Tuesday, January 12, 2016

"Preparation for the Next Life"

The first novel by Atticus Lish is nothing if not unusual.  It was recommended to me by a friend in no uncertain terms.  Published in late 2014, it was on numerous best book lists for that year and won the Pen/Faulkner award for fiction in 2015.  That was somewhat alarming and it spoke to how isolated we have become in the last year or two due uncontrollable events.  How could I not have known about this book?

"Preparation for the Next Life" is written in a staccato like style of verbal and physical description. The intensity of the writing in describing downtown Manhattan Chinatown, downtown Flushing, Queens and its Chinatown, and what I can only think is Jackson Heights, Queens and its miasma of cultures within multiple blocks of each other is almost overwhelming.  Lish creates a collage of sights and sounds that go on for extended rants, maybe the wrong word but that's what it felt like.  The effect was exceptional, and I recognized from my own incessant walking of days past the areas so well described if not explicitly mentioned.  He does not try for realistic perfection in these descriptions, but the images are true.

Apart from the descriptive nature of the novel, it is the story of two people living on, hanging on to, the fringes of society.  Zou Lei is an undocumented immigrant from Chinese central Asia, half Han, half Uighur, working menial jobs in restaurants and generally not even accepted by fellow Chinese because of her background.  Skinner is a PTSD and physical wound damaged Iraq war veteran having served three tours and being incompatible with the country that he now lives in.  They become an unlikely, incredibly needy, and loving couple of sorts, supporting each other but unable to provide or understand all that each needs.  

As the story moved toward an ending, it became almost painful to read.  It made me anxious.  That rarely happens here.  It was troubling but it also speaks to the power of this novel.  It was finished yesterday morning but there are thoughts still going on here.  Read with caution, and that is a positive comment.


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