Guest contributor: Bill Lundgren
categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence
The Great American Novel has always been a story about outsiders, people peering in through the gates at a uniquely American dream that seems maddeningly just beyond their reach… from Huck (where it all began), to the Joads and Gatsby and Bigger Thomas and on to McMurphy and Seymour (Swede) Levov, Ignatius J. Reilly and Sethe… these are all characters in pursuit of a mirage shimmering on an ever-receding horizon.
So what does the GAN look like in the post 9/11 world? Who are the outsiders that walk among us today, invisible and striving to be seen, to be recognized and validated as real? I offer for consideration Atticus Lish’s powerful debut novel, Preparation for the Next Life and his two indelibly sketched protagonists: Zou Lei, an illegal immigrant from northwest China and Skinner, a damaged survivor of America’s disastrous military adventure in Iraq. The trajectory of their meeting seems inevitable, driven by a propulsive, relentless narrative. They share an aching sense of loneliness that maybe, the author hints, might be assuaged by their coming together.
At first glance Skinner would appear better equipped to grapple with his situation, but it is Zou Lei who becomes caretaker as the couple embark upon a thoroughly contemporary American love story. What they have in common is a passion for the release of physical exercise and they pursue this with a ferocity that energizes the story. Though initially their physical pursuits are solitary, Zou Lei as a runner and Skinner as a weight-lifter, their story gains traction when they begin to run together through the boroughs of Manhattan, mostly Queens, or hit the gym where Skinner spots for Zhou Lei while teaching her the rudiments of lifting.
Interestingly this novel might have disappeared into the stacks of forgotten remainders if not for a fortuitous review. Published by a small press (Tyrant Books), with a conservative initial print run, Preparation for the Next Life began to gain traction when Dwight Garner pronounced it, “Perhaps the finest and most unsentimental love story of the new decade” in the NY Times. Aided by word of mouth from appreciative readers, the book became temporarily unavailable as the publisher rushed to print more copies, in a reaffirmation of the power of the reading community and the essential role played by “curators”… this despite Jeff Bezos‘ inchoate screeds decrying the Times and mainstream book reviewers and publishers as “gatekeepers” that prevent people from reading what they wish.
Another reader/reviewer wrote, “Now that America and the novel are dead, I hope we can have more great American novels as alive as this one.” Dead or simply reimagined? This marvelous novel is the strongest argument for the latter that one might hope for.
[Bill Lundgren is a writer and blogger, also a bookseller at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine (“A Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore”). He keeps a bird named Ruby, and teaches at Southern Maine Community College.]