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Preparation for the Next Life

Rebecca Foster

Preparation for the Next Life

Atticus Lish

Oneworld, 432 pp

Atticus Lish, son of writer/editor Gordon Lish, worked in various menial careers and briefly served in the Marine Corps before turning to fiction. Like West Side Story, his debut novel, Preparation for the Next Life, is an updated Romeo and Juliet narrative - a tragedy-bound love story with a gritty contemporary setting and a sobering message about racism and the failure of the American dream. Lish's post-9/11 New York City is less clichéd melting pot than Boschian hell, a violent abyss lubricated with the sweat of illegal immigrants. Zou Lei is the unlikely romantic heroine. She entered the country illegally and works in Chinese restaurants, supplemented by manual labour. Even among her Chinese colleagues, she is an outsider due to her Uighur Muslim heritage and her love of running; nor does she speak the standard Cantonese dialect. Especially after she was rounded up on a police sweep and held in a detention centre for three months, she is determined to keep her head down and not attract attention. She shares a sardine tin of an apartment with fellow immigrants and works fourteen gruelling hours each day to make ends meet. Our even more improbable Romeo is Brad Skinner, 23, recently returned from a third military tour of Iraq. He hitchhikes from Pittsburgh to New York City, where he wanders from bar to allnight McDonald's, virtually homeless. Flashbacks to his experiences in Iraq more than account for the handgun in his backpack and his evident post-traumatic stress disorder, yet the Army absolves itself of responsibility for his mental health issues. One day Skinner rides to the end of the subway line, ending up in Chinatown. He goes looking for a massage parlour but ends up in Zou Lei's noodle bar instead. Even with her broken English, they manage to flirt. They discuss the military life - her father was a Han Chinese soldier - and compare pushups and muscles in a surprisingly erotic setup. Despite their unpromising surroundings (their first sexual encounter is in a KFC, of all places), the relationship deepens. Skinner rents Mrs Murphy's basement, one subway stop away from Zou Lei. While she holds down an assortment of low-paid jobs, Skinner gives in to his demons. He mixes alcohol and pills, and despite a traditional Chinese treatment for PTSD grows angrier and more depressed. Even their mutual hobby of exercise does little to offset Skinner's anxiety. Unlike his pistol, 'his mind did not have a safety and there was no way to shut it off.' A bartender gives Skinner the idea of marrying Zou Lei so she cannot be deported, but a lack of proper paperwork leaves her in a bureaucratic trap. Meanwhile, Mrs Murphy's son, Jimmy, who was in prison for theft and drug offences, has just been released. Every few chapters the narrative takes up Jimmy's Rebecca Foster is a freelance editor and book reviewer for various print and online publications in the US and UK. half-hearted attempts to return to normal life. He does construction work, but is drinking and fighting with his stepfather again, and also starts picking on Skinner by stealing little things from his apartment. Jimmy's friends' racist screeds echo UKIP at its worst, and the peeks into Jimmy's own prejudice against soldiers and immigrants - 'The onrush of the Chinese. Their scuffing, heedless, lobotomized walking, as if retarded' - seem to bode very ill indeed for the central couple. As Chekhov warned, if a gun is onstage it will be fired. Things never get as bad as they might; Lish retreats from the full extent of a Shakespearean tragedy. Still, the one who lives to tell the tale will have a diminished life. Lish's matter-of-fact style somehow manages to elevate the everyday and urban into an art form. Alliteration and striking verbs lend poetry to the frequent series of short phrases separated by commas: 'Framed under the arch, there were fire escapes and clotheslines, brush calligraphy coiling down the ironwork, graffiti booming off the rooftops.' Even the odd juxtaposition of fast food and war imagery - 'the triangular pizza slice … kept buckling in the middle, like a corpse being carried to a helicopter' - is evidence of Lish's fresh metaphorical palette. The absence of speech marks, along with a preponderance of different dialects, pidgins and slang, creates a hallucinatory, stream-of-consciousness feel. Zou Lei and Skinner's New York City is not glittering skyscrapers and theatres; it is concrete and twisted metal, bootleg DVDs and prostitutes beaten half to death. In the most remarkable single chapter, Zou Lei wanders this urban wasteland from night until dawn: 'she passed silos for sand and gravel, a diagonal conveyor belt against the sky, cement trucks nose to tail like elephants behind a fence.' There is an echo here of T. S. Eliot or of the ash heaps in The Great Gatsby: a reminder that all human achievement erodes to dust and ashes in the end. Both main characters make solitary journeys through this wilderness at different points, almost like a rite of passage through the underworld. The novel's title comes from a chance visit Zou Lei makes to a mosque. A sign over the door reads 'Preparation for the Next Life'. 'I know about God, but it's too many rules,' she asserts, before the mullah corrects her misconception. '[God] is like the shade of a tree on a hot day,' he insists. 'All you have to do is open this door and go in where it is cool and refreshing.' It seems more like exercise is the chosen religion for this latter-day Romeo and Juliet: 'Be prepared for a long run, which will sweat everything out of you, purifying you and readying you for a new beginning.' Regardless, the very last word, 'lift,' looks upward - past the soldier's violence and trauma, beyond the illegal immigrant's poverty and prejudice - to the prospect of peace.