New York City in the last week featured more veterans and veteran-writing events than three of me could attend. Every day and night brought a reading, a show, a ceremony, or a celebration of some sort, with all happenings accompanied by the parallel-world hoopla of Facebook posts and Tweets. This year, many Veterans Day events specifically honored Iraq and Afghanistan veterans; no longer ancillary to the veterans of Vietnam, Korea, and WWII, vets of more recent vintage now occupy the spotlight of public acclaim. Indeed, many of the events were organized or sponsored or publicly supported by the many new veterans groups dedicated to public service, civic engagement, and mutual uplift. The tone of such organizations is relentlessly cheerful, energetic, and team-and-goal-oriented. Some evidence awareness that many veterans are struggling and that the wars in which we fought didn’t go so well, but others suppress such negativity in favor of a continuously upbeat vet-positive message and image. And, then, at the end of the week, with the terrorist attacks in Paris, recent-war veterans by the score held forth in public forums with all the confidence of men and women who, based on their own martial experience, expected to be listened to.
All good, I guess, but it was my lot last week to read Atticus Lish’s novel Preparation for the Next Life, about the catastrophic dissolution of an Iraq veteran and everyone with whom he comes in contact. It was a dour, doleful counterpoint to the triumphalist roar of the Veterans Day festivity and the pontification of vet-experts on Paris and ISIS. Not to say Preparation for the Next Life is a bad book, though its solemn pace, spread out over 400 pages of very small print, makes it anything but a quick, lively read. The fear is that it might be too good, and that through the force of its literary punch it re-instantiates the public image of the traumatized, alienated, and violent veteran that the vet-positive organizations are trying their hardest to overturn. And its sad-sack hero, who had his ass handed to him in Iraq, might undercut faith that veterans have something meaningful to say now about winning a war against almost the same enemy we fought from 2003-2011.
Lish’s protagonist is Brad Skinner, an Army infantry veteran of three Iraq tours, each of which successively contributed to his ruination. On his last tour, which only happens because he had been “stop-lossed” (remember when that was an issue?) from leaving the service at the end of his enlistment, he is badly injured in a battle that takes the life of his best friend. Once physically recovered and out-of-the-service, but still psychologically troubled, Skinner makes his way to New York City. Estranged from his family and not interested in socializing with other veterans, enrolling in college, or signing up for a Wall Street vet-hiring initiative, Skinner drifts from one beat-down neighborhood to another and drinks: “…if he partied hard enough, he’d eventually succeed in having a good time and would start wanting to live again.”
Skinner’s the kind of vet who wears his desert combat boots with American Eagle jeans, who chain-smokes while being devoted to pumping iron, who carries his assault pack and poncho-liner into civilian life like badges of honor; in other words a galoot who doesn’t realize what a poor impression he makes. Eventually he finds himself in Queens where against-the-odds he strikes up a romance with a young Chinese woman named Zou Lei. A non-observant Muslim from a remote far-western province and ethnically distinct from most other New York City Chinese, Zou Lei is in the US illegally and as without protective family or group affiliation as Skinner. It’s hard to see what she likes about Skinner, who is obviously troubled and without prospects, but like him she does, and he likes her too in return.
As the two begin to scrape out a fragile life together, hope flickers that they might actually be good for each other and they just might make it. But both encounter life-and-work-related challenges that lead to the novel’s grimmer-than-grim resolution. For Zou Lei, trouble comes in the form of a boss whose antipathy toward her makes it impossible to keep her job. For Skinner, it’s a pure evil piece-of-work named Jimmy, the adult son of the woman from whom he rents a room. Jimmy’s malice toward both Skinner and Zou Lei is breathtakingly destructive and jaw-droppingly portrayed. Skinner’s not such a nice guy himself, but the venom with which Jimmy perpetrates the final ruin of Skinner and Zou Lei’s life together seems both the cruelest twist-of-fate and their inevitable punishment for daring to think they might prosper while actually being so isolated and vulnerable. It’s as though Lish has reworked Roxana Robinson’s Sparta and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe, I Love You to tell the story of a veteran’s demise as brutally as possible, all the while insisting that brutality is a literary virtue.
Lish narrates Preparation for the Next Life through the tightly-focused perspectives of his main characters, as if Go-Pro cameras were affixed to their foreheads documenting their lives as they unfold in front of them. Exposition, context, and internal thoughts are minimized, so we learn little about Skinner’s life before the Army, why he likes Zou Lei, or what he’s thinking as his life spirals downward. Battle scenes in Iraq are set in flashback, the style-du-jour in war fiction, as is the tight highly-restricted focus. The story in truth is as much Zou Lei’s as it is Skinner’s, with long passages at both the beginning and end of the novel devoted to her life pre- and post-New York. We learn, for example, far more about her life before coming to America than we do of Skinner’s growing up in his home nation. The story is also of New York City, but not the genteel-bohemian vet world of Columbia and NYU grad school and the Village and Brooklyn–to say nothing of the cheering masses who line 5th Avenue for the annual parade–but the deeply unknown and neglected worlds of Chinatown and white lower-middle-class enclaves in Queens. In Lish’s telling, these places are desperate dog-eat-dog realms where nobody treats anybody nicely or fairly–they’re stinking repositories of misery, poverty, misogyny, violence, criminality, racism, and drug dealing and drug abuse, left far behind by the let’s-all-be-media-savvy millenium America.
Many war writers are earnestly trying to find new ways to imagine the 21st century wars that evade the traps of outmoded or unwelcome storylines, but Preparation for the Next Life double-downs on the traumatized vet motif as if it were still 2010. I can’t imagine it’s the new novel about Iraq and Afghanistan that many people wanted, but it’s here now among us like a party-crasher at the vet feel-good banquet. Go ahead and try to ignore Preparation for the Next Life, but Lish’s vital imaginative vision, though unfashionably deployed, will make it hard to do so.
Atticus Lish, Preparation for the Next Life, Tyrant Books, 2014.
Thanks to the Rutgers University Veterans House for inviting me on Veterans Day to tape my memories of advisor service in Afghanistan for a Library of Congress oral history project. Thanks to Professor Maria Hoehn of Vassar College, who invited me the day after Veterans Day to speak to her class on “The American Military at Home and Abroad.” To be sandwiched between Michael Kamber the week before and David Abrams next week is an honor indeed. Also, I greatly enjoyed the Veterans Artist Program day-after-Veterans Day livestream broadcast from the Lincoln Center in New York City, especially the readings by Roy Scranton and Elliot Ackerman. Finally, thanks to Applebee’s for the free Veterans Day meal; the food and service were great and so was the company of veterans (from various wars) and their families.