Monday, January 09, 2012

The New Yorker: "A Brief Encounter with the Enemy" by Said Sayrafiezadeh

January 16, 2012: “A Brief Encounter with the Enemy” by Said Sayrafiezadeh

I found this story depressing as hell. It is apparently part of a collection coming out this year from this author, and I’ll guess that the last couple of stories he’s had in the New Yorker will be in the book. Note particularly the story “Paranoia” which ran last year and also mentions this distant war on the peninsula against an unnamed enemy.

In this story, Luke, who is apparently in a National Guard unit, is called up to serve in this war. It’s supposed to be over soon, except that it isn’t. Luke, 27, with an Associate’s Degree, doesn’t mind leaving his meaningless job for this adventure, which is how he and the girl he thinks he’s interested in, Becky, view it. But his role in the war is also boring. He’s building a bridge to nowhere, or maybe it’s to a spot where there are said to be 880 of the enemy. In any case, he spends his time watching movies, eating, and it’s not very stressful except for the sergeant who occasionally gives them grief. Until, one day just before their year is up and they are about to go home, Luke encounters the enemy.

And that’s all I’m going to say, as the encounter is the story, and makes the story, for me.

I read the piece as an indictment of war. A very effective indictment, it seems to me.

[Edited to add: After I posted the above, The New Yorker posted a Q&A with Sayrafiezadeh, which is worth reading. Note, also that some of the comments below may contain spoilers.]


HiroProtagonist said...

Thanks for your post on that story, and your website—I’m posting this here as my initial reaction to Sayrafiezadeh’s story. I welcome your response if you find I’ve just completely missed the point of his story. I just read it, and have rarely been so angered and disappointed by a piece of fiction.

The author says in his NY online interview that he was trying for "verisimilitude." I'm not a writer, but I served in the military, including many overseas deployments; and it's hard to believe Said did any more research than reading a few absurdist satires or "searing indictments" of military life, e.g., Catch-22, Naked & Dead, etc. None of what he describes in this story has any resemblance to the U.S. military since the Cold War; literally every detail is either completely wrong, or forty years out of date. Maybe Said’s going for magic realism—fine, but then why the emphasis in his interview on “verisimilitude?”

I don’t see how this story works as an “indictment of war” (as though war needed further indicting) unless Luke is meant to be, not a sociopathic killer, but an ordinary kid transformed by “War” into a casual murderer of civilians and children. That, to me, is morally indefensible. You don’t have to oppose the Iraq war or Bush-era imperialism (as I did and do) to find this story a cheap, smug portrayal of the military as a breeding-ground of casual murderers.

Said talks at length in his interview about his Socialist upbringing, and his family’s lifelong disappointment that the Socialist revolution never happened. (Actually it did--in Russia, Cambodia, Cuba, Venezuela, China, and a few other places—a pity we didn’t get to experience it here in America, but never mind.) He seems to think that Socialism promises an end to war, and in that context his story works as an indictment of a capitalist society’s army, and how it turns aimless kids into casual murderers of children. OK, he’s free to make that point, but since it’s based wholly on false premises (both historical, and on the actual nature, missions, training, and operations of today’s U.S. military) the story strikes me as irredeemably smug, self-righteous, and ill-informed.

Again, maybe I’ve missed his point, or it all makes sense if I go back and read his earlier stories. But my initial reaction was that here’s a guy trying to make a big important point by writing a short story set in a mileu of which he’s utterly ignorant.

*pant gasp pant*

OK, I’m done. Thanks again for your blog, and best wishes!

Clifford Garstang said...

Thanks for your terrific comment, and for alerting me to the Q&A with the author, which hadn't yet been posted when I wrote my comment about the story.

But the author says that he was a slave to verisimilitude when writing his memoir. For this fiction, however, he was going after "abstraction and transformation"--essentially the OPPOSITE of verisimilitude. So, you're quite right that the details don't match reality (at least not for someone like yourself who knows the reality).

And that's one reason I say it serves as an indictment of war. The war in the story seems pointless; the people don't know what it's about or why they're fighting it; the bridge the army builds goes nowhere; and Luke--who was more or less normal up until then--behaves in the shocking way he does. And yet he's able to walk away from it, whereas I doubt that in reality a soldier in Luke's position could do that.

But I like what the author says about going for "abstraction and transformation" and I encourage you to think of it that way. Does that change your view of the story?

Again, I appreciate your taking the time to make your comment!

HiroProtagonist said...

Thank you for your thoughtful response—I guess I did conflate the author’s comments about his goals in nonfiction versus fiction writing, so I’ll get off his case about accuracy in depicting the modern army. :-)

If Luke were already a unique character, or on the edge of a crackup, and the stress of combat put him over the edge, that’s one thing. But the point of the story seems to be that Luke is perfectly average and unremarkable, and therefore whatever he does out of the ordinary (shooting a child) must be the result of what the story has put him through (being in the army).

If Luke’s murders are not the direct result of his Army experiences, then the first nine-tenths of the story is irrelevant to the final crime—the story might just as well depict an Everyman trash collector with a mean boss, who one morning offs a couple of homeowners along his route. (What would be the “point” of the story then?)

So I guess I can’t help but see Said as intending to portray Luke’s “transformation”—his casual murders and lack of affect--as a direct consequence of his military experiences, i.e., that being a soldier in the U.S. military just naturally leads to this kind of sociopathic detachment. That was what offended me—it’s flat-out untrue, and saying it’s true to make some larger point about the tragedy of war just strikes me as lazy snarkery.

Anyway, now I’m curious enough to read Said’s earlier stuff. I'm totally willing to accept that my defensive reaction as a vet has colored my perception of whatever Said meant to say with this story. Thanks again for the conversation!

Len said...

Hi Cliff,

I’m grateful for your blog because so often I read a New Yorker story and when I’m finished I’m not sure what to think of it. Now I can go to your blog and get some other reactions.

We know from the title that we’re going to have a brief encounter with the enemy, except we don’t have that. We have the gratuitous murder of a father and son. As was discussed in his interview, the author is interested in the tedium of some tasks and 99% of his story is about the tedium of a soldier’s life. People like police and firemen and soldiers often have that mix – 99% tedium – 1% terror. That’s an interesting dynamic. But in this story, instead of 1% terror, action, fear, we just get this bloodless, unjustified assassination. Didn’t work for me. It seemed like a cheap shot.

On a related note. I find that when I read stories I have what I would call a Hawthorne affect. Knowing something about the author influences, probably unfairly, how I filter the story I’m reading. For example if I’m reading something by Cormac McCarthy I’m pretty sure it’s not going to end well.

With this story I’m not familiar with this author, but because he has a Arab or Persian sounding name, I’m influenced by that. So when his characters are named Luke and Becky, which sound so gee-whiz All-American wholesome – I’m immediately on guard. I’m just waiting for Luke to do something really bad.

That’s just a reflection on me, not the writer. It makes me think that I should try and read this stories without looking at who wrote them. Not sure that’s possible though.

HiroProtagoist said...

Len, your point about the author choosing the names "Luke" and "Becky:" they do sound suspiciously, even facilely "American." All those "K" sounds also evoke the tired cliche of angry socialists spelling it "Amerika"
to stick it to the Man, or something.