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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Friday, March 4, 2016

A journalistic novel - or something else?: Preparation for the Next Life

Friend DC calls Atticus Lish's Preparation for the Next Life a "journalism novel," and not sure I agree - it doesn't feel like journalistic writing and it's not clear to readers whether the many scenes he recounts from the Iraq war and from life on the fringes in NYC are from his experience, his imagination, or his research, aka journalism. His scenes certainly have the ring of authenticity - I'm constantly thinking as I read: How did he know that? How does he observe so much? The Iraq scenes are not unique - there has been plenty of other war journalism and war-based fiction from Iraq and Afghanistan as well - but his scenes from New York (and to a lesser extent from the prison sequences in the Midwest) are truly a surprise: this is a NYC seldom seen in fiction (one partial exception would be Joseph O'Neill's Netherland) - the immigrant communities in Flushing, outer Queens, and near Long Island - the factories, warehouses, restaurants, the air-choked parks, the overpasses and tunnels - who else has captured so well the mood of a McDonald's predawn with a junkie asleep sprawled across the floor and the men's room with its broken lock? The high-pressure poorly sanitized kitchen of an Asian restaurant between shifts? In some ways this novel is a masterpiece; in others, it's a bit frustrating - so dark that there are few to whom I could truly recommend it, and as I sensed from the outset it's driven by Lish's formidable skills and the plot such as it is exists pretty much as a bystander: two lonely troubled people struggling to get by and to help each other out - though it remains unclear why the more driven woman Zou Lei stands by the self-destructive Skinner. Love is strange, sure, but we don't get enough insight into her needs, into what has driven her to this point and what still drives her. About 2/3 of the way through they begin to talk about marriage, which might solve her problem of illegal immigration (we learn she got somehow from China to Mexico and crossed the border from there), although she is cautious about rushing into marriage and unsure whether Skinner truly wants to take on that responsibility. In the background, the son of his landlady returned from prison seems certain to grasp Skinner in one of his schemes - but it's taking a long time for these plot elements to collide and combust. Still, paragraph by paragraph, scene by scene, one of the strongest (and strangest) novels I've read in some time.

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