A cartographer who gets lost in his own city. An office worker who escapes his boring data entry job only to find himself equally bored with military service. A sixth grade history teacher–turned-soldier who returns from war to a class of students who are completely uninterested in war history. Personally and professionally adrift young men populate “Brief Encounters with the Enemy,” the debut story collection by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, who also wrote a memoir about his experience growing up in the Socialist Workers Party, "When Skateboards Will Be Free" (2009).
The linked stories in "Brief Encounters," many of which first appeared in The New Yorker, feature mostly one-word titles — "Appetite," "Associates," "Operators" — and follow 20-something American males with mostly monosyllabic names: Luke and Rex and Jake and Zeke. They float around from one unsatisfying job to the next — Kmart, Walmart, a ticket sales company on the 48th floor of a bland office building — each feeling trapped in their circumstances and intent on escaping mediocrity. If nothing else, they want to pick up girls. (It's worth noting that "girls" is the nomenclature preferred by Luke and Rex and Jake and Zeke, not "women.")
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How do they plan to make their lives more meaningful? Not by spending time on Careerbuilder.com or pursuing a new hobby or consulting a job coach or meditating. Instead, they enlist. By heading off to war, they'll not only find a sense of purpose but, with any luck, become the subject of rapturous speeches and going-away parties and welcome-home parades.
War is a source of fascination for Sayrafiezadeh, given his background in the Socialist Workers Party (which upholds the Marxist principle that war is an inevitability of capitalism). In "Brief Encounters," it's not the war in Iraq or Afghanistan that links these stories but rather an unnamed conflict, described generally and abstractly. (It should be noted that the author is Iranian in name only; he was born in Brooklyn and raised in Pittsburgh.) "The idea of setting it squarely in today's political arena seems limiting and maybe a little boring," Sayrafiezadeh told The New Yorker in 2011, discussing his story "Paranoia." "I'd rather if the readers began to feel as if this could be any war, or perhaps the next war."
In the title story, "A Brief Encounter with the Enemy," Sayrafiezadeh makes effective use of unspecific, though still vivid, details about war: "About the only thing we could do for the war effort was cheer for the planes that flew overhead on their way to drop their payload on the other side of the country." What country we do not know, but they rumbled "like thunder when they appeared, always around noon, two dozen or so, their bellies silver and red."
This, the most powerful story in the collection, is the only one that doesn't have a one-word title — likely a reference to "A Late Encounter with the Enemy," a Flannery O'Connor story about a Confederate veteran of the American Civil War. In it, Luke and his fellow soldiers spend their days building a bridge to where no one wants to go: across a valley to a hill where the enemy awaits. It's a dangerous task, not to mention mind-numbingly boring, hardly the daring mission he envisioned when he enlisted or that his coworkers imagined when they threw him a big goodbye party and chanted "Luke! Luke! U.S.A.! U.S.A!" As in the O'Connor story, our hero is, above all else, attention-seeking.
It's not just war that's described vaguely — so are cities and counties, offices and office parties. And the same vague details are repeated. For instance, more than one story features a going-away party with coworkers chanting "U.S.A.! U.S.A!" Even while one understands what Sayrafiezadeh is trying to accomplish with this subtlety and repetition, the narratives occasionally feel frustratingly obtuse, cloaked in camouflage.
An exception would be his descriptions of the women — or "girls," rather — whom these young men pursue. Their presence in these stories is generally to stoke the male ego, and yet they aren't strapped with one-syllable names, nor do they exhibit identical backgrounds or personality traits. There's Zlottie, the wig-wearing Jewish girl; Molly, the red-haired painter; and Amanda, the rich kleptomaniac.
What's most disturbing in "Brief Encounters with the Enemy" is how little these young men know about the very war that they hope will shape their identity. Even suit-and-tie-wearing Zeke — with arguably the most established job waiting for him at home as a sixth-grade history teacher — doesn't fully get it. Or at least he didn't when he signed up with a recruiter while at community college: "It had seemed comical back then, the idea of a war. It had seemed antiquated. Three years later it wasn't antiquated anymore, and three years after that my number had come up."
When these aimless young men march into service — in various ways, with varying degrees of reluctance, optimism, impulsiveness, apathy and fear — they're similarly motivated to establish a sense of purpose. Ironically, falling in line often steers them further off course. Sayrafiezadeh's abstract storytelling might be a bit tedious, but it adds layers of poignancy: His characters remain somewhat distant to the reader even while they go to great lengths to ensure they're not anonymous.
Laura Pearson is a Chicago-based journalist specializing in arts and culture reporting.
"Brief Encounters With the Enemy"
By Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Dial, 240 pages, $25Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun