The big, bad apple: New York’s Queensboro Bridge, linking Manhattan and Queens. Photo: MOMENT
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

Only Drake could wow the O2 by pointing out random audience members' clothing

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through.

On the last London night of his Boy Meets World tour (20 March), Drake doesn’t come on stage until 10pm, which is enough to kill off most gigs at the O2 Arena (hello, Bieber), as people are worried about getting the Tube home. The amount of rum and Coke in the room – a steaming, unrecognisable space with a false ceiling of globular lights and a stampeding crowd split in half by a fence – certainly helps keep the buzz. But who’d have thought that a man standing onstage diligently pointing at audience members and saying what they’re wearing (“You in the blue dress shirt with the ­lager!”) would constitute one of the most exciting nights the O2 has seen in a while?

“Tonight is not a show, not a concert, not about me,” says Drake, who runs an annual “Drake Night” in Toronto and once visited Drake University in Iowa.

So far, the world’s favourite rapper – his latest album, More Life, recently got 90 million streams on its first day of release on Apple Music alone – has had a shifting identity. His songs capture a new strain of emotionally literate but solipsistic hip-hop, which can feel intense or whiny depending on how you look at it. His offstage behaviour is Type-A rapper – he has been accused of throwing beer bottles at Chris Brown, he has been punched by Diddy and he has had altercations with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Ludacris.

But Aubrey Drake Graham, the son of a white, Jewish mother and an African-American father who once played drums alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, does skits about his petulance on Saturday Night Live (see “Drake’s Beef”). Emotionally demonstrative, openly dysfunctional, a bit of a bruiser, with an ability to flit between a dozen styles of music while expressing a desire for crowd participation that borders on the needy . . . Could this man be the ­Michael Bublé of hip-hop?

Drake’s sprawling two-hour roadshow is held back from chaos by the force of his physical presence. Blunt-headed with muscular, sloping shoulders and mesmerising, nimble feet, he prowls the edge of the stage. He has had so many hits (and has so many guest stars tonight) that he is not interested in playing them all the way through. Instead, recalling Prince in the same venue ten years ago, the show becomes a series of medleys. With just a drummer and a synth player at the back of the stage, he demonstrates an invisible, physical control over the music, operating it like a string puppet, stopping or starting songs with the drop of a foot or the shrug of a shoulder, so they collapse in the middle and are gone.

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through. Pointing at people in the audience, real or imaginary, is a music hall thing. Bruce Dickinson and Metallica’s James Hetfield do it too. Amid a hokey message to follow your dreams, he recalls his time spent singing for $200 a night as a John Legend tribute act. Cue a perfect demonstration of Legend-style singing – before he suddenly sloughs off “all this bathrobe-and-candle-sexy acoustic Ed Sheeran shit”, while huge columns of flame engulf the stage.

Drake is still at his best with blue, slinky songs of alienation – “9”, “Over”, “Feel No Ways” and “Hotline Bling”, which doubles up as make-out music for the couples in the crowd. One pair of lovers, Drake establishes during one of his crowd surveys, have been together for ten years. “I can’t even make a relationship last ten days,” he laments. In 2012, he told the Guardian, “I’ve had too many girls to ever feel uncomfortable about the man that I am.” An old-school boast from a modern man.

The guest stars serve to highlight Drake’s variety, rather than shine on their own. Their songs, too, are started, suspended, chopped and screwed. Drake is more macho when there’s another guy onstage with him – doing “Successful”, with the literally named Trey Songz, or dueling with thefrenetic Skepta, who sounds so much tougher (maybe because he’s a Londoner). The two whirl around the stage like helicopter seeds.

Nicki Minaj, apparently Drake’s one-time lover, rises fembotishly from a hole in the stage and says in a London accent, “I want some fucking crumpets and tea.”

She adds, of her host, “This nigga single-handedly changed the game.” Minaj sings her song “Moment 4 Life”: “I call the shots, I am the umpire . . .” But she doesn’t really. Even her presence flares up quickly and is gone.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution