The title of Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life was a question that stayed in my head the entire time I was reading his novel. The novel follows three characters. One is an illegal immigrant. The second is a returned veteran suffering from PTSD and shrapnel wounds. The third, introduced later, is a convict returning home after ten years in prison. All three live one the lower rungs of American society. They’re looked down on by others. All three have reasons to fear police. The title’s question kept me wondering if the characters would find a way to resurrect from their troubles and find new lives—or if they had messed things up so irreparably that they would need literal new lives to truly start over.
Zou Lei comes from a remote station in northwest China. Sometime after her father was killed, she traveled to the United States. We’re never told how, as we meet her while she makes her way down the eastern seaboard working the kind of jobs that take advantage of—figuratively and literally—women who illegally immigrated. Zou Lei is a worker. She works hard at any task set for her. In her off hours, she performs the Chinese Army exercises her father taught her. When she meets Skinner, Zou Lei wasn’t looking for a relationship. She holds Skinner at a distance until they bond over exercising and body building.
Skinner has no one after he gets out of the army. To tell the truth, even the army doesn’t want this wounded soldier any more. They give him prescriptions for anti-psychotics, anxiety, and sleep and send him on his way. At first, Skinner is hard to like. He hits on women every chance he gets. Zou Lei is the first woman he meets who doesn’t tell him to drop dead. After their friendship turns to a rough kind of love, I kept hoping that Zou Lei would inspire Skinner to really get better.
Jimmy Murphy is the least likable of the three. He is an angry fuck up of a person. He had a good union job before he let someone talking him into stealing. Prison made him a harder man and, when he gets out, he likes to throw his weight around. Jimmy starts gaslighting Skinner—who rents the basement apartment in Jimmy’s mother’s house—to get the ex-soldier to leave. The gaslighting makes Skinner’s already tenuous mental stability even more wobbly. Jimmy is going to end badly. Worse, he’s probably likely to take someone down with him.
Two protagonists and an antagonist make Preparation for the Next Life a full novel, but Lish goes further. As his characters live from day to day, they show us parts of American society we may never have really thought about except as abstract concepts thrown around on the news. Zou Lei shows us the stratum of illegal immigrants from all over the world. They do the dirtiest of jobs and have to worry constantly about being detained and deported. They’re paid the lowest wages their employers can get away with. If something happens to them, they have no recourse. No one will protect them from the Jimmies of the world. Zou Lei’s life has an added complication to worry her. Lish writes:
Only her predicament existed to her. She went round the elements of her life again: Skinner, papers, cops, marriage, lawyer, money, job, housing, Skinner, his illness, money. Every planet in the orbit was another unknown. (469*)
Skinner’s tale shows us how abandoned wounded soldiers can be when they come back from wars—especially unpopular wars. Skinner needs serious help. He’s paranoid, depressed, occasionally suicidal. Zou Lei is one of the few good things in his life, but he feels so worthless that he keeps turning away from her helping hand. He drinks. He smokes pot. Some days he lies on his bed and does nothing. Like the illegal immigrants, Skinner has no recourse when people threaten him.
There are some people who would look at Zou Lei and Skinner and Jimmy and be disgusted. Why can’t illegals immigrate legally? Why can’t PTSD sufferers just get over it? Why can’t convicts straighten up? Lish’s novel answers those questions by detailing—painfully, explicitly, incontrovertibly—why people just can’t.
In addition to the title, one line from the beginning of Preparation for the Next Life haunted me. When she was young, Zou Lei’s mother would tell her fairy tales to while away the time her father was with the army. Her mother once told her, “Did you know that there is a place that is better than any other?” (33). The place is secret, guarded, and far away. But everyone there has enough of anything they might need. It sounds like heaven. Though none of the characters is seeking such a place, they are all in need of a place to start over, where they can leave their worries behind. The place that is better than any other might not exist in this life, sadly. But it might exist in another.
* Quotes are from the 2014 Scribd edition, published by Tyrant Books.