The big, bad apple: New York’s Queensboro Bridge, linking Manhattan and Queens. Photo: MOMENT
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In Atticus Lish’s sweeping novel of 21st-century New York, even love seems pointless

Preperation for the Next Life is remarkably well-researched, but doesn't forget the profound intimacy of life on the margins.

Preparation for the Next Life
Atticus Lish
Oneworld, 417pp, £14.99

At the beginning of this magnificent and profoundly distressing novel, two people come journeying towards New York City. Zou Lei is an illegal immigrant, a half-Han, half-Uighur Muslim Chinese woman who has travelled to America across the Mexican border, carrying shower shoes and a phone number but no identification or working papers. Brad Skinner is a soldier, back from Iraq after a stop-lossed second tour. He has post-traumatic stress disorder, and everything he owns is in a pack on his shrapnel-scarred back: a poncho liner, a pistol and a laptop full of desert sand. Both are obsessed with exercise, both are struggling and both are good-hearted, though this by no means guarantees their happiness or survival.

This is a love story and a war story, but it is also a story about work. In fact, it is one of the best recent novels I have read about work as it exists for millions of people: the punishing exertions of menial labour and zero-hours contracts, where wages fluctuate according to an overseer’s whim and there is no security of any kind. Zou lives in a filthy partitioned apartment in Flushing, Queens, sleeping on a mattress black with mould in an open-topped cubicle surrounded by fellow immigrants. She works in Chinese restaurants in shopping malls, making noodles and unloading vans, washing dishes and taking orders for stringy beef and congee, part of the invisible army of the undocumented.

The city of New York has been passed through the mill of literature so thoroughly that one wouldn’t have thought a single sidewalk had been left unitemised, and yet the marginal landscapes chartered by Lish are fundamentally unfamiliar, situated on the very edge of the deep five boroughs.

You saw women in black burkas waiting for the bus, unwilling to speak with strangers. Or not waiting, taking whatever they had with them and getting . . . away on foot, travelling with girls in burkas, pushing a grocery cart with a twenty-pound sack of jasmine rice in it. They had WIC, asylum. Whatever skin of theirs was visible – the hands, around the eyes – having been tanned in a burning oilfield.

In this world, people are perpetually on the move, drifting across national borders, in flight from trauma. America might offer refuge, but after the 9/11 attacks and the Patriot Act, it might also enact further brutality. Zou lives in terror of immigration raids, of tumbling into the prison system, from which Muslims in particular rarely emerge undamaged, if they emerge at all. Skinner, too, is brutalised by his part in the war on terror. Zou hopes to make rent, eat and evade deportation, but Skinner’s aim is even more ambitious. He wants to – has to – make sense of the violence he has experienced, violence that threatens to drain all meaning out of the world, making even love seem sickening and pointless.

In Iraq he has seen friends die; has seen bodies reduced to parts and terrified teenaged girls abducted by border guards. He has shot people for fun, “shot their fuckin camels every chance we got” – or at least he says he has, in the blacked-out rants he delivers to strangers in seedy bars. Now he must learn how to make sense of these things, to position them inside himself: work that becomes increasingly arduous as he struggles to negotiate a bullying upstairs neighbour who has recently been released from prison and is capable of horrifyingly violent acts.

Lish moves back and forth between Zou and Skinner, documenting their experiences in an extraordinary stream of broken English, a logging of every single thing
that happens on the seething streets of Queens. Nothing is missed: not a street sign, not a piece of graffiti, not the name of the three-in-one instant coffees at a Chinatown market, not the Milo Fuze and Glow-San Kentucky. This avid, manic listing attests to the emotional state of people who cannot afford to miss a single thing if they hope to survive: a literary replication of the experience of hypervigilance that attends trauma or extreme danger.

The novel is evidently the product of remarkable research but it also attests to a more profound and intimate knowledge of how life functions on the margins. At first glance, Atticus Lish seems an unlikely candidate for this work. He is the son of Gordon Lish, the celebrated “Captain Fiction”, who edited Raymond Carver into pristine minimalism and in so doing helped develop dirty realism, the dominant tone in American letters right through the 1980s. Atticus Lish did not, however, immediately enter the family business. Instead, he spent his twenties drifting through menial jobs, serving in the marines and working in factories and fast-food restaurants all over the United States. Forget MFAs; by his labours, he has reaffirmed the vital nature of deep research, of entering and documenting the working world.

Preparation for the Next Life begins with two people walking, like characters from a myth, and although I do not want to give away a single thing that happens in its three intricately constructed and agonising acts, towards the end there is another walk, which must be numbered among the most devastating journeys taken by fictional feet, first clad in shower slippers bought in a 99-cent store, and then on bare and bleeding soles. This walk lodges with you, as the novel itself will lodge, lavish and grimy, pushing ever further into the dark.

Olivia Laing is the author of “The Trip to Echo Spring” (Canongate)

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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The NS Q&A: Naomi Alderman on Oprah, Ovid, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer

"The worst things that ever happened to me were before I was 20."

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on a striped blue-and-white deckchair with a migraine. My mother gave me orange squash. We’ve worked out (from the deckchair) that I was 18 months old.

Who was your childhood hero?

I was incredibly inspired by Oprah Winfrey as a young woman. Her childhood (sexual and physical abuse, teenage pregnancy, the death of her baby) was traumatic, and her subsequent life has been defined by hard work, talent and one glorious victory after another. People in the UK can sneer about her because we are terrified of emotions and she’s not perfect (who is?), but she introduced me to the possibility of improving one’s internal life. A miracle.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. It’s as if he managed to voyage back a few hundred years and just take notes.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Florence Nightingale, who was a terrible nurse but a brilliant statistician and wielded her public image to influence politicians to improve health care. I wish that she were still around, skewering ministers misusing statistics on Question Time.

When were you happiest?

Now. The worst things that ever happened to me were before I was 20. It has been slow, hard-won improvement since then.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Ovid. Both are intensely serious, as well as funny. Both wield myths to talk about their modern world. Both are subjects I’d like to revise.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?

The future. As far as possible. Not to live, though – just to visit.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’d like [the 16th-century Dutch painter] Jan van Scorel, please, with the same affection and knowingness as his portrait of Agatha van Schoonhoven. They lived together and had six children, even though he was a canon and couldn’t marry.

What’s your theme tune?

A Jewish song that goes: “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor . . .” It translates as: “It’s not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to refrain from it.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? And have you followed it?

I know how this sounds, but my deceased grandmother appeared to me in a dream once and told me something I can’t share. But I did follow her advice and it was excellent. (Thanks, Booba and/or my subconscious.)

What’s currently bugging you?

Brexit. I want to start a campaign called “Back in 30” – to get us back into the EU by 2030, when Remainers (or Rejoiners) will almost certainly be a convincing majority.

What single thing would make your life better?

I wish that Gordon Brown had called a snap election in 2007.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I think I would have enjoyed running a business (and I sort of do run one now, with the video games). I’ve got the brain for systems and a head for figures. But all these daydreams end with: “And I could carve out time to write.”

Are we all doomed?

No. The species will continue, whatever apocalypse we manage to unleash. It just won’t be much fun to live through.

Naomi Alderman’s novel “The Power” (Penguin) is shortlisted for the Baileys Prize

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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