I could date it with some precision if I thought about it, probably in the late 70s, in other words a long time ago, and I forget what book it was that triggered it, a Bellow or an Updike most likely, but at any rate what came out was an idea that reading American authors of a certain heft or smartness or importance, such as those were (there were others), was bad for me. Toxic. Conducive to bad thoughts and bad manners and unhappiness. So I gave them up and felt better, and perhaps behaved better too. Who can say? For no more compelling reasons one gives up eating certain foods, or drops certain friends. From then on, small books, alien voices, Bernhard and Tucholsky, Nooteboom and Klíma, Mela Hartwig, Øystein Lønn and Dag Solstad.

I thought about this curious episode recently while reading notices of Atticus Lish’s just-published Preparation for the Next Life, a novel arriving festooned with the marks of major publishing event, the next big thing, with an intriguing back-story of literary lineage and ambition plus suffering, much space given to the self-congratulatory gush of agents and flacks, an exemplary happening very much along the lines of NYC as opposed to MFA, the book itself, naturally, big, raw, powerful, and so forth. Disheartening guff. Nevertheless, something glimmered. I ordered a copy.

Style catches the eye first, and then structure. Will the scaffolding get you where you seem to be going? Do the parts look like the sort of parts that will be equal to the strain that is going to be put on them? Lish’s title is encouraging. Preparation. We glimpse a gun. We know it will go off. Not now. Later. Two damaged and violent souls, Skinner and Jimmy, products respectively of American military and carceral systems, not by-products, not failed products, just products, predictable and necessary, like the gun. Likewise they will go off. Not now. Later. But surely. Fates walking to meet our reading with slow and inexorable measures.

Neither of these noirish numpties, however, is protagonist. Zou Lei is. A small Uighur woman, an illegal immigrant. From the steppes via Mexico to the precarities of life in a Chinatown kitchen. A magnificent literary creation. When has a girl ever been at the questing centre of an American dream-myth? Among the Tom Joads, Huck Finns, Holden Caulfields? This invention was not the reason I decided to read Preparation for the Next Life. It is the one thing that could not have been guessed at from the beginning or even the mid-point, and curiously it is the thing not noticed in discussions and reviews, which mostly talk about the love story, Zou Lei and Skinner, and the tragic ending of it. But Zou Lei is the reason to finish the book. The gradually dawning sense that she will rise to fill the foreground, that all this is really about her, and that it is her next life for which we have seen the preparation, is to my mind as startling as that revelatory moment in João Guimarães Rosa’s Devil to Pay in the Backlands—a book I am always returning to—the unmasking of the girl Diadorim. It is a thing unprecedented in American books or films or ideas, this apotheosis of the girl as hero, hero in the precise sense of dreamer and conquerer. Certainly unprecedented in any universe imagined by Bellow or Updike.

A pleasure in reading Lish’s novel is the feeling that one understands how it came to be. How the thing was done. At least I know how I would have gone about making it, because it is the way I wrote my own novels. Begin with a situation. Even less than a situation. A picture will do. A smell. A junction of curious and disparate elements. The rest is a matter of getting to it and getting away from it and filling the spaces any way you can. Lish’s novel has to get three people into alignment and then separate them, and in the spaces between is the city, New York City. But the city as an archipelago of Chinatowns and barrios, factories and waste grounds, saloons and sporting fields, strip malls and arcades, strung along the interminable arteries of the outer boroughs, lines pointing nowhere, one block distinguishable from another by the fading in and out of the smells of food, the accents of tribal encampments, the quality of the crunch of broken glass underfoot, the quality of light at midnight or dawn or dusk. One knows without being told that Lish has walked this city and absorbed its feeling and filled the spaces beneath the spans and arches of a simple linear plot with his notes and recollections of these walks.

It was a feature of the Brooklyn I grew up in, like Lish’s Queens, that the subway system was designed to move people from their neighbourhoods into Manhattan and out again. It was not designed to get you from, say, Bay Ridge to Bushwick. Not easily, anyway, and so one explored—because of a girl you met somewhere, usually, or maybe just a whim, an otherwise dead Saturday on your hands—on foot or, later, on a bicycle, those weird urban transcontinentals, interminable avenues, sometimes with overhead tracks, or surface trolley lines, or both, sometimes dense with activity, sometimes desolate, smelling of tidal creeks and sewage, sometimes nothing but blank and staring walls blocks long. Coloured zones, Spanish zones, Jewish and Polish zones, Pentecostal storefronts, Irish bars, Chinese restaurants. All my life this is what lighting out for the Territory can only have meant, on the desolate strips of any town, reaching out into nothing, and you yourself, like Kafka’s hero of The Sudden Walk, “a firm, boldly drawn black figure, slapping yourself on the thigh, grow to your true stature.” Thus does Zou Lei triumph in her ordeal. Northern Boulevard, Utopia Parkway, Sanford Avenue. Thirty miles in a night. A pilgrimage, a Calvary on bleeding feet.

Lish tacks on an Epilogue. Zou Lei gets a bus ticket to Phoenix, Arizona. But this is a mistake. Zou Lei knows it, and I suspect Atticus Lish knows it too.