November 2014

Brian Nicholson

fiction

Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish

There is no hope to better one's station through hard work. Opportunities are limited to whatever those exploiting your labor are willing to give you. For those who've immigrated into the United States illegally, whose available community does not necessarily have the best interests of others at heart, hard work might be a habit, but minus any chance to ever save money up money, the only redemption possible is through some form of grace: the feeling of freedom that has no relationship to economic realities, and simply stems from being alive in a country that you have chosen.

Preparation for the Next Life focuses on Zou Lei, a Chinese Muslim of the Uighur tribe, who has made her way to New York City after sneaking over the border from Mexico. She has been detained before, and is haunted be the fear of being caught again, as she works in the back of a restaurant and pays $100 a week to sleep in one box of many in a small apartment. Absent any chance to change her station, the possibility of love remains as something that could theoretically change her life. Such possibility enters into her life through a PTSD-afflicted veteran of the Iraq war, Skinner, whose privileged status as a war hero has given him the option to live in the relative privacy of a basement apartment and take medication.

The book's heart lies in the love between the two of them, which is warm and tender the way the rest of its world isn't. Theirs is a relationship built on a shared knowledge of the world's frustrations that circumvents any communication issues through the mechanics of bodies touching. Besides sex, they bond over exercise, passing body builder magazines back and forth, and she collects the bottles and cans scattered around his bed for the recycling deposit. Through regimens and routine, self-improvement is sought, existing coterminous with some form of release.

The activity of the book is a sense of pacing around, going on long walks, with anger inside, fists in pockets, beating up your body just by being in the world. For the tenderness that passes between the two of them does not extend to their ability to treat themselves better. Exercise is one of several habits whereby they do violence to themselves. Zou Lei works consistently in falling apart shoes and their lack of support makes her legs ache. Skinner smokes cigarettes, Zou Lei tells him he should quit; he agrees but cannot. The book's sentences are written with the rhythm of push-ups, the default exercise of the confined man: a way of pushing against the boundaries imposed on you by pushing against oneself and one's own weight. The writing is lyrical, but angry; muscular, exhausted. It is unremittingly consistent in its tone and language, realistic about its world and the characters' prospects within it, and unsqueamish about the perceptions of other races that arises unthinkingly in urban living.

Outside each other's presence, out in the larger world, Skinner is viewed as the mentally unstable traumatized dude he is. Drinking to dull certain pains, he reveals himself unrepentant of the violent actions he's performed in the line duty, stored as images on his phone. Meanwhile the people who live upstairs from him see Zou Lei and assume she is delivering food, or else she is a prostitute.

Love could be redemptive, maybe, if what it had to fight against was not so long a list. And maybe in the end it is, depending on how we take the title, how much we, as readers taking the place of an omniscient judge, are willing to forgive. But eventually the violence confined inside rubs up against the freedom to walk around, and having found an outlet, explodes. The gun Skinner carries around is in time emptied. You prepare for the next life by coming to some sort of peace, but for the time being, the life we are living now is to be defined by its opposite.

Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish
Tyrant Books
ISBN: 978-0988518339
250 pages