Our cultural capital has changed tremendously on its way into the twenty-first century. Manhattan has been secured and sanitized; it’s smoke- and trans-fat-free. In the boroughs, many of the old jungles have been cleared as well. Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish’s first novel, dwells on the edges of New York City where the Third World still persists, inhabited by petty criminals, remnants of the old white working class, military castoffs and polyglot swarms of immigrants, many of them illegal. In this regard, the story Lish tells is reminiscent of Russell Banks’s Continental Drift, a classic late-twentieth-century narrative of the Third World colliding with the First.
Like Banks, Lish puts his protagonists on a path to convergence. The trajectory of Iraq War veteran Brad Skinner is the more familiar, since the travails and neglect of such wounded soldiers have recently been much reported, in the press and in other works of fiction. Skinner has seen his friend blown up in action and has been severely wounded himself, but none of that will get him a discharge, even after his enlistment is up. Called back to another combat tour under the “stop-loss” program, he performs poorly, kills in cold blood and alienates his surviving comrades. Finally released from the military, he arrives in New York as an efficient killing machine, slightly damaged by hard use, inadequately regulated by a fundamentally decent heart and a troubled mind that has found no healing, “holding on to the idea that if he partied hard enough, he’d eventually succeed in having a good time and would start wanting to live again.”
Zou Lei comes to New York straight out of immigration detention, and her path to the metropolis is longer than Skinner’s: her childhood was spent in China’s northwest borderlands, in a cultural mélange of Tibetans, Uzbeks, Uighurs and the ever-expanding Han Chinese. Her mother is a Uighur of Siberian ancestry, her father a Chinese soldier, much revered though seldom seen. “Where she was from,” Zou Lei reflects later on, “a man and a woman might live apart for many years, due to economic reasons, only seeing each other once or twice a year when they were given permission by the authorities.” From her father, the child Zou Lei learns to venerate the order, discipline and security that the military seems to offer, though he is killed when she is still quite small. With her mother, she works in Shenzen factory- prisons and, when that fails, harvests litter for recycling. Some girls opt for prostitution, but Zou Lei refuses. “If you wanted heaven,” goes a local saying, “maybe you shouldn’t have come. There’s always America, if you think your feet will carry you.”
Zou Lei eventually infiltrates the United States and works her way up the East Coast among flocks of migrant workers speaking a babel of Asian dialects. The Uighurs are an Islamic tribe unwelcome in secular Chinese society and most other places, so among the migrants Zou Lei identifies with her Chinese side. She speaks a little of a half-dozen languages, but of course she has no legal existence. Picked up in a routine sweep, she is imprisoned for a length of time she has no way to quantify and told by her fellow detainees, “No one knows what will happen to you.” Released without any explanation, she bolts for the Asian souks of New York. “She was never going to get arrested again. She was going to stay where everybody was illegal just like her and get lost in the crowd and keep her head down. Forget living like an American. It was enough to be free and on the street.”