Preparation for the Next Life is a line main character Zou Lei encounters in a mosque in New York. She has ended up there hungry and without any money on one of those days things just do not work out well. Zou Lei is an illegal Chinese immigrant who is trying to make a better life for herself in the United States – which does not go easy at all. She has to work long hours in a busy restaurant for a pittance, she pays too much for a dirty bed in a crowded house, she is continually afraid that she will be caught by the police and be brought to prison – for a second time. Zou Lei has two major assets in her life: her own perseverance and sunny disposition and her relationship with Skinner, the one person she has managed to actually meet in the States. He is an Iraq-veteran who has returned with physical and mental wounds and has been literally dropped back in society with some cash in his pocket. His head wound and his PTSD (stress syndrome) are denied by his former employee, the US army. Being part of what you might almost call white thrash does not make life easier for Skinner. He just does not have the mental capability, the upbringing to turn around his life. Preparation for the Next Life is a love story though a tough one. Lish surrounds Zou Lei and Skinner with a type of American I only know from reality tv: loud mouthed, aggressive, incapable of listening, acting before thinking. Not that he is any kinder towards the Chinese. Zou Lei is not accepted lovingly in the Chinese community, on the contrary. It is made very clear to her that she is just the wrong type of Chinese. Chinese community is harsh and competitive, no one backs you up. Zou Lei and Skinner make for a strange couple. Their relationship works though for some time, mostly because of Zou Lei’s unbeatable optimism which makes Skinner capable of facing his symptoms for a while. Until they become too severe to deny.
Preparation for the Next Life is a grim novel about a bleak side of American society. Lish paints an uneasy picture of people who struggle to survive and who face poverty and crime on a daily basis. He describes their world and their conversations into detail, which means lots of shouting, screaming and threatening. It results in a crowded and oppressive novel, too much at some points. Lish makes his reader feel the pressure Zou Lei and Skinner encounter every day and does not give in. It definitely does not make for an easy novel. I am not really sure whether it makes for a a good novel, one with a definite message for sure. Preparation for the Next Life is saved by Zou Lei. She is someone I loved and who I would actually want to meet. Because of her perseverance and her optimism the novel does not end up being one long complaint. A though novel that is advertised as ‘the finest and most unsentimental love story of the new decade’. Might I say that is an understatement?