Preparations for the Next Life by Atticus Lish

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Reviewed by Max Dunbar

Lish’s novel is mostly about institutions. He writes about armies, prisons, service-level workplaces – his characters sleep in hostels and on the benches of bus terminals. Most of all he loves to write about institutions outside the framework of civilisation, places of dead time, holes punched in habeas corpus by exigencies of politics and international affairs. Naturally he focuses on immigration. Immigration involves a process of decitizenship, and you should take note of how governments treat migrants because they are like a test case for what states could do to the rest of us, given the chance. Process centres but they can be found everywhere from Yarl’s Wood to the process centres of fortress Europe where those we deem ‘illegal ‘are literally left to die in the sea. The title of Lish’s novel comes from a sign glimpsed on a mosque in a life that has become a series of waiting rooms.

Protagonist Brad Skinner is an Iraq veteran who’s done three tours that have left him progressively less sane with each round in the slaughterhouse. ‘The battalion was handing out antidepressants like free candy on your way to the PX to get the magazines and iPods and protein powder and energy drinks you were taking with you back to war… Everyone in the war had changed, the war had changed, and Skinner’s strangeness barely showed.’ Once out of the army he travels to New York with ‘the idea that if he partied hard enough, he’d eventually succeed in having a good time and would start wanting to live again.’ He comes across Zou-Lei, a Chinese immigrant who has managed to stay ahead of the border industry. A relationship of lost souls develops. There’s a genuine love between the two but, with Zou Lei working all hours at any job she can find, and Skinner content to drink away his discharge money, there’s only one way it can end and Lish doesn’t disappoint. A joker in the pack, an explosive Irish prison veteran thrown into the mix, helps things fall apart that little more effectively.

Lish’s characters should be clichés, but somehow they aren’t. The story of the soldier who goes crazy because of and without an institutional purpose is at least as old as Kipling (‘For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’/But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot’) but Brad Skinner convinces because he and his pain are so real. Unlike many novelists, Lish is actually interested in the terror wars (the 2000s generation of soldiers faced the worst intensity tours since WW2) and his details of the Iraq campaign tally with real-life accounts. It all rings true. Zou-Lei is a star-crossed migrant, with a Han Chinese father and a mother from the oppressed Chinese Muslim Uighur minority. Liberal novelists tend to portray migrants as helpless victims but Zou-Lei, although she has less than nothing going for her – people with no right to live in their country of residence, are unquestionably at the bottom of the 99% – she is somehow stronger and better built to live in the world than her lover. At the end of the story, she leaves on a Greyhound, that amazing symbol of American optimism.

Contemporary literary fiction tends towards weightlessness. What Lish has done is to bring back the immediate, the visceral hustle of writers like Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer and David Foster Wallace. His institutions are places of silence but on the street action and dialogue comes together in a glorious prose poetry that Tom Wolfe pretended to attain but never did. Preparation for the Next Life is a fine exploration of the deserts between citizenship and connection.

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Max Dunbar blogs at

Atticus Lish, Preparation for the Next Life  (Oneworld: London, 2015) 978-1780747774, 432pp., hardback.

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