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Brief Encounters with the Enemy: Fiction Hardcover – August 13, 2013
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Sayrafiezadeh follows his memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free (2010), with an arresting fiction debut that chronicles modern, nameless cities crumbling in the shadows of war. These eight stories offer first-person accounts of alienated men seeking significance, who view war as an opportunity for escape or adventure. In some stories the unspecified conflict is mere speculation, while others explore the dark emotional aftermath of international battles; taken together, they criticize the disenchantments of war with dramatic, novel-like energy. Upon returning from combat, a sixth-grade history teacher struggles to reconnect with his students, who prefer the substitute. A Walmart manager sells stolen goods to his dream girl’s family-owned store to help a friend who enlists in the military to solve his financial woes. And in the scathing title story, a young soldier spends the final day of his yearlong deployment realizing war often instills fear and disappointment rather than heroism and machismo. With insightful humor and a keen eye for offbeat details, Sayrafiezadeh, entertaining and political without being heavy-handed, is a force to be reckoned with. --Jonathan Fullmer
One of New York’s 100 Most Important Living Writers as ranked by Flavorwire
“With impressive guile and design, Mr. Sayrafiezadeh uses the arrival and escalation of that war as the through-line connecting each personal drama. . . . These calculated echoes work to unify [his] haunting book in a way that story collections rarely manage.”—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
“In his memoir, Sayrafiezadeh told the remarkable tale of a childhood steeped in doomed dogma. His stories . . . offer something more: a searing vision of his wayward homeland, delivered not in the clamoring rhetoric of a revolutionary, but in the droll monologues of young men who kill because they lack the moral imagination to do otherwise.”—Steve Almond, The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)
“Sayrafiezadeh’s eight interlinked stories are just as fulfilling as any novel you’re likely to read this summer.”—The Boston Globe
“A tantalizing fiction debut . . . [that] menaces and mesmerizes.”—Elle
“This is the domain of almost aggressively ordinary guys—guys who may be a tier or two up the ladder at their retail or call center jobs, but who don’t get there without incurring the envy of former classmates still working the mailroom. The recurring motifs include 99-cent American flags, putting in a word with the boss, idealistic Army recruitment brochures and unseasonable temperatures. Each time they recur they are more potent, and poignant. The collection is readable, and real, and hopefully a harbinger of more fiction to come from Sayrafiezadeh.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Funny and surprising . . . Sayrafiezadeh’s simple style can fool you into thinking that his struggling narrators are plain and unassuming. They are anything but. . . . Each story compels you to read the next, and no character escapes unscathed.”—The Daily Beast
“Sayrafiezadeh’s genius is not only in the way he almost painfully keeps our attention on the powers at play in these peoples’ lives, but in his sentences themselves. His deceptively simple prose has a grip that gently pulls but never slackens. The words and images pour in and the reader is pulled in, on and through these stories effortlessly, stories that seem to get better with each read.”—Washington Independent Review of Books
“Remarkable . . . Brief Encounters with the Enemy does something rare in that it contributes something new and ‘essentially different’ to the literature of war—our stories, about what it’s like over here. It’s discomfiting, and surprising, and illuminating to say the least. I’ve not read anything like it before.”—Scott Cheshire, The Millions
“An arresting fiction debut . . . With insightful humor and a keen eye for offbeat details, Sayrafiezadeh, entertaining and political without being heavy-handed, is a force to be reckoned with.”—Booklist
“Accelerating through the curve with characters who are colossally misguided and still likable—reminiscent of Junot Díaz’s Yunior—this is an astounding first collection.”—BookPage
“Saïd Sayrafiezadeh is a masterly storyteller, working from deep in the American grain. This is a splendid fiction debut.”—Philip Gourevitch, author of The Ballad of Abu Ghraib
“In this beautiful collection, we see the wages of war, brought very close to home.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion
“Bizarre and compelling and painfully funny, and something else, too: important.”—John Wray, author of Lowboy
“A vivid collection about the indignities and consolations of dead-end jobs, the joy of a stolen kiss, and the mysteries of friendship.”—Nathaniel Rich, author of Odds Against Tomorrow
“Saïd Sayrafiezadeh is a slyly subversive absurdist whose true subject is the deeply serious matter of our obligations to one another as human beings.”—John Burnham Schwartz, author of Northwest Corner
“Fun, moving, and reads like the work of a master.”—Darin Strauss, author of Half a Life
“Gritty, compelling stories about our embattled working class. This is a thrilling report from the trenches.”—Edmund White, author of Jack Holmes and His Friend
“Perfectly calibrated, laced with hard-earned moments of vulnerability, rendered in language that is at once plainspoken and lyrical.”—Teddy Wayne, author of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine
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The stories give a different if depressive viewpoint than most stories you read and because of their nihilism they really lack the resolution most people desire in reading fiction, even when it closely approximates real life events. I would like to offer a brief synopsis of the eight stories:
1. Cartography - Rex gets fired from his job as a cartographer for an internet design studio when he rejects the unwanted sexual advances of his male boss. Yet some time after being unemployed he accidentally runs into his old boss and ....
2. Paranoia - A white guy named Dean is walking through a rough black neighborhood, when three tough looking blacks call to him. What can this mean and should he run and run to where in this neighborhood.
3. Appetite - A short order cook named Ike tires to get a raise from his boss to take out a waitress and impress her more, but is shot down when the boss complains about several meals being sent back. Ike feels that this isn't the night to ask for a raise, but when WOULD BE a good time in his situation?
4. Associate - Nick McDonough is an assistant manager at a Wal-Mart store but has sticky fingers to make ends meet. He is also trying to impress the daughter of the guy buying his illegally gotten goods.
5. Brief Encounter With the Enemy - the only actual war story. Luke is on the final day of a one year tour of duty in which he has escaped actually encountering an enemy combatant. He has hours to go before being shipped home when he spots something or someone. "A tall, bald, fat man, maybe fifty, maybe younger: The enemy...He was walking with something, a sheep or a goat." [p119] Luke takes aim through his rifle sight and what then?
6. Enchantment - Jake Mattingly returns from his deployment with the military to his old job as a sixth grade teacher and also to continue his affair with a wealthy married woman. His life has had ups and downs, but mostly downs. His boss asks him to house sit his rather large and expensive house while he goes on an extended vacation for several months. Jake loves the idea of entertaining his paramour in these surrounding rather than his 15'x15' efficiency in the slums, but Jake makes one crucial error in judgment.
7. Operators - Zeke starts out after high school as a mailboy for a large concern. After three years he works his way up to online sales and recommends a high school buddy for his old job. His friend Wally joins the military after three months, then comes back a hero after a year of deployment. Wally was nothing when he left, and Jake is somewhat jealous at the reversal of how people see each of them now. So what does he do?
8. Victory - Max, a janitor at a large grocery store is attracted to a 22yo moderately attractive shoplifter, Amanda, and against better judgment frees her from the store detective before she can be arrested. He falls for her but has a partially crippled left arm that embarrasses him, preventing him from engaging in any prior romantic interludes. His real ambitions in life are to consummate a sexual liaison with Amanda and move up in the store restaurant to the coffee bar.
The stories were enjoyable but still depressing, dyspeptic and somewhat dystopian although still entertaining. Just don't expect to feel happy after you finish the book or you won't enjoy it near as much. The last story is the only one with much resolution and that is only because Max sets the bar to success so low.
"Indeed, to this day one sees in Belgium a distinctive ugliness, dating from the time when the Congo colony was exploited without restraint and manifested in the macabre atmosphere of certain salons and the strikingly stunted growth of the population, such as one rarely comes across elsewhere. At all events, I well recall that on my first visit to Brussels in December 1964 I encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year...The hotel by the Bois de la Cambre where I was then lodging for a few days was so crammed with mahogany furniture, all manner of African trophies, and pot plants, some of which were quite enormous among them aspidistras, monsterae and rubber plants reaching almost to the twelve-feet-high ceiling, that even in broad daylight the interior seemed darkened with chocolate-colored gloom."
Similarly, in Saïd Sayrafiezadeh's 2013 collection of grim and gripping short stories, Brief Encounters with the Enemy, we are confronted with the "chocolate-colored gloom" of chronic geopolitical conflict, refracted back onto a long-decayed home front. In counterpoint to Sebald's works, Sayrafiezadeh's visions take place in an American dystopia, a parallel universe consisting mainly of an unnamed urban sprawl at the end of decades of decline. A cook in a dead-end job with little hope of advancement becomes fascinated with a newly hired waitress who appears to be anorexic; a low-level manager at Walmart is compelled to steal merchandise in the pursuit of a sexual obsession, bracketed by the texts of former co-worker now serving in the war zone. A congenitally disabled janitor strives for a better life, lashing out against a patronizing society while seeking love. Alienated urban victims of a stagnant economy, immersed in dead-end work, react to their hopeless surroundings with soul-crushing ambivalence drenched in cynicism. Even when a young cartographer finds mildly satisfying work, it's naturally offset by a hostile office environment and the urban decay that surrounds him.
In many ways, this material is age-old stuff, but with a twist: these depictions of lower-middle-class millennial malaise and hopelessness are set, in classical absurdist tradition, against the looming buildup, execution, and escalation of an ever-ubiquitous war (sound familiar?) in an unnamed foreign land. The distant war--frequently susceptible to fetishized, dubious-sounding events, like the taking of a "peninsula"--weaves itself into and out of the storylines: ever-present in people and places, infused in the atmosphere through varying degrees of omnipresent force.
Because of this creation of a coherent and frightening fictive world, the book's collection, as a whole, succeeds in being more than the sum of its parts. Many of the stories have stood alone in the past, selected by a veritable "Ivy League" of publications, such as the Paris Review and the New Yorker. Read as a single body of work, the repetition of various tropes, characters, situations and phrases is starkly evident. Everyone works in a cubicle; everyone hates his onerous job; everyone is ultimately part of the machinery of war. In college-level academia, this type of recycling sometimes gets you hauled before the disciplinary committee; in writing, it's seen as branding consistency, like Jasper Johns painting flags or Pete Doherty singing about being high. With a closer reading, the repetition in Brief Encounters is additive and has a suturing effect, bringing together the collection as a cohesive whole.
The aggregation of the stories makes clear that Sayrafiezadeh has accomplished, depending on how you look at it, a feat that is either totally brilliant or too cute by half: using little more than formal conventions, he has made an actual war into a fictional one--and thus has effortlessly converted a boring and faceless urban environment from a realist set piece to a dystopia. The war, of course, is real; yet the very reluctance to name it, or to discuss it in recognizable topical terms within the real-life discourse, pulls it into the realm of a fake event, right up there with the destruction of the Death Star or the Elves departing Middle-Earth. And once we have a major fake event, nothing in the fictive world can be taken for granted. Specifically, it's gloomily implicit to the reader--even if Sayrafiezadeh never abuses the point--that everything can get even worse than it is in real life. Potentially a lot worse. The war is woven in and out of each of the narratives as an ever-threatening beast of chance, rolling the dice of destiny: it doles out glory, death, or more often a generalized anxiety, subconsciously consumed by individuals and by society writ large. Baudrillard would be proud.
The government's long arms are omnipresent, even if the relevant war zone is halfway around the world. In one story, a loner confronts racial fear, dysfunctional public transportation, and the crushing power of the state while dealing with the troubles of an undocumented friend. More obvious are the recurring stories of the ordinary people-- cubicle dwellers, mailroom boys, and unemployed--who find their lives somehow altered by the distant conflict. Disaffected young men join the military in search of identity and social approval. Back home, as if things weren't bad enough in dystopia, the weather is always too hot or cold. As several of the characters state, it's unfortunate that the soldiers have to come home during a spell of unusually cold weather; war is hell.
Brief Encounters contains recurring instances of superficial and ubiquitous displays of nationalism, which are invariably accompanied by compulsive and unquestioning support for the prevailing foreign military policy. Micheal Billig, a prominent British social scientist, coined the "banal nationalism" to describe what he called "the everyday representations of the nation which build an imagined sense of national solidarity and belonging amongst humans." This concept is repeatedly demonstrated by the hapless inhabitants of Sayrafiezadeh's world, not least as a sub-textual critique of the nature of the American war-society:
"Sitting in the back of the J-23B with the air-conditioning barely working, I stared out the window as we crawled through residential neighborhoods whose houses were all hung with flags. There was no breeze, and the flags hung limply. Some of the homes displayed the MIA and POW flags from bygone wars, and every so often there'd be a sign stuck in a window that said PEACE or NO WAR or something to that effect, but those were few and far between, and for the most part everyone was on the same page."
In another piece, the narrator's coworker hosts a party before his departure to basic training and then subsequent deployment to the war. The atmosphere is described in bland, devastating detail:
'Joey Joey was on the deck with everyone I hadn't seen in a long time. Everyone had put on weight. The flag was out and it was waving in the breeze. The breeze felt nice. It was going to be a nice spring. "If more people made an effort to keep the flag out," someone said, "we wouldn't be in the mess we're in today.' Everyone agreed."
The same protagonist is bombarded by propaganda on public transportation:
"I would recline in my seat with my cup of coffee and stare at the advertisements above my head of the handsome young men in their spotless uniforms, standing on the beach or a mountaintop, smiling at the camera and draping their arms around their buddies' shoulders as if they were having the time of their lives. 'You too can help,' the advertisements read. 'You too can make a difference.'"
The nationalistic messages that permeate life lie in stark contrast to the onerous day-to-day life depicted throughout Brief Encounters. These displays of patriotism go beyond mere cultural representation: they are part and parcel of a statist agenda by which dissent is muted and pressing domestic and local concerns are lost in the noise. The narrators in Brief Encounters comment cynically about these nationalistic themes, but at the same time see no reason to cease passively consuming and accepting the government's conclusions with spineless compliance. After all, that's what everyone else is doing.
Perhaps relatedly, the collection's strengths lie in evoking the sentiment of a distant war; on the single occasion when Sayrafiezadeh tries to depict an actual war, it's awkward. Contrary to what some might say, this is not necessarily because, unlike actual veterans-turned-authors like Phil Klay of Redeployment fame, or the author of Fobbit, David Abrams, Sayrafiezadeh is an elite, latte-sipping New York man of letters who's never been to war or spoken to anyone who has done such a thankless thing. Nor is it because Sayrafiezadeh lacks the adequate imagination. The fundamentally structural problem, we suspect, is that the war simply is not a part of the universe that Sayrafiezadeh has so cleverly constructed, which consists of the unrelenting impact of war on things that are not war. Or, put another way: in an imaginary (we hope) world where everything revolves around war, war is the Derridan center. Once you actually get there, there isn't a hell of a lot to say about it. Perhaps we shouldn't be trying.
Mr. Sayrafiezadeh's work is extremely compelling, well crafted, and compulsively readable. It forces the reader to confront the past 12-plus years of constant war and its effects on society. In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald keenly observed the lingering effects of Belgian colonial oppression, which he compared to a cancer continuing to mestatize. Sayrafiezade's examination of the incessant war drum, and its impact on the spirit of a nation, is not after the fact but real time.
I loved this book so much that I immediately began reading his memoirs: When the Skateboards are Free. I look forward to more books by this talented writer.
The men of these stories are not heroes or noble. Yet they have inner lives and stories worth telling about their stark worlds and unsatisfying relationships. The author shows his skill by showing the meaning of lives we wouldn't think of as important.
The characters are compelling. Men in dead-end jobs and a seemingly pointless war find themselves needing to resolve conflicts with high stakes. The author shows his skill by taking lives that we wouldn't think of as interesting or full and making the reader turn the pages eagerly to see what the character is going to do about his dilemmas.
The humor, detailed descriptions and language the author expertly uses paint in few words people who look ordinary on the surface but who stand out in bold relief to their gray backgrounds. The main characters' observations of those around them create vivid portraits of people it would be easy to overlook.
This is a book I will re-read to catch new details each time.