Lit Links is a new series of posts as part of our Quiet, Constant Friends project where writers and artists choose a book and create a playlist of songs to go with it. To keep things tidy (and ensure a steady flow), I’m going to pitch in every so often too, hopefully with new books I think you should know about. Here’s one!
Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life is, on the face of things, a relatively simple story. Girl meets boy under less than perfect circumstances and they struggle to make something of it. A classic love tale. But that’s where simplicity, or even any semblance of understanding, ends. This is a novel about post-9/11 New York, a tale of immense confusion, mistrust and paranoia, about poverty in a city smothered by it, about millions of people trying to make a life out of nothing.
Zou Lei is an illegal immigrant from China, a Muslim of the Uighur tribe, Skinner a PTSD-suffering Iraq vet who scraped through three tours of a war that’s followed him home in more ways than one. Queens is bursting at the seams with people looking for something better, or else ways to distract themselves from the present, a roiling, screaming sea of humanity. Lei and Skinner end up together, bonding through a common sadness and a shared appreciation of discipline and exercise. Their unsentimental yet gentle relationship serves as a recognisable, familiar way-in to a recognisable but wholly unfamiliar place. All of this is written in some of the best prose I’ve read in a long while. Beautiful and terrifying and sad, it captures New York as a gritty, humming place that’s crumbling in time with America’s perception of greatness.
Just like the characters, the reader is in alien territory. The overwhelming majority of us cannot fully understand the positions in which these protagonists find themselves. The fringes of society swamped by an overwhelming Lack Of. A lack of money and respect, of kinship and trust, as well as lack of material stuff (Zou Lei has a bed to sleep in but is essentially homeless, Skinner renting a basement with decidedly finite savings). But both are still subject to the American bombardment of dreams and nightmares that constitute the consumerist culture. They see shop-fronts and billboards, they see mistrust in the media and the faces of passers-by. The paradox of feeling isolated and lonely in a crowd of people seems designed specifically to torture them.
But the confusion is deeper than that, one that might impinge on Lei and Skinner more than most but hangs over us all. Not only are there no answers here, there are barely any questions. If 9/11 provided the West with a new narrative, a renewed sense of moral importance and superiority , then events like those at Abu Ghraib snatched away the veil. Technology has made it impossible to ignore that the ‘Bad Guys’ are mostly innocent, scared people like us, that our dirty secrets in exotic wars will not be buried. Everyone lives in this grey area but Skinner personifies it, pining for the purpose and friendship of war while being eaten alive by the truth of it.
“He took a drink from a flask of Bacardi Scorched Cherry and watched an execution on his laptop”
Here’s a collection of songs which we feel are somehow relevant to the themes and feel of the novel.
1. I’m New Here – Gil Scott Heron
2. Wish it Was True – White Buffalo
3. Drinking at the Dam – Smog
4. There I was in the pouring rain again, but this time I was at the drive-thru at Mac Donalds’ – Talons’
5. Beacon Hill – Damien Jurado
6. Heartbreaker – Noah Gundersen
7. Cold Apartment Floors – Vagabon
8. Travel Map – Hip Hatchet
9. Death By Dust – Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson
10. Linens – Water Liars
11. The Modern Leper – Frightened Rabbit
12. No Future (Pt. I) – Titus Andronicus
13. Shitty City – Moonface
14. The Whip – Jesse Marchant
15. Third of Life – A Weather
16. Bloodkin Push (Forget the Ones) – Will Johnson
17. Wall Around Your Heart – Huck Notari
18. The Trapeze Swinger (Iron & Wine Cover) – Gregory Alan Isakov
19. I Could Only Stand By – The Weather Station
20. Fake Empire – The National
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish is out now on Tyrant Books (US) and Oneworld (UK + Aus). Quiet, Constant Friends is available digitally and on cassette via the Wake The Deaf Bandcamp page.