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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit