Preparation for the Next Life is Atticus Lish's first novel. It is, in the opinions of many of the world's literary tastemakers, really fucking good. The book is ostensibly a love story set in New York City between an ex-Marine named Skinner and an illegal Chinese immigrant named Zou Lei. But it is also an honest examination of the often-overlooked immigrant experience in this country, as well as the depressing reality faced by many of our veterans when they return home from war. The story is told so simply, the words chosen so economically, that the reader could be forgiven for not immediately noticing its power. Like one of those old people on Antique Road Show who brings in a rusty old spoon and is told it's worth $20 million. Giancarlo DiTrapano, the book's publisher, put it well when he told the New York Times,"From the first line, he strikes a note and holds it for 400 pages."
In the interest of full disclosure, Atticus Lish's father, the famed editor Gordon Lish, was an old teacher of mine. I picked up Preparation for the Next Life with no interest in lifting up the progeny of my old teacher. I leafed through the novel one evening, chiefly for the delicious opportunity to "lish" a Lish. But as the sun rose, I was stunned to realize I'd completed Preparation for the Next Life and had fallen in love with its grittiness and earnestness in exploring a part of New York City—and the American mind-set—that few locals have ever seen.
I met up with Atticus at a bar to talk about his novel shortly after I had finished devouring it.
VICE: Reading your book, I admired the crisp, sonic precision of your sentences. What makes a good sentence for you?
Atticus Lish: Honestly, I tried not to think about it at all. I just did my best to speak naturally, though this was harder than expected, especially in the beginning. I idolized Hemingway and Robert Stone, my then favorite authors. Their voices were in my head, and I would unconsciously ventriloquize them. Finally, thank God, I stopped doing impressions and started being me. Bear in mind, I hadn't written much of anything before, and I was figuring this all out as I went along. I studied various works for insight, from Madame Bovary to the Bible. The lesson I saw everywhere was to speak plainly and directly and to be myself. If Hemingway's lesson is to write like you talk, the key part is to write how you yourself talk, not how Hemingway talks. So I embraced naturalness and intuition, or tried. But I had a host of other problems, including over-description. I lacked the ability to move in and out of scale, glossing over unimportant detail. My wife called me on this. I had to learn that you can cover years with a single sentence.
It's funny you mention scale, because the writing has such a natural sense of economy and proportion. The form has great inner balance. Light and dark have a nice equilibrium. The book contains these irrevocably dark and gritty passages juxtaposed alongside these moving, beautiful images. The early depictions of Zou Lei's homeland come to mind.
You're hitting on something that was a big issue for me. The things that I hit hard in the book were simply things I felt inspired to speak about. Some of the gritty stuff might have been based on an image I'd held in my head for years, but a lot of the lighter stuff also came from a warm place in my memory. The folktale that the mother tells Zou Lei when she is a child just sort of came to me. As I continued with the book, these patches of brightness just started to happen. But there was a conscious dimension to finding a balance, too. Perception is based on contrast. If nothing but bad things happened in my book, I didn't feel as if I could round out the full truth and capture both the joys and the miseries of life in full.
That's a balance most writers have a hard time finding in their work. It's very popular to take the view that nothing but death is the case, but that's a dyad that introduces the possibility for life. I admired your use of lists in different parts of the book.
When Zou Lei and Skinner go to the Chinese grocery store, there's a long list of products. As I was writing the book, I went to the streets to take notes. At a grocery store in Chinatown, I saw one product after another with these bizarre, uniquely Chinese names, and I started writing them all down: I felt like a shopper stuffing my bag with interesting names. After that, it became almost like show-and-tell. It tapped into that impulse of feeling as if I had some secret slice of the world that I wanted to reveal.
How much research did you do in writing this book? It felt considerable.
A lot. It sort of fell into two categories: Things that I experienced or things that I researched more traditionally. It would be a mistake to say that this is solely a work of imagination. I plucked most elements from the world around me. I know what it's like to be arrested. Parts of the immigrant house Zou Lei lives in when she arrives in New York were based on a place a guy took me to in Flushing. I also lived, though not for long, in an immigrant house in Boston's Chinatown. I saw up close how the living quarters are like a changing room where the ceiling is open and the guy in the compartment next to you is breathing a few feet away. Other parts required different research, as I've never experienced war directly. One thing that inspired me was the memoir House to House by Sergeant Bellavia, recounting his experiences in Fallujah. I also interviewed a lot of people. The NYPD does not want to talk to you, by the way. I spoke with a number of soldiers and lifted a phrase from a vet I met in the Atlanta airport: "turn and burn." Some people's voices got in my head. Mrs. Murphy's voice was clear in my head, and I had a few people I had the luck of overhearing. I heard two guys talking on the subway coming from Coney Island, and there's no way to describe their conversation except to call it mayhem.
So much of the book speaks to where our country has been since 9/11 in terms of American imperialism, globalization, and the consumer society. Do you mind speaking to that?
One of the great things about being in America is that we can discuss this. Yes, these things were definitely a driving force in writing the book. There were several major sources of inspiration, but political disenchantment was definitely one of them. I enjoyed the Clinton years. The budget was balanced, and most of us didn't even notice what was going on because things seemed to be running so smoothly. Then Bush came along and the War on Iraq was declared. I remember I was in California at the time, driving to a night-shift job, when Colin Powell was having the hearings making the case for war. I felt appalled. From the very beginning, it felt clear that people were working to come up with justification for an unjust war. You should never have an optional war. War is a means of last resort. I was so upset that I spent several years emotionally involved with politics, and that was a first. That sense of alienation from my country was a driving force as I was writing. I've gotten over the feeling, I guess, but at the time I was deeply distressed about the state of the country.
I admired the strength of the female lead, Zou Lei. Could you talk about her evolution as a character and what inspired her?
At one point, in my early Hemingway stage, I thought the book would clearly be from a guy's perspective. After a take like that, I realized that the story was better from Zou Lei's perspective. If I were to go really deep, it's probably related to how I slice up the world. I would say that my wife is the most important person in the world to me, and she partly inspired the strength behind the character. Another aspect is this: If a character has a vulnerability, I think the reader develops a rooting interest. As a woman, Zou Lei is inherently vulnerable. We have to worry for her.
Skinner is a fascinating character in his own right. He's returning from war, and there are indications that he's likely suffering from PTSD and TBI. That suffering is a driving force in the book.
A lot of that comes from my obsessive interest in war. War tantalizes and disturbs. Its nature is obscured by mythology and propaganda and by our own eyes: We all want to see it a certain way, like Ron Kovic's patriotic neighbors in Born on the Fourth of July. Chris Hedges's book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning made a huge impact on me in attacking the myth of the nobility of war. Hedges says war is necrophilia, that its true image is a soldier embracing a corpse. He is not alone in arguing that war unleashes criminal urges that are addictive and difficult to switch off. In my mind, Skinner has been contaminated by the war. Contaminated is the word that keeps coming back. He's a decent human being who has been dipped in the River Styx and comes out black and burned, spiritually tarnished. To me, the connection between war and crime unites the whole book. It's about how war comes back home in the form of crime or violent imbalance, even in the best of people. In a related way, the book is also about globalization, about people moving across borders, bringing creative or destructive forces with them as the case may be.
Skinner is returning from war while another character, Jimmy, is returning from prison. You get the feeling that they instantly sense each other encroaching on a territory like two grizzlies. How do you see institutionalization and indoctrination in the book?
Prisons and wars are two halves of authoritarian power, and they're both disturbing aspects of present-day America. The war on drugs and the war on terror have both been ways to lock people up, often unnecessarily. I was conscious that people were going to be transformed by imprisonment and war. The one person who wasn't changed a lot was Zou Lei. She goes in, but she's still pure.
Zou Lei and Skinner play really well together, and their finding each other felt inevitable. One thing I admire greatly is the depiction of Zou Lei's world of work. Maybe it's the MFA culture, but characters in literary fiction don't seem to have jobs anymore.
I've worked a lot of entry-level jobs. When I was a kid I liked working in malls, and I think I was a kid until my early 30s. I've worked at a lot of Chinese fast food restaurants, so I was able to pull from that. I worked at McDonald's for a while. I was fired from the Papaya King on 86th and Lex. A lot of her jobs were my jobs. I also had a mall in mind in Flushing and went to see it. I tried to talk to the workers, but they were skeptical, assuming I was some undercover agent from immigration. Eventually some people led me into the kitchen, and I spoke to the workers for a while until the boss was called. I wanted this to be a book for the sort of working-class people I've had in my life who don't always have books that speak to them and who don't always have authors interested in telling their stories.
Daniel Long is an Oklahoman living in New York. His work has appeared in New York Tyrant and The Carolina Quarterly, among others. He was managing editor of The Fiddleback, an online journal of literature and art.
Preparation for the Next Life was published by Tyrant Books. You can purchase a copy directly from the independent publisher here.