Book Review – Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars. Why?

  • The book is full of vitality. It appeals so much to the senses. You can see the graffiti in the ghettos, hear the noise of New York streets, smell the grease in Chinatowns, taste fast food burgers and pizza deliveries, and feel the sweat and sand and keloids and calluses on the characters’ skins. It’s like the lower class New York is packed within the book.
  • The love story between Zou Lei, an illegal half-Chinese immigrant, and Skinner, a war vet suffering from PTSD, is written in a terse and engaging prose that made me keep going for long stretches of reading time. The novel traces, with such realism and unsentimentality, both the good times they have when they are drinking beer, working out, and making love, and the bad times when Zou Lei is ignored by Skinner during his bouts of depression and anxiety.
  • It both made me smile-laugh and seethe-rage at the things that are going on, especially when Jimmy, the bad guy of the novel, intersected with the lives of our protagonists. The smile-laugh part came on early, so I felt in my gut that this is not going to end like that.
  • So yeah, I know how it’s going to end. A Chekhovian gun is presented as soon as Skinner is introduced to the reader, but still, I was blown away by how it was fired. It’s almost as if it were shot toward me, which made me close the book out of shock and devastation, and pace around the room to calm my lacerated nerves.
  • It’s a book that’s a litany of the problems of unfortunate people. Zou Lei is hardworking and driven but she doesn’t have working papers for her to get a proper job, and her employers exploit this legal issue to their advantage. Skinner is a troubled guy who longs for his dead comrades and who suffers from nightmares, but he is not able to seek medical attention for it. Their awful lives can get too much, but the good thing is that they do what they can. Though it seems that all they have are Zou Lei’s fake out-of-state and Skinner’s antidepressant and antipsychotic pills, they still try to build a life together. They still jab at a chance in achieving the elusive American Dream.

Preparation for the Next Life is an impressive début novel from Atticus Lish, the son of the legendary Gordon Lish, an editor I will always remember along one of my favorite short story writers, Raymond Carver. It paints a grim portrait of the backdoor immigrant experience, the war shock and its debilitation of social skills, the petty thefts and violences littered within a sprawling metro, and the  things that people do and go through that could prepare them for the next life. I am now looking forward to Atticus Lish’s future works. This is my first book this year and it set the bar pretty high.

[417 pages. Trade paperback.]
[Read in February 2016.]
[Book 1 of 2016.]


  1. I have heard some good things about this book. My reading is so sluggish lately (not that the memo has reached my book buying brain) that 400+ pages is well beyond my concentration scope at the moment. But it’s on my virtual wishlist.


    • I read Parts 1 and 3 in a flash. The middle part was a bit of a struggle since it diverted from the main arc but it proved to be a solid bridge. I’ve seen a video of Will Self lecturing a journalist who didn’t like the book about its merits. It was quite a relief to see Self doing that, which is a break from his rounds of curmudgeonliness.

      Liked by 1 person

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