He took a drink from a flask of Bacardi Scorched Cherry and watched an execution on his laptop.” There, in a quick, bald sentence, is Skinner’s life. He is 23, but when you come across this fact late on in Atticus Lish’s novel, it’s shocking, for his three tours with the US military in Iraq have worn his mind and body into those of a much older man.
As the book begins he is just out of the army — only the day before — and he makes his way to New York, where he will live a haunted, drifting life, eating into his pay-off from the service, taking the powerful drugs he’s been given to cope with the pain of an injury that’s left his back and torso a mass of “dented puckered slick bumpy knotted flesh”. And yet there is, perhaps, a little hope for Skinner, thanks to his encounter with Zou Lei, a young illegal immigrant from China, whose father was a soldier like Skinner and whose mother was a Muslim tribeswoman, a Uighur from the northwestern part of that vast country. She has come to America, as so many millions did before her and do still, because that country remains, to so many, a land of promise, a place of new beginnings. Their unlikely love story is the heart of this extraordinary novel.
“Make it new” was Ezra Pound’s exhortation, a battle-cry that sounds a little tired these days. And yet Lish, in his detailed, unsparing and yet always sympathetic portrait of the lives under his consideration, does exactly that. How? By subsuming politics — this book certainly falls into the category of the “post 9/11” novel — within the brilliantly observed, fully realised particulars of its characters’ everyday existence. And those particulars are both completely individual and yet, somehow, eternal; it’s no disservice to Lish to say that one could imagine Skinner and Zou Lei’s stories told in a 19th-century setting, when the only recently re-United States was flooded with men scarred by a dreadful war, and when its shores teemed with people from far-off lands looking for a better life. Skinner and Zou Lei lead frontier lives.
Lish shows us a New York we don’t often see. The couple meet in Queens, far away from Manhattan, when one day Skinner takes his meds and gets on a subway train and rides it as far as it will go and comes to a different world. “The garbage on the street had a peculiar smell. In the windows, he saw red roast pork on steel hooks. A mother was squatting helping a boy urinate in the gutter. When he flipped his empty can into the garbage, an immigrant in flowered sleeve guards came behind him and picked it up with tongs.” This is a novel of clean, spare language, a book that allows you to feel the world it builds by showing you just what that world looks like. Anywhere Lish rests his gaze, he sees precisely: he chooses his scenes and settings with an unerring and original eye.
That would be enough to make this a good novel; what makes it a great novel is Lish’s human sensibility. Skinner becomes more and more aware, as the story moves forward, of the damage he has suffered, damage that goes far beyond the physical; and yet that damage is precisely what makes him unable to manage his suffering. Like Zou Lei, the reader wants to offer help but help is beyond reach.
And Zou Lei, too, is a fully rounded, fully credible creation, a forceful young woman whose beauty lies in the power, the endurance her author gives her. She is a runner, determined to keep herself fit and strong no matter what hardships she suffers as she toils away in basement kitchens and sweatshops — and in lesser hands the mileage she turns in might seem too much a symbol. But it reads, instead, as a pure expression of her character, and at the end of the novel serves as both penance and deliverance. It’s an astonishing trick to pull off.
“Yes, I am free,” Zou Lei says plainly to Skinner when they first meet, when he asks her if she will go out with him. And as she lives within these pages, she is. I was reminded, as I went along, of the way in which novelists such as Dickens and Zola created situations and lives that would, finally, begin to effect social change; it’s possible to think that this book might do something similar.
Preparation for the Next Life, this author’s first novel, surfs in to these shores atop towering waves of praise from across the Atlantic. “Astounding,” said Cathleen Schine in The New York Review of Books; “dizzying in its ambition and exhilarating in its triumph,” The New York Times declared. The author, furthermore, is the son of Gordon Lish, the legendary American author and editor who shaped Raymond Carver’s prose into its now indelible form; all this backstory is the kind of thing that might very well put a reader off, or at least cause him/her to think, however unwillingly: show me the money. But this novel is nothing less than a triumph, worthy of every heroic adjective a critic could throw. It is a reminder, plain and simple, of what fiction is for.
Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish, Oneworld, RRP£14.99, / Tyrant Books RRP$15, 432 pages
Photograph: Simon Pemberton