Along the way to Preparation for the Next Life's dramatic conclusion, there's a good deal of lovely, Nabokovian-like descriptive writing.
Preparation for the Next LifePublisher: Tyrant
Length: 418 pages
Author: Atticus Lish
Publication date: 2014-11
There's something deeply disturbing about Atticus Lish's novel. It's the sort of book that has a great deal of moral heft.
Here's the trap a reader can fall into. An affluent, well-educated reader can pick up this book and congratulate himself for having taken an earnest interest in the plight of the down-trodden. But of course there isn't much that's admirable about the act of simply reading fiction. What would be admirable is if, after reading the book, the reader then volunteered to work with PTSD-inflicted former soldiers.
This novel reminds me a bit of the Tracy Jordan character on 30 Rock. Do you remember when he shifts gears and becomes an Oscar-winning actor? The role for which he wins is the centerpiece of a film entitled Hard to Watch. That movie seems to be about racial injustice, poverty, and endless suffering. It's the kind of thing that members of the Academy would indeed applaud, in between days of shopping-for-pearls and shelling-out-for-fancy-cocktails.
Who is Atticus Lish? He's the progeny of a great and controversial figure in American letters: Gordon Lish. Lish the Father famously edited the stories of Raymond Carver, and these stories should be on any serious reader's bookshelf. Carver became known for "minimalism"; allowing the white spaces on the page to say more than the sparse text says. But Carver wasn't actually such a minimalist. Gordon Lish turned his stories into something they weren't meant to be. Indeed, Lish's aggressive editorial hand has angered some readers. First among them is Stephen King, who wrote scathingly about Lish in the New York Times ("Raymond Carver’s Life and Stories" 19 November 2009).
It's possible Atticus would have some sympathy for King. From what I've read, Atticus has not always had an easy time with his own father. The two were estranged for somewhere around a decade. Atticus started off as a golden child with a ticket to Harvard, then things went haywire. Harvard wasn't working for Atticus. He dropped out. He did odd jobs. He served his country. All the while, a novel was bubbling up inside of him.
Preparation for the Next Life concerns Zooey and Brad Skinner, authors of an ill-fated love. Zooey, a Uighur, has come over from China. Zooey is tough and even heroic. She endures rape while living in a detention facility for illegal immigrants. She works hard for her abusive and irrational superiors. And she runs and exercises all the time. Her body is like its own armor. All this strength allows her to tolerate Skinner intermittently -- and Skinner is a mess.
Having done terrible things in Iraq, Skinner is not sure he wants to continue to be here on this planet. He spends a fair amount of time staring at the ceiling and cradling his gun. His apartment looks like a disaster area; porn, weed, and antidepressants are scattered about. He doesn't get much help from the government he has served. Someone, somewhere, has preposterously ruled that his, Skinner's, mental ailments are not the result of the work he did in Iraq.
Sometimes, you simply know, right away, when a novel will not end well. This is one of those novels.
Along the way to that end, there's a good deal of lovely, Nabokovian-like descriptive writing. Do you remember how Lolita has long passages where the author is simply listing the wacky American sites that he sees? And the writing has a kind of electric charge, because, of course, the author is an outsider, capable of making some readers see their own landscape in a new way? Lish has some of that talent. Long passages are devoted to the weirdness of New York City -- to its idiosyncratic stores and businesses. This is not a novel in which plot and fast pacing are main concerns.
The sexual attraction between Zooey and Skinner is among the story's highlights. The two are like animals. Zooey sees Skinner as a wolf, come to devour her. There is some shocking semi-fornication in a KFC in Harlem. Lish convincingly explains the bond between these two lovers. It's painful, because you know Skinner won't be able to conquer his demons and make something lasting with Zooey.
Other reviewers have suggested that this novel is, at core, a grim prophecy about the relationship between the East and the West. Is Lish saying that we'll never understand one another? That we're doomed to mutual destruction? Maybe so, though it's worth noting that Zooey has a kind of sunny, inspiring coda at the end of the story (a coda that Lish almost neglected to write).
I sometimes thought of Miss Saigon while I was reading; one could see Lish's work as a much darker take on that musical's source material. In Miss Saigon, the suffering former-soldier merely has a few nightmares, and he's soothed by his patient blonde wife. The former GI never cradles a pistol in that musical.