BOOK REVIEW: A sense of underlying anxiety propels the characters through these linked stories.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Brief Encounters With the Enemy” takes place in an anonymous but intimately familiar American city with a populace preoccupied by two opposing forces — the daily rut of getting through the workday, and the unreal menace of the country at war. Sayrafiezadeh has captured the feel of the early days of modern America at war; in every story, characters discuss how quickly “we” will cross the peninsula, occupy the capital, get our boys back home. But whether it’s the man who watched classmates march off to training camp amid jingoistic fanfare, or the soldier struggling to compose e-mail during his 15 minutes of Internet time, no one can gauge where the war will leave them all, if it ever does leave.
Sayrafiezadeh assembles the collection along the trajectory of experience of those who serve, so the point of view moves from the prewar days of “Cartography,” when the dismal economy forces Rex to put up with degrading behavior from his boss if he wants to stay employed, through the height of the invasion in the title story, when Luke faces the last day of his deployment: “It was always silent, but today even more so. I had a surge of nostalgia: this was the last time I would be standing here. It was similar to the phenomenon that prisoners experience, becoming nostalgic for their cells the moment they are released.”
As “Victory” closes out the collection, the city is bustling; there are jobs for anyone willing to put in the effort. “The war continued to hold steady, and we continued to lose between ten to fifteen men a day, which wasn’t that many, all things considered. The experts said you had a better chance of dying in a swimming pool than dying in a war.” Sayrafiezadeh is devilishly playful, letting the experts reassure throughout, no matter how high the body count.
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.