PREPARATION FOR THE NEXT LIFE
by Atticus Lish
Tyrant, 417 pages
reviewed by Jamie Fisher
If civilization ended tomorrow and had to be reconstructed based on Preparation for the Next Life, our descendants could get reasonably far with Atticus Lish’s instruction manual. They could learn, for instance, how correctional officers respond to an incident in the yard. Or how to eat a hot dog:
The guy whose house it was’s woman brought out a tray of hotdogs and set it on the coffee table, which was behind them. The plumber turned around and said thank you, hon. There’s relish, she said. She sat down on the couch, which was behind the coffee table, and spooned relish on a hotdog and bit into it with her hand cupped under it and chewed.
In Preparation for the Next Life, Lish fixates on certain details. Notice how insistent he is on the geography of the living room, seemingly at the expense of almost everything else besides the hot dog. No one says much in this well-appointed room and not much happens—here or anywhere. The nearest metaphor for the novel may be a heavily upholstered room in which no one talks, really, about anything. The plot, such that it is, feels light. The structure is non-existent. Still, Lish wants to make the room look busy. So we have lazy boys, kitchenettes, sofa-beds; bodegas, E-Verify, the military-penal complex. At the end, gripped by the anxiety of moving, he decides the best way to leave the room would be to set it on fire.
On its surface, the book relates the fraught romance between Iraq War veteran Skinner and the Chinese immigrant Zou Lei. Both characters feel both tough and fragile: hard-bitten travelers at the mercy of others. We first meet Zou Lei in a motel, sharing “a room with half a dozen other women from Fookien and a liter of orange soda.” Skinner, recently relieved of duty, is hitchhiking his way to New York. Eventually their paths cross, in the way that aimless paths do. They agonize over money, marriage, mental illness, the possibility of deportation. Still, despite these background pressures, which get lip service every dozen pages or so, the novel is almost entirely without incident.
Lish’s style recalls, in its declarative simplicity, the novels of Kent Haruf, that Great Plain author of the Great Plains. “A blond came in,” Lish writes, “but she came in with two guys. They all had briefcases. Her voice carried. She said, You have to capitalize on that. They changed the channels on the flat-screen. Someone clapping. Someone pouring orange juice. The golf report. Skinner picked up his bags and went back outside.” (At some point Lish acknowledges that some sentence variation is in order. He confines it to this paragraph: “For Jimmy, the detectives were called. Distinguished-looking men, they came in suits and porkpie hats.”)
A quarter of the way in, we meet Jimmy, a released felon who happens to be the son of Skinner’s landlady. It is necessary to meet Jimmy because Jimmy is the plot. He is the late-coming incarnation of evil, keen on raping and pillaging and borrowing Skinner’s girlie magazines. Without even asking! This section of the novel (excerpted in The Paris Review) is shockingly good. Lish relaxes into abrupt liveliness and a folksy humor that feels kind rather than condescending, noticing “a velvet picture of Elvis looking handsome above the couch his mother sat on.” Or, describing a daughter’s failed attempts to watch out for her mother: “She was her mother’s friend, but not her best one.” For twenty-odd pages, you know and feel for everyone. Then Lish pans out again into the Great Plains, and every character becomes a stranger.
But in general, Preparation feels more like a found document than a novel. Swaths of dialogue are what Lish calls “overheards:” borrowed “from people who didn’t know I was listening to them.” Lish likes to parrot and record, but seldom interprets; he is the kind of writer who never writes “she laughed” when he can write “hahahahaha.” It’s difficult to determine how much of Lish’s compulsion to furnish is deliberate. Certainly it recalls Bret Easton Ellis’s stream-of-consumer-consciousness prose in American Psycho, but to what end? Is he mimicking the intermittent significance of life? Unwilling to edit? Rebelling against his famously snip-happy father, Gordon Lish?
In the publicity storm accompanying Lish’s debut—Best of 2014, said The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair and BuzzFeed— he was widely praised as a master of dialect. Still, while Lish has an ear for dialogue, he never quite demonstrates Haruf’s knack for it. He knows how people speak—that an Irish father, for example, will say trown instead of thrown— but doesn’t really know what they should say. People are given to cryptic statements, trembling with significance: “You cannot ask for the things of this life,” Zou Lei’s mother says.
At times this seems to be part of a systematic philosophy, illustrating how seldom we understand each other. Lish’s flood of dialects, mainly talking past each other, is mirrored by his sections on the profusion of languages and dialects in China.“It was like hearing someone talk through a prism,” Mandarin-speaking Zou Lei thinks, listening to her coworkers glide along in Cantonese.
But on the whole, the author’s mimicry begins to seem symptomatic of a larger problem: Lish’s ability to record, but not to communicate. There’s a telling scene, in the opening pages, when Zou Lei and her fellow immigrants practice English from watching the television in their motel room: “Unbelievable, they said. This Tuesday on Fox. A grim day in Iraq.” Entire characters and conversations exist only to demonstrate that Lish knows how they might sound. Most of the novel never quite manages to transcend this feeling of puppetry.
Zou Lei and Skinner, too, feel like less like people than channels, tuned in to the Definitive American Experience. Obeying a modern update on Chekhov’s dictum, Lish knows that if there’s a soldier with post-traumatic stress in Act I, he must pull the trigger by the finale. At one point, Zou Lei crosses a freeway: “it felt like the rest of America, the vast concrete speedway echoing and echoing.” How can she say? At this point she’s only been in the tristate area.
When people are not busy having Realizations about America, they give Speeches about America. Or Lish does, in unlikely indirect quotation that feels like a conspiracy theorist’s elevator-speech about his pet ideations. Often this combines with updates on thematically relevant current events. So we end up with scenes like these, among the kingpins of a prison drug operation:
The Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal had just come out on CNN. They said you’ve declared war on the State of Indiana, we’ve declared war on the United States. This organization is bigger than the United Stares… This is a structure. We’re like Al Qaeda. They give us life, double life, life without. The state has our commanders in max segregation units, no human contact, twenty-four hours a day, and they’re still calling shots as far as politics, operations, whatever the case might be. Who goes in the hat. The state takes everything they can and we’re still going on like magic.
There is a strange, civic optimism to Lish’s idea that political discussion figures readily in everyday life. But there is also a lonely, unvarying pessimism in Lish’s execution—how often these discussions take place in soliloquy rather than dialogue, and how frequently these soliloquies sound like Lish.
His insights are, to be sure, often astute. Lish draws broad parallels between prison and the military, post-PTSD dislocation and the immigrant experience. But mainly Lish’s earnest philosophizing metaphors fall flat, inexpertly observed. Skinner, watching basketball, thinks to himself, “The players ran back and forth like herds of deer in a hunting program, like civilians in a hamlet. They fled across the court and then they stopped and smelled the air. They never knew who was going to hit them with the ball.” Really? The pro basketball players have no idea where the ball is? And why are they sniffing so often, and with such convenient poignancy? Reading Lish, it’s hard not to think of a dictum from that other great editor, Pound: no metaphors that do not permit inspection.
And few of Lish’s metaphors do. He sprints for pages without figurative language, then introduces it again, in little bursts that are probably intended to give you the giddy Technicolor feeling of entering Oz, but more often feel like jogging on a Möbius loop: weird attempts at metaphor that seem to indicate the pointlessness of metaphor, when everything is so patently already what it is. “When she was alone, her mind turned inside-out like an envelope.” Well, yes. If the envelope is turned inside-out. And a dark tunnel is never just a black hole. It’s “a black hole of nothing.”
For a book that strains to seem simply written, it’s telling how often moments of lyrical significance are signaled with a glut of words, mostly doing each other’s work. It’s as if, after so much deprivation, Lish binges. Sometimes literally. Chasing after Zou Lei, Skinner feels that “his blood was thickening, caramel icing like sugar in a hot pan and turning to acid.” Important descriptions are fat with adjectives; scenes meant to be particularly resonant are broken into long paragraphs. You can feel them coming on like movie music. Zou Lei never touches Skinner’s scar—not if she has the chance to “lay her palm on the dented puckered slick bumpy knotted flesh,” or grab “his hard clammy white bare foot with her discolored calloused hands.”
There is excess here, and irrelevance. Still, it’s interesting to note what Lish finds consistently worth mentioning. Retardation, for example, always interests. Picturing a corpse, Skinner considers that “the eyes looked like those of a brain-damaged zombie or retarded person.” Elsewhere, Jimmy watches “the onrush of the Chinese. Their scuffing, heedless, lobotomized walking, as if retarded, as if forced to ingest pesticide as children.” Regardless of your concern for political correctness, Lish’s use of retardation as a go-to code for creepy or unsettling certainly amounts to an imaginative poverty.
Another recurring pattern: Zou Lei, fresh from exercising. Lish is always sure to mention when Zou Lei’s shirt is heavy with sweat, or when her thighs are “tight from running.” Tight becomes her leitmotif. Zou Lei finds ways to end up pornographically compromised that defy logic. Here she is after washing her feet in a mosque: “She sat one knee bent, her tanned face and bare calves burnished and dark, the sweat on her forehead gleaming and the crotch of her tight denim leggings wet… Her dried sweat had left licks of salt on her temples, down her bare thighs.” Bare? She’s wearing jeans.
Although Skinner never glistens, Lish has a clear reverence for fitness, reflected in the physicality of both characters. He reads muscle magazines and doubles down at the gym, has a tattoo reading, in Chinese, something like No Pain No Gain; she lunges and runs, implausibly, during her lunch breaks at a low-wage kitchen job. Although the book’s title is drawn from a sign at the mosque where Zou Lei oozes, the idea of physical preparation for an unpredictable life to come dominates the novel. In a hasty epilogue, Zou Lei, the sole survivor of Lish’s attempts to clean house, undergoes a Zelig-like migration to the Southwest. (“She looked older,” Lish informs us solemnly, “had gained weight in the bones of her jaws and the muscles of her temples.”) There she quickly acquires Spanish and, despite being “piss-poor,” acquires an iPod and pumps iron in the perfect gym, one with “a fleet of treadmills and a mirrored cathedral of Olympic weights.” In a convenient soliloquy to poor dead Skinner, she explains that she can afford all this because—despite being budget-conscious in the rest of the book—she has decided to spend all of his money at once. As the book concludes, she literally shoulders her load: “From beneath her hat brim, she surveyed the weight. It was a lot for her… She put her shoulders under the bar, said a prayer to him and prepared to lift.”
So how to explain the phenomenal success of a middling book? Part of it is that old canard, wishful thinking that hopes experience can be alchemized directly into writing. Lish has dropped out of Harvard, served in the Marine Corps, lived in China; he has the taut jawline, forehead crease, and bald, concerned face of World-Weary Truth. Heck, he’s the son of Gordon Lish, the editor whose impeccable good taste won him the title Captain Fiction. Surely, at least by some trick of Lamarckian genetics, Atticus would have inherited his father’s sensibilities. So, I might imagine, the thinking goes.
If well executed, the book could have been a fable about the rise and fall of great powers: the American veteran, damaged by his own lust for war, returns home and does himself in, while the resourceful Chinese immigrant, infinitely adaptable, moves on.
In fact, it’s maddening to think about all the novel could have been, and what all the infatuated criticism in the world can’t make it. At its best, Lish’s language has a strangeness that feels both hallucinogenic and absolutely correct: “His face was lopsided, the result of ingesting pesticide as a child, which gave him the knowing look of someone who wasn’t going to be fooled again.” This is a terrain Denis Johnson has mined with much success, as psychedelic as it is forgiving. When he doesn’t play it plain and straight, Lish exaggerates pleasantly. “Jimmy grew up wearing a plaid shirt,” he writes, “standing brooding silent with his mouth shut, the trace of a mustache over his lip, waiting for Patrick to say, Let me have the spanner.” It’s a lovely way to convey adolescent impatience, evocative but self-aware.
The New York Times has called Preparation “perhaps the finest and most unsentimental love story of the new decade.” Well, perhaps. If it’s a love story, it might be a love story to Lish, his characters mirrors allowing him to bask in his own light. In Jimmy, and occasionally in Zou Lei, there’s a glow that seems to come from a deeper place. These are rare moments, and they could be flashes in the pan. Still, they make you hope.
Lish’s book is like the dream of a good novel. Let’s hope it’s preparation for his next.
Jamie Fisher is a freelance writer, Chinese-English translator, and budding manuscript conservationist working out of Philadelphia. She graduated recently from the University of Pennsylvania, where her majors were Linguistics and East Asian Languages & Civilizations. She can be reached at [email protected].