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8 April 2015updated 14 Apr 2015 7:08pm

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.

By Olivia Laing

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.

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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.

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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)