She was using both hands to hold up the triangular pizza slice, which kept buckling in the middle, like a corpse being carried to a helicopter.
There are some words that have become meaningless in criticism. Many of the adjectives blazoning my copy of Preparation for the Next Life can be found on that list: “extraordinary”, “compelling”, “masterful”, and so on. There are others, too, though, in the blurbs that preface the book itself, and they’re less common—”superlucid”, “breathless momentum”, “a low centre of gravity”, “heat-seeking precision”—as though the authors of these reviews were trying, consciously or unconsciously, to replicate the power of the prose that had left them so breathless, moving so unstoppably. Perhaps the most overused word of all, in contemporary media at least, is “tragedy”. Preparation for the Next Life is a tragedy too: not the fall of a great man, but the remorseless crushing of an unlucky one. Though our male protagonist, Brad Skinner, isn’t the only one; there’s also his lover, Zou Lei, an ethnic Uighur from northwest China whose dialect is so obscure that no one, in all of the Chinese fast-food joints that employ her throughout the course of the novel, can understand it. She learns Cantonese, English, even Spanish: anything to survive.
Skinner has done three tours of Iraq. He’s twenty-three. The year is never explicitly stated, but from textual clues, we can guess he was serving before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, which means the novel is likely set before 2006, when the convictions occurred. One of Lish’s greatest accomplishments is conveying a sense of a city—a whole country—skittish and on edge as a direct result of 9/11. Having lived through that time only as a child (an obnoxiously information-hungry child, but nevertheless), I find novels set in the half-decade or so after 9/11 particularly fascinating; they allow me to fit pieces of my personal and social history into a wider context. They let me understand things that I couldn’t understand at the time, the reelection of George W. Bush being only one of them. In Preparation for the Next Life, there’s a sense of simmering rage and hate among native-born Americans that entirely passed me by when I was nine. Zou Lei, briefly in prison on immigration charges, sees the result of that hate:
They showed her what was going on on the top tier, in the cell that no one ever came out of. They had a project they’d been working on. It was a woman lying in a bunk. The deputies gave her to us. We take care of her. Right after 9/11 they put her in a cell with like fifteen guys. She was in Al Qaida for real. I don’t know how they could get it up because she’s so nasty. …Zou Lei looked at the woman. She couldn’t tell if she was breathing. They told her she was Lebanese, a mom.
They’ve both been through different sorts of hell: Skinner through executions and firefights and his buddy’s brains splattering on his boots, Zou through living in one motel room with eight other women, working fourteen-hour days, loneliness, and a language barrier. But whereas hell starts to break Skinner down, Zou pushes back. Lish doesn’t give us much time inside her mind, but he gives us plenty of time behind her eyes: we see what she sees, and her reactions are what we’re given to know of her mental state. The picture that grows is of a woman simultaneously practical and innocent, determined and courageous yet still capable of affection and silliness. Quietly, Zou Lei is a revelation, and revolution, in the annals of women-written-by-men, particularly ethnic minority women written by white men.
She was not the mother type. When she collected their empties one day and took them to the redeemer, it was because she was enterprising, not because she felt she should clean up after him. With the dollar and change she made, she bought a chicken skewer and saved it for them to eat together, half each, the meat cold by the time she had walked there with it through the small houses covered in Spanish graffiti. She was logging all these miles and it was good.
She’s not the mother type, but she loves him, and he doesn’t scare her. This is a good thing, because the shit that has happened to Skinner would scare almost anyone; indeed, it scares him, and it makes him, in turn, someone who gets angry and loud and who has sweating, screaming nightmares. Lish writes these as he writes everything, in a kind of steady, quiet declarative that is all the more affecting for being measured. (There is one particularly bad scene involving Jimmy, the son of Skinner’s landlady, an ex-con whom we know is bad news right from the start. Jimmy commits an atrocity which is reported in this solemn, solid, unflinching style, and reading it shook me up so badly that I had to put the book down and wander around the flat for a while, trying to think of something else.) Yet there’s no sense of the gratuitous. It’s one of the most sympathetically generous novels I’ve ever read; Lish has no stake in the business of judging people. You get the sense that he’s just trying to get down on paper what actually happened, and that sense of precision in reportage makes the whole thing feel that much more real. Zou Lei goes on a nighttime run, near the end of the book, which takes at least three hours—she goes clear out of Queens, all the way to Great Neck—and you just know that Lish had to have walked that route in order to be able to describe it in such unwavering detail.
The detail is the other thing that makes this book so good: there’s an unswerving accuracy to the descriptions of street shopfronts and the details of back-street geography that makes the whole novel feel almost documentary. It’s set during the summer, and you can almost feel the heat and the texture of the air on your skin:
A Mazda with silver rims spun around the corner and drove away under the shadow of the elevated tracks. All down the block, Guatemalans were cooking a hash of gray brains, black sausage and corn on the cob at their generator-powered trucks, the women in aprons and ball caps holding tongs, arranging a ring of pig’s heads turned to leather masks by roasting, black holes where the eyes were or had been before they were cooked out. An inside-the-animal smell.
None of this detail contributes to the plot, but it’s not there for plot. It’s there to give this book a firm anchorage in reality. People sometimes say of a book that you could crawl inside it and live there. Usually they’re talking about epic fantasy, but the idea applies equally to Preparation for the Next Life. The events of this book matter so profoundly to the reader because you know that it’s only this precise iteration of them that’s fiction. Things like this happen all the time in New York City, in America, in Iraq, in liminal mountainous countries.
The fate of Zou’s and Skinner’s relationship is, as you might expect, not a happy one; I won’t go into it, partly because spoilers aren’t necessary to write a comprehensive review but partly because I sort of can’t bear to. We end, as we started, with Zou Lei, following, as so many have, Horace Greeley’s advice: “Go west.” She goes west, to the “next life” of the title—the constancy of migration, moving from job to job, town to town, apartment to apartment, identity to identity. But there’s also the “next life” that Skinner finds. Hamlet’s undiscovered country, after all, was death. Skinner doesn’t seem to have a choice, by the end, but Zou does. She’s a desert woman; she grew up under huge skies. Though nothing about the ending is clear or definitive, you suspect that out there, in Phoenix, she might find something like freedom.
Thanks to Margot Weale at Oneworld for the review copy. Preparation for the Next Life was released in paperback in the UK on 4 February.