Oh It's Just A Perfect Day
I'm glad I spent it with you
Preparation For The Next Life
Author: Atticus Lish
Released: October 20, 2014
Publisher: Tyrant Books
I started reading this book at the beginning of the month. When I was halfway through the month, and the book, I’d developed an affinity for one of the main characters, a young woman in her twenties named Zou Lei. Zou Lei is an illegal immigrant who snuck into the US. She is an Uighur Chinese woman, which is the minority ethnic group in China. They speak their own language, the look more Turkish than Chinese, and they’re Muslim.
I had to look this up as I was reading. I’d never heard of these people before. During my Google search I read stories about how China is being accused of capturing Uighur Chinese people and imprisoning them in secret prison camps indefinitely.
They’re just disappearing, and sure, it’s being reported on if I’m reading about it, but China’s denying it. And I while I don’t claim to know much about it, I don’t think anyone is rushing to find these misfit Chinese Muslim prisoners. They’re overlooked by the world.
On March 16th a 21 year old American man traveled to three separate massage parlors in Atlanta and gunned down 8 victims, six of these victims were Asian women. He was eventually arrested and as the stories started pouring out through every media outlet, I understand why what he did was not referred to as a ‘hate crime’ as the story unfolded. It’s my understanding that a hate crime is a criminal charge as well as a term used for violence acted out on a person or group who is singled out based on their race, religion, or sexual orientation.
I understand reporters and law enforcement refrain from calling these killings (or crimes like it) hate crimes because it’s also a criminal charge and they can’t say it in the moment.
What I don’t understand is the attention given to the killers, details that describe how they’re nice and quiet usually, according to their neighbors. How they ‘had a bad day.’ The police department that arrested him and gave a press conference said the gunman was plagued with ‘sexual addiction’ and that the crimes weren’t racially motivated.
I am continually baffled at stories like these and the staunch refusal to acknowledge the racism that motivated these murders.
He murdered Asian woman. He went to massage parlors. He didn’t go to a strip club and murder dancers or even just kill random women he found attractive inside of a store or a cafe, he specifically went to three massage parlors and killed Asian women. I heard he had an Asian fetish. If this tidbit of hearsay makes sense to someone as a reason why he murdered Asian women because of his alleged sexual addiction, than it’s safe to say you and I will probably never come to similar conclusions about why shit like this keeps happening. And this may sound corny, and I really don’t intend it to, but I couldn’t help think of Zou Lei as this awful tragedy unfolded in the news in real time.
Zou Lei is a survivor, a fighter, the kind of woman willing to go to any length to work hard to stay alive, she works restaurant jobs and does tasks in the kitchen I’d never want to do. She’s small, thin, pretty, athletic, and determined to survive, and avoid being picked up again in an immigration sweep which could keep her detained in jail indefinitely due to the Patriot Act.
She’s also optimistic, hopeful, and a believer in American Dream. You don’t see right away how sweet she is, because she is often ignored, mistreated, overlooked or taken advantage of, but over time her relentless good character is unavoidable to notice.
I couldn’t help but think as I was reading about her, the people who she worked for in the basement food court in Queens (possibly the Golden Mall food court in Flushing which I only know about from Anthony Bourdain) the people she lived with in her illegal apartment, that I know nobody like her. I have never had a conversation with anyone like her, ever. I’m always friendly to the group of women who have shown up at my house to clean it when I’ve hired a service, and, I know the ladies at my nail salon by face and name since I see them weekly, but I don’t really know them. I don’t know anything about them. And this novel made me aware that there is an entire universe of people, cultures, lives who experience heartache and love and tragedy and pleasure and pain that I don’t even notice.
Atticus Lish’s book has this incredible ability to explore a side of New York City that I have no experience with. I’ve lived outside of the city my entire life. My mother grew up in Bayside, just a neighborhood away from where Preparation For The Next Life takes place in Flushing, and still. I can confidently say I am nowhere near the orbit of this world.
The majority of this novel is sprawling descriptions of the city’s immigrant neighborhoods, where a second-class of underclass hustles from sun up to well past sun down. Atticus Lish,must have lived in these neighborhoods at some point. His attention to detail in the dialects, religions, subcultures and working class in scene after scene that takes place in fast food spots, bodegas, street corners, social clubs, bars, and clothing stores is the detail one can only acquire when you live in these types of communities.
I kept thinking, how’d this guy write this shit? Lish grew up privileged I’m sure (he’s the son of Gordon Lish) but he is an army veteran, a martial artist, and his resume prior to penning this debut novel includes a long list of manual labor jobs.
How did this man write a female protagonist so god damn well? It’s not impossible for a man to write a female character in fiction, but it’s more than noticeable when a man does it well. The last book I recall being blown away by this is when Wally Lamb wrote She’s Come Undone. That was impressive. JD Salinger, too, Bessie and Franny Glass come to mind.
I started the novel on March 1st and read a chunk of pages daily. The book lived on my dresser, right next to my bed, and the quote on the cover stared at me whenever I glanced at it:
“Perhaps the finest and most unsentimental love story of the new decade.”
-The New York Times
I’m not sure why my eyes skipped over ‘unsentimental.’ All I saw was ‘love story.’ There is a love story layered into the 400+ pages of this book, but it’s hard to see it sometimes in between the prominent themes of suffering, trauma, violence, poverty, loneliness and post 9/11 New York City.
The man that Zou Lei meets and falls in love with is Brad Skinner, an army veteran slightly older than Zou Lei who comes to New York City after his third tour in Iraq after 9/11. He has family in Pennsylvania but he’s a lone wolf. He has demons, they probably existed before the war, and the war exacerbated and added to them. Skinner is straight forward. He likes to drink, he wants to meet girls, he wants to be numb his past.
Skinner’s PTSD is revealed to the reader slowly, almost like he is trusting us with his personal information on his terms. He’s unabashedly human. The reader is presented with equal parts ‘good’ and ‘bad’ qualities of his. He plays the part of war hero if he thinks it will get him something he wants. He’s charming, he’s sensitive, he’s medicated, he’s haunted by things he has seen and people he has killed during the war. He also has shrapnel embedded deep into his back with thick scar tissue covering it, a physical and figurative metaphor of protection from the wounds of the past.
Skinner meets Zou Lei as he is wandering around Queens, trying to find a massage parlor. He sees her from afar, notices her thin, muscular body and starts to talk to her. She asks if he is a solider (like her father was in China before he died) and they bond immediately. The books’ first part describes them in detail together, as well as apart, and I kept waiting for them to fall madly in love.
It doesn’t really happen that way. Part one ends with the introduction to Skinner’s PTSD, the visions in his head he can’t shut off, and the gun he keeps in his bag.
Part two begins with the introduction of a third character, an antagonist named Jimmy Murphy, and I was uncomfortable with him right away. I felt like I didn’t want to be near him as I held my book, reading about him. You learn pretty fast who he is, and once the connection between him and our main characters is revealed it’s apparent something terrible is going to happen at some point.
When the book is about two thirds of the way through, a shift occurs Skinner and Zou Lei’s relationship. Skinner’s post traumatic stress is ever present, and Zou Lei is aware of his actions but not the reasons. Her hours are being cut at work, so she is making less money, and she’s desperately trying to keep her head above water. She and Skinner have an argument after he snaps at her and she tries to walk away. He shows her just how bad his PTSD is in a scene that had me holding my breath I couldn’t relax until I read the end of the chapter, certain they were both okay for now.
The most common advice a writer will get is ‘show, don’t tell.’ Lish has this perfect way of showing the reader that Zou Lei and Skinner are clinging to a fantasy world as a survival mechanism while being in a relationship that is doomed. They love each other, they need each other, but their struggle is larger than their love. Zou Lei begins to break down when things between her and Skinner get rocky. She screams in Uighur that she can’t take it anymore, she’s pleading with herself to leave, walk across the entire continent until she became a ghost (pg. 266).
“When they made up, she experienced powerful well-being. Immortality flowed back into her like the juice into a plant stem. She immediately began to taste her life again and the two of them would plan for the future. This took the form of fantasy. He would forget the war. He would stop fucking up. She would get her green card. He would bench press 300 pounds by August. They would have a few hours of this when things were pleasant and then the feeling between them would turn wrong again. She began to watch for the signs of his mood changing. She began to expect her happiness to be taken away from her. The worst life got, the more she needed her happiness with him.”
The last 100 pages of this novel kept me viscerally tense but I had to know what was going to happen, so I kept reading. I was nervous for the avalanche of tragedy I sensed I’d be reading as Zou Lei, Skinner and Jimmy kept swirling closer and closer to an inevitable collision. I finally got to exhale when the book ended, but not without crying a few times before the ending came.
I finished this book four days ago and I haven’t stopped thinking about Zou Lei.
There’s a graphic, devastating sexual assault in this novel, a heartbreaking scene where an Asian sex worker is beaten and sodomized by Jimmy Murphy. Last week, Cathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings won the Book Critics award for autobiography. Cathy's emotional acceptance speech dedicated the award to the women who lost their lives in Atlanta this month.
Thanks for reading this month. Subscribe below to get these straight to your inbox next month…. xo Lauren