31. Brief Encounters with the Enemy, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

19 Sep

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A war book that doesn’t happen at war is a particularly brilliant idea for today’s America, in which fronts open and close, operate by machine, are defined into and out of existence, persist, permute, hide the body counts, and are fought, mainly, by other people, in an elsewhere most of us (and especially most readers of highbrow literary fiction) will never see. In Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s linked collection of stories, set in a nameless, depressed American city, people talk about the war, depart or return from fighting, and recycle cliches about going to “kick some ass” and “I’d do it all again,” but in only one case does a character actually go somewhere–“to the peninsula”, “to the perimeter”, where “our guys and their guys” are “within 25 miles of the capital”, in the author’s brilliantly generic lingo–and his experience is nearly as obscure as if he’d stayed home.

The overall atmosphere is one of gloom, decline, petty concerns, global warming, minimum wage, bus strikes, dead-end jobs and meaningless coldblooded murder (poof, done from far away, by remote control), accomplished by only the slightest skew of reality, hardly a skew at all, and a selective stripping away of detail. War is a wishful-thinking career path (jobs are held for departed fighters, to be picked up seamlessly after 12 month tours), or a way to impress girls (as it is in the story “Operators”). The killing is senseless and of the wrong people. The weather is unseasonably terrible in all seasons. The overall effect is a critique of the current wars and their rhetoric, and a defense, of a kind, of the blue-collar guys they prey on (rendered in exquisite moral grayscale).

There’s also everything to love about Sayrafiezadeh’s prose, which has a bleak and strange palate all its own, and is often quite funny. Characters have interchangeable manly-man names like Max, Rex, Ike, Dean, Jake, etc. Banal details of everyday life are pulled out, like a duo of girls who “had French manicures, they had highlights, they smelled like apricots.” American flags whip, and decorate cakes, and litter the landscape at 99¢.

But the humor is only a brief reprieve from the darkness of what our society offers men, whose war-role forms a traditional part of their identity. If you are raised, in some ways, to define yourself as a citizen and potential soldier, and then you are inducted into a meaningless and incomprehensible cause, where does that leave your sense of self? Sayrafiezadeh’s characters stumble around like ghosts, trying on different men’s lives. A housesitter somehow manages “to leave a palm-print on the ceiling in the kitchenette.” In another story, a character lives with ghosts of shoes spray-painted on his balcony, “as if someone had leaped and left behind his imprint.”

I liked these unlikeable men, and was intermittently uncomfortable with my desire to pity them. Very good book.

 

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