Some books start with a review. Or rather, the experience of some books, some books that come at you out of the blue, begins with a review that raises its head above other reviews to announce: this is a book you will want to read. My experience of Preparation for the Next Life began this way: here. It may be that you too read this review and think, hey, that sounds like the kind of book I’d like to read. If that’s the case, off you go. It’s as good a book as the review suggests. That may be all you need to know. If you’re more (or less) discerning that that and are interested in what we have to say: here goes.
Preparation for the Next Life is on one level, a love story. A modern love story. Set in New York (that city of all cities). I say modern: this is a tale that bubbles and boils with the modern world. Lish’s characters walk a great deal, observing the world and the people about them. Just as there are apparently tours in Dublin where you walk the path walked by the gentlemen in Joyce’s story, ‘Two Gallants’, so I would imagine in years to come people will walk versions of the journeys made by the two central characters in Preparation for the Next Life (because I can imagine that people will still be reading and talking about this book in years to come, Lish is not a writer who is going to go away – although it may be his second or third book that leads people back to this one).
It’s the old post 9/11 world but never has it been brought to life like this. As with Dickens or Dos Passos, this is a world you can smell, a world you can plunge your hand in, a world that at times comes to replace the real one you inhabit every day. We follow Zou Lei, an illegal immigrant from northwest China (and Lish is tremendously skilful at recreating the schisms that exist between different Chinese, Zou often finding herself on the receiving end of being told she isn’t ‘proper Chinese’), and Brad Skinner, a damaged war veteran, fresh from serving three tours in Iraq. There is a romance of sorts but this is just about as far from 500 Days of Summer as you can get. Zou Lei is fighting to live each day, hard scrabbling to get whatever money she can to pay rent (her room a set of cubicles divided by curtains she shares with several other people in the same boat, figuratively speaking). Skinner has money but he has different problems, the effects of his war and the medications he takes to alleviate his trauma playing merry havoc with his equilibrium. The two of them have times together, riding the subway, going to the gym (Preparation for the Next Life is a very physical book, concerned with movement and burn and endurance and sweat), eating; they also fight a lot, in Skinner’s basement room, in the street. There are times when they finish, when it seems finished and then it isn’t. They learn about each other, as you do when you meet and like and fall in love, and they try to help, each to the other, with the problems they have. There is talk of marriage. But nothing is ever easy. The wires of state snag them at mostly every turn.
Before you get to all of this, however, you will be struck by the writing. Here is the first line of the book and it doesn’t adequately prepare you for the writing that is to come but certainly puts you in the road waiting for the car to hit you:
“She came by way of Archer, Bridgport, Nanuet, worked off 95 in jeans and a denim jacket, carrying a plastic bag and shower shoes, a phone number, waiting beneath an underpass, the potato chips long gone, lightheaded.”
By the time you get to:
“…a gargantuan water tower on steel legs up ahead. A squirrel on the power lines. Leonardo’s La Dolce Vita. A circular driveway. Roman statues. Three storey office buildings. Vincent Jacone laser surgery. Marigolds, flowers, a basketball hoop. A forest-green truck with a yellow snow shovel. A tow truck: Appalachian”,
you’ve been on an immense journey. In some senses, Lish is like DeLillo, in that his writing is as distinctive as DeLillo’s – but it is also very different, as different from DeLillo’s as it is from so many other more mundane writers. Other things to know about Preparation for the Next Life: not for nothing has it been called an epic heartbreaker. Also, despite (only) clocking in at 400 or so pages, this feels like a much weightier read. Last but not least, the reader sometimes catches Lish’s dialogue mid flow – you wont always know what is going on, just as, say, you didn’t always know the complete tenor of conversations that took place in a show like The Sopranos (which has a lot in common with Preparations), so you may have to exercise a few readerly muscles. But it’s worth it.
Any Cop?: Preparations for the Next Life is a blazing read, a blast. Now that it’s out in paperback, it should be read a lot more people if there is any sense in the world!