Running, pacing, climbing, gasping for air. Rarely do form and function unite as well as they do in Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life. Over the course of the novel’s 400 plus pages there isn’t a single calm respite, from this frenetic world nor from the troubles the protagonists face. And there are a lot of troubles. The novel centers on a brief period in the lives of two characters: Brad Skinner, a soldier just back from Iraq and Zou Lei, Chinese Muslim immigrant. The two meet on a fire escape in New York’s Chinatown and quickly fall in love.
The love they give is dependent, they move in symbiosis, when one pulls the other is dragged along. This adds to the general motion of the story and to its structure, which is far from linear and thus unique among contemporary literary novels. As Zou Lei reflects on her life in China and her childhood with her military father she remembers his words, “The pipeline work is like mining and, though it’s dangerous, we’re committed to it, because we want to make the country go forward.” One cannot help but feeling that this is also the mantra of Zou Lei herself, committed to movement and her own idea of progress. This is a notion she cannot pass on to Skinner.
Skinner and Zou Lei lead difficult lives in a New York that we don’t see nearly enough of in fiction. Poverty is not sentimentalized or granted some inherent moral value; here poverty is lack of access, not only to economic privileges but to emotional privileges as well. Zou Lei lives in a crowded space filled with other immigrants; she is treated badly, she cannot get a decent job. She would like to be a legal resident but is too afraid of making a mistake and losing her only chance. Skinner eventually finds a place to live in Queens as well, after having refused to return to his hometown in Appalachia. What seems like a safe and clean place to take shelter for Skinner turns out to be another combat zone and soon his undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder worsens as his world unravels.
Preparation for the Next Life asks us to see the Other fully. French philosopher Emmanual Levinas defines the Other as “infinitely foreign;” it is for this very reason that the Other must be respected- the unknowable should not be turned into a reflection of ourselves. This turning the Other into a reflection of ourselves is a key construct and practice of Western civilization: in lieu of attempting true understanding Western civilization names, categorizes and applies judgment to anything new or different. Lish, like Levinas, refuses to view the Other with these eyes. In dealing with people at the margins of society he does not attempt to garner sympathy or tears; Lish presents us with whole people. He does not colonize them or turn them into romantic versions of struggle.
The novel beats out in rhythmic thuds. At first it seem violent, this textual regularity, but little by little Lish creates variations, steep and wide. On one of her runs Zou Lei sees the world before her and begins combining the different parts of her life, describing who she is to Skinner.
I goes like this: down, down, down to Chinatown. You cannot see. I start up there- she turned thirty degrees to the east- where is Connecticut, all the way. I been out, out to there, to Long Island, Riverhead…
She squinted in the sun. Look! She patted his arm and got him to look where she was pointing to the west. I work there, where it’s Nanuet.
What’d do out there?
Restaurant. She held his camouflage. If you keep going that way, west, west, west, you will be the ocean, then China. No one will understand you. Everyone will be confusing. Maybe it’s different for you. In the morning, get up early to get the water. Burn the fire. The people is a billion. It is more big than here. Ride the bus. The train. Truck. Camel. Sleep the ground. See the mountain.
All she has seen, all he has seen, they are attempts at fusing together a new identity. In The Phenomenological Theory of Being Levinas writes, “What exists for us, what we consider as existing is not a reality hidden behind phenomena that appear as images or signs of this reality. The world of phenomena it-self makes up the being of our concrete life.” Skinner and Zou Lei both make attempts at explaining their personal realities to one another. Our “infinite foreignness” has nothing to do with the languages we speak or the families we have or don’t have, but rather this foreignness comes from our inability to see beyond our own reflection. This game with reflections is not only played with the reader but with the characters as well who fade and vanish into and out of the world; they become reverberations, filling spaces both public and private.
She left and broke down sobbing in a basketball court where boys were playing ball. In Uighur she cried, I know I’m not going to make it! I am so sad! – and the rending sound of her weeping echoed off the concrete surfaces. She told herself that when she couldn’t take it anymore she was simply going to start walking, she was going to go and never stop until she crossed the continent or something happened to her and she became a ghost.
The only sympathy Lish garners with this story is in the reminder of how little we know about each other. It is so easy to imagine the suffering of others and feel grateful for your own life- it is harder to imagine the full humanity of others as equal to your own. Lish is telling a story at the margins of every society, of visceral and invisible experiences of our amplified, over-stimulated world.
Lish, Atticus, Preparation for the Next Life, Tyrant Books, 2014.
Allison Grimaldi-Donahue is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in The American Reader, The Diner Journal and The New Inquiry. A graduate of the University of Toronto Centre for Comparative Literature, she is currently pursuing her MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Bologna, Italy where she teaches English and American literatures.