ON my trip to the airport in New York, my cab driver turned out to be from Dir. As is wont to happen when Pakistanis meet, the conversation quickly went from “you’re from Karachi?” to “do you know my friend who lives in Gulshan-i-Iqbal?” He then asked why I still lived in Pakistan, what was there except bombs and corruption; there was happiness and freedom here in America, he droned (ha!) about the virtues of ‘the land of the free, home of the brave’ etc. I said, Ok, I’m sold, I’ll stay but who will hire me with my green passport and get me the necessary papers to live here? “Papers? Yahan kissi ke paas papers nahin hain.” Turns out folks were living the great American dream, sans papers and sans fear of deportation. “We look out for each other,” the driver from Dir said as he handed me his number with promises of getting me odd jobs at salons or babysitting should I ever opt for that route.
Life as an immigrant is obviously not a bed of roses in a new land and there’s plenty of fiction to document the struggles an individual/couple/family faces in settling in: An American Brat by Bapsi Sidhwa, Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, to name a few moving books. Sometimes triumph overcomes tragedy, sometimes not, sometimes culture is the loser to the Americana; you know many of the story lines. But these stories are not about the undocumented, the invisibles.
Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life is about that, and more, and it is searing in its brutality. It is a love story like no other: it is uncomfortable, it is painful, it is devastating and above all, it is a great American novel.
An illegal immigrant Zou Lei, half Uighur, half Han, makes it to the United States, and is picked up in an undocumented worker sweep. She cannot speak English, is unsure of what will happen to her and the only thing keeping her going is her exercise. She is released and finds her way to New York City where she works in fast-food kitchens, lives in squalor and keeps her profile low because she “just wants to be free”. She meets Brad Skinner, an army vet who served three times in Iraq, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — damaged, vulnerable, alone, much like her — and together they go through life as outsiders, people without anchors, trying to survive each day in New York, a character unto itself in this novel.
This is not the New York that Alicia Keys sang of: “concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there’s nothing you can’t do”. Lish’s city is filthy, mean and he spares no punches in its description. Be it the food courts where Zou Lei works, the various meats hanging at butchers in open markets in Chinatown or the sights and smells Skinner passes on his way to the gym.
One chapter is devoted to a walk at night from one New York borough to another. Much of the couple’s relationship evolves over their walks: “She tromped over the caved-in sidewalk and veered out into the deserted roadway. Skinner made out trees, the small pale flags of littered paper blown against a fence, a field. A board rattled underfoot, then he had crossed the roadway, and he felt his boots thudding on dirt.”
Lish’s painstaking attention to detail is what makes the book so powerful, and at times, difficult to read because of its grimness. However, this dreary picture sets the backdrop of a love story between Zou Lei and Skinner who provide anchors to each other: Zou Lei gives Skinner emotional support and he promises her legal status. “Maybe we’re ordinary people, but the feeling between us is real,” he says. It is a love story about characters that rarely get space in novels. We don’t hear about the undocumented who live and die in the US, and there’s almost a blackout on the damages and scars brought on by wars. Preparation for the Next Life is about both things without ever seeming like a great commentary on issues. Both his characters are marginalised; Zou Lei even more so because she is half Uighur and does not assimilate into the Chinese community. This discrimination occurs even in New York “where everybody is illegal” she says.
There is a third character, the bad guy if you will: Jimmy, the son of the landlady whose basement room Skinner rents. Jimmy knows nothing but crime; he has been recently released from prison and is struggling to find work. When Jimmy and Skinner first meet, you know trouble lies ahead. They are both ticking bombs. And one of them has a gun, the weapon being a character whose presence permeates the air. The tension between these two men will impact the couple — can they survive that challenge?
Needless to say it is a doomed love story — the great ones always are. Lish’s story is a powerful commentary on the broken American dreams, be it for the undocumented or those who thought they were valiantly fighting to protect it. It is a devastating read that will stay with you for a long, long time; a truly great American novel.
A small sidebar: there’s something else also that is delightful about the story of Preparation for the Next Life. After spending five years working on his debut novel, Lish sold it for $2,000 to the independent publisher Tyrant Books (described by The Irish Times as “a one-man publishing outfit”). Within weeks of publication it was receiving glowing reviews and earlier this year it received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. There is hope for indie publishers after all.
Preparation for the Next Life
By Atticus Lish
Tyrant Books, US