“Preparation for the Next Life” by Atticus Lish
This is a book that I mentally and emotionally clambered over and wriggled through in a three day intensive work-out. I’ve never spent time in a gym where people use weights to add muscle to one part of their anatomy or other. I imagine I never will, being seventy-eight and satisfied staying home to do my sit-ups and push-ups. But I can now say that I definitely got more than a whiff of what that kind of work-out entails as a result of reading this debut novel of Atticus Lish.
Smells are very much part of this work- be it those rising in a a gym where Brad Skinner lifts weights, or emanating from the “black muck being worked out of the fissures and moldings” of a drain tap in the restaurant where Zou Lei blasts pots clean in the kitchen.
Brad, a three-tours Iraq war vet with severe PTSD, and Zou, a Han-Uighur illegal immigrant, form the unlikely couple whose relationship shapes the narrative of this book. Unlikely couple from the point of view of demographics, but not from a souls-eye view. They are both true warriors: he tested in battle; she, emulating her father who served in the People’s Liberation Army and extolled military virtues to her. Virtues she manifests on a daily basis, following a rigorous routine of physical exercise that enables her to work long hours in physically demanding jobs. They recognize and love the warrior in each other. A warrior that can also be compassionate and caring when needed.
The settings are neighborhoods in Queens, New York, where immigrants from China, South East Asia and Central America (many of them undocumented) form the majority of the population.
Reading page after page of highly detailed, sensate descriptions of these areas, reminded me of the work of Karl Ove Knausgaard. In his autobiographical volumes we are given a detailed entrée into the mind of an erudite, psychologically sophisticated novelist. In this book, the physical reality and sociocultural context surrounding our protagonists is brought into detailed relief, rather than our being exposed to the twists and turns of a brilliant mind.
Atticus (meaning “man of Attica”, an area near ancient Athens) Lish, has written a novel that realistically plunges us into some of the darkest parts of post 9/11 America and Iraq (detention centers, penitentiaries, combat zones, the slums and burnt out neighborhoods of the poor). It is precisely because Atticus pays so much attention to the power of context, that the book resembles an ancient Greek play. The individual is dropped into this world and then molded and buffeted by forces beyond his or her control.
War is an excellent example of this process – one reason it plays a major role in so many Greek tragedies. It is no accident that two warrior-lovers are the protagonists. However, even in a world where the Gods rule there remains a place for love and hope – qualities that seek to transcend grinding context. Indeed the sweetness inherent in those qualities makes tragedies tragic.
This is not an easy book to read, but as with many demanding tasks, I found it worth the effort.