one sees how little control he has over his behavior and his life. He rents out the basement from a woman whose ex-con son has proven to be another threat. Through this unlikely couple Lish evokes the reality of the underclass and life at the margins. The America to the immigrant and veteran pair is tawdry, grim, and relentless. Their love story is one with much ache to it; and the element of romance doesn’t eradicate the squalor of their lives.
Lish’s vivid description landscape lends a sense of pre-apocalypse. He nurtures and encourages the smallest details until they fan out into unexpected panoramas. In juxtaposing their experiences of Zou and Skinner, Lish delineates New York’s immigrant neighborhoods and the realities of exploitation and precariousness in the lives of America’s underclass. The prose is robust, tough, and lyrical. Much of the book’s beauty is its insights into the ordinary dramas of life, which serve as narrative purpose. But it has that journalistic determination to document the experience. Preparation for the Next Life is charged with a breathless momentum as it propels towards a destiny as devastating as it is hopeful. It’s one of those rare gem of a book that is edgy and at the same time very real.
417 pp. Tyrant Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]
Filed under: American Literature, Books, Contemporary Fiction, Literature Tagged: | American Literature, Atticus Lish, Books, Contemporary Fiction, General Fiction, Literature, Preparation for the Next Life