Books: Damaged souls in the 10 years after Twin Towers
Fiction: Preparation for the Next Life: Atticus Lish, Oneworld, hdbk, 432 pages, €9.46
This novel is set in New York during the decade after 9/11, largely in the poorest areas of Queens where the repercussions are felt in rising tensions between diverse ethnic factions.
Its grand narratives - war, home, prison, wounds at once physical, emotional and mental - are embodied by two protagonists. Zou Lei is an illegal immigrant from a remote area of north-west China. Born to a Han Chinese soldier and a Muslim Uighur mother, Zou has many identities and none.
Dragged along by circumstance that is remorseless enough to feel like fate, she is Chinese when working long hours in restaurants and Muslim to gain food from the local imam.
Her unlikely soulmate is Brad Skinner, discharged without much honour from the US army after three tours of Iraq. He arrives in New York desperate to lose himself in booze, drugs and strippers, only to be derailed by his relationship with Zou which begins as a shared love of exercise.
Atticus Lish is singularly alive to the ways that bodies are marked by experience. There are the callouses and burns from Zou's constant punishing manual labour. True to his name, Skinner possesses similar fleshly inscriptions, most obviously the US flag tattooed on his shoulder "to look like he was wearing his uniform even when he took it off". Such idealism has long since faded on the "grayish white" pallor of his torso.
Lish writes unnervingly well about violence. The nightmares that haunt Skinner's sleep are conveyed with woozy intensity: "The sand became a sucking, sloshing pit that soaked them both and overflowed with blood." This almost Dantesque detail is from Skinner's central trauma: the failure to rescue a dying comrade (Sconyers) from the wreckage of a mortar attack.
The later rape of a Chinese girl by Skinner's nemesis, a brutalised ex-convict called Jimmy, gives American Psycho a run for its money. This unflinching physicality does not disguise how intently Lish gazes at symbolic horizons. Skinner's obsession with body-building addresses the one unanswerable question surrounding Sconyers' death: "I don't know why I failed to lift him".
This guilt, in turn, participates in broader metaphorical patterns of weight and lightness, gravity and flight, the corporeal and numinous, inner and outer worlds. The novel is filled with cells of various kinds. While Zou and Skinner are both incarcerated in actual prisons, nothing is worse than their near-metaphysical incarceration in their minds, bodies and pasts.
No matter how close Zou and Skinner become physically, their intimacy is always at the mercy of her precarious external situation and his ever-degenerating inner life: "the mind did not have a safety valve and there was no way to shut it off".
Although the novel is frequently sad to the point of despair, its power derives too from Zou and Skinner's desperation to find goodness, hope and a future together. Their first stilted, tender meetings are all the more poignant for taking place in the grimmest McDonald's imaginable.
"When I was younger, I always wanted to be in love with somebody someday," Skinner ponders.
"The thought that that was over, that I couldn't feel that any more, this really hit me hard. It took my hope away." The tragedy expressed by these nicely confused tenses is the uncertainty of whether Zou offers genuine salvation or Skinner is realising that, like Sconyers, he is beyond rescue.
Preparation for the Next Life is extraordinary, challenging and in its final quarter thrilling in ways Michael Connelly would envy. It is not perfect. Lish's prose occasionally topples under its own weightiness.
Mostly, however, you remember Zou and Skinner, star-crossed lovers who cling to each other because there is no one else.