Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life

Atticus Lish, Preparation for the Next Life (©2104, Oneworld 2015)


There’s a lot that’s very good in this tragedy-romance of marginalised people living in New York City. Rather than reviewing it, I want to make some observations about how context can affect the experience of reading.

Everyone knows that a book you read as a child can be very different when you read it again as an adult. But the effects of timing can be much more fine-grained than that: in my reading of Preparation for the Next Life, reading while walking and reading in the wake of particular television revelations each made a huge difference.

First the walking. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that two chapters towards the end are given over to a character’s night-long, punishing walk through New York City’s neglected outer reaches. It’s a bravura piece of writing, showing us the changing state of the buildings, people and activities in each neighbourhood traversed, all filtered through the character’s terrified and exhaustion-addled mind. I’m convinced that the author did that walk himself, possibly even in a single night.

By serendipity, I read most of those two chapters while walking in an unfamiliar place, and even though I was in Sydney’s quiet harbourside suburb of Putney, the effect was magical, the rhythm of my leisurely walk providing a perfect accompaniment to the sentences playing in my mind. If you want to do likewise, it’s chapters 52 and 53.

The other piece of serendipity came with a single sentence early in the book. In this case it wasn’t the context that changed my experience of the text. The text changed my understanding of the context.

One woman is explaining to another the kinds of treatment she might expect from a warder if she ends up in prison:

If you fought him, he was authorised to rush you like a man, tackle you, pound your head on the floor, Taser your backside while you crawled, drag you out by the leg while you screamed under the cameras recording all this in black and white, strap you in The Chair, put the spit bag on your head and leave you there for up to twelve hours while you begged for water.

Like much in the early chapters, this is colourful, gritty background that adds to our sense of the character’s jeopardy, and a month ago I would have skimmed over it.

But read in the wake of the Four Corners report on the Don Dale juvenile detention centre it gains extraordinary power. The phrase ‘rush you like a man’ could have been written to describe the overwhelming speed of the real-life warder we saw enter a young Aboriginal man’s cell, grab him by the throat and throw him to a mattress on the floor. We saw real-life young men crying out while being dragged, under cameras recording it all in black and white. We saw a young man being shackled to a chair by a group of burly, uniformed men, his head hidden in a spit hood (a bag by any other name), and the men leave him saying they would come back in a couple of hours.

It emerged that the treatment of the young detainees had been the subject of a number of official reports, but not until the footage was shown on national television were the media and politicians galvanised into action. Though the substance of their action remains to be seen, there’s no doubt that the Four Corners report will lead to some improvement.

But there were disturbing dissonances in the Four Corners report. For example, the image of young Dylan Voller hooded and strapped to a chair was compared to the infamous 2004 photos from Abu Ghraib, a comparison that has been taken up since by a number of commentators. The footage itself undermined that comparison: those men aren’t caught off guard, but speak solicitously to the young man (‘How’s that, is that all right?’ ‘You keep chilling out, yeah?’). They’re not deliberately humiliating their prisoner for sport. At least in that footage they give every appearance of men who are acting according to established protocols – it could almost be an instructional video. The similarity to Abu Ghraib is mainly visual, and the comparison serves to generate outrage rather than getting at the truth of the situation.

Outrage has its limitations. To quote a 2013 piece by Mark Fisher about the British tabloid Daily Mail:

Outrage is not merely impotent, it is actively counterproductive, feeding the very enemy we claim to want to defeat. That’s because, firstly, outrage is part of the very currency of what Jodi Dean calls communicative capitalism, which depends not on content but on the sheer circulation of messages… Secondly, since there is an infinite supply of things to be outraged about, the tendency towards outrage indefinitely locks us up in a series of reactive battles, fought on the enemy’s territory and on its terms.

In this case, doing away with the chair and the hood, and even punishing the guards who used tear gas on young men in their cells, might satisfy the outraged need for action, but wouldn’t do much to address the underlying system that leads to the abuse.

Atticus Lish’s sentence brings these considerations to the fore. It characterises a number of the things we saw on Four Corners as only to be expected from the ‘justice’ system. No explanation of The Chair or the spit bag is even needed – so they’re not aberrations of the Northern Territory but vile practices that are widespread and officially sanctioned. If one of the things that intimidates a woman is to be ‘rushed like a man’, there’s a subliminal suggestion that for a man to be rushed like that is close to being acceptable. There’s a gender issue here that the media have hardly touched on.

A friend and I were recently lamenting that novels can no longer transform our understanding of the world as Simone de Beauvoir’s A Woman Destroyed did for her and The Brothers Karamazov for me. We agreed that the fault lies not in the novels but in ourselves – our minds get set in their ways. Reading Preparation for the Next Life has not been a transformative experience for me. But it has restored my sense that fiction can illuminate things, bring them alive in the mind. And I’m grateful

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