Publisher: Tyrant Books
Publisher: Tyrant Books
Guest reviewed by Leland Cheuk
Few indie press novels last year were as celebrated as Tyrant Books’s Preparation for the Next Life. The New York Times said it was “the finest and most unsentimental love story of the new decade.” Kirkus Reviews called it “a sledgehammer to the American dream.” I felt very much like the target reader for Atticus Lish’s novel. When I read, I don’t allow myself guilty pleasures. When I surf through Netflix titles, I’m the type of person that goes straight to Critically Acclaimed Independent Movies. I want sledgehammers. I want to read life-changing fiction—books that help me prepare for the next life.
Perhaps my expectations were too high.
Preparation for the Next Life is the literary version of a motion picture made expressly for the purpose of competing for a Best Picture Oscar. It’s a love story of Zou Lei, an illegal Uighur immigrant from China, and Skinner, a traumatized war veteran back from three tours in Iraq. Zou Lei and Skinner are bonded by desperation and a mutual love of exercise. When we meet Zou Lei, she’s getting arrested after her border crossing goes awry. When we meet Skinner, he’s homeless and cleaning himself in the bathroom of a McDonald’s. Soon after they meet each other, they’re living together in a tiny room in Queens. To Lish’s credit, Zou Lei’s story is the most convincing aspect of the book. Her plight seems well-researched and authentic, as exemplified by this passage when she meets a fellow Chinese migrant:
America is a good country, an older woman said. We took a fishing boat across the ocean. The ocean police caught us and closed us up on an island near San Francisco. I almost died on the voyage and that was what saved me. That was lucky. The others were forced back home, thirty people, but not me. My cousin applied me for asylum. Some of these other sisters have been departed once already. Now they come back, once becomes twice, twice becomes three times.
Skinner mostly sits at home, drinking and popping pills while being tormented by the horrors he experienced in war. His narration is also convincing, but familiar. Anyone who has read Redeployment or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, or seen the slew of war films that has been released in recent years will not find much new about Skinner’s character.
Together, they try to build a life, though it’s unclear what they see in each other. Perhaps Zou Lei empathizes with Skinner’s trauma. Skinner definitely thinks Zou Lei is hot. Because the novel is trying to Say Something Important, it’s clear almost from page one that there’s zero chance that Zou Lei and Skinner are going to get what they want.
The main shortcoming of Preparation for the Next Life is the intentional omission of Zou Lei and Skinner’s inner lives. In this passage, they do what they do best together: exercise. But what they don’t do is get specific about their feelings.
The last exercise they did was flutter kicks. He and Zou Lei lay down on the floor and moved their legs like goose-stepping soldiers. They got to fifty and her feet fell on the ground. One hundred, he said. No, she said. But she pulled her feet up again. They continued kicking and counting together, chanting the way everyone does in group calisthenics. At one hundred, both of their sets of feet fell on the ground. She groaned and held her stomach. When they stood, they left behind sweat patterns in the shapes of themselves. She stared down at their spirit-patterns on the ground. The intensity of the exercise make her think strange things.
What strange things? His star-crossed lovers never get deep, and consequently never feel like real people. They are just symbols in a rather obvious commentary that America has broken its promise to the poor and those who have served the country to preserve the precious freedom to have the homeless congregate in the wee hours at McDonald’s and violent sociopaths set loose from prisons. Lish’s characters are averse to self-awareness and reflection, but they’ll spend paragraphs passively observing urban decay in the outer boroughs so that the reader can’t miss the big takeaway that America Is In Decline.
The novel’s climax is predictably devastating, and there are many passages of sparkling writing throughout, particularly Zou Lei’s encounter with an imam late in the book. If you’re in the mood for a despairing muckraker like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, I would recommend Preparation for the Next Life. But as a compelling love story, like Zou Lei and Skinner, in this life, the novel falls short.
Three stars out of five.
Leland Cheuk’s novel THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG is forthcoming in 2015 (CCLaP Publishing). He is a MacDowell Colony fellow, and his short fiction has appeared in publications such as Valparaiso Fiction Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Lunch Ticket. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and lives in Brooklyn.