Brief Encounters with the Enemy [NOOK Book]

Overview

The first short story collection from a writer who calls to mind such luminaries as Denis Johnson, George Saunders, and Nathan Englander

LONGLISTED FOR THE PEN/ROBERT W. BINGHAM PRIZE ? NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY BOOKPAGE AND BOOKISH

When The New Yorker published a short story by Sa?d Sayrafiezadeh in 2010, it marked the emergence of a startling new ...
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Brief Encounters with the Enemy

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Overview

The first short story collection from a writer who calls to mind such luminaries as Denis Johnson, George Saunders, and Nathan Englander

LONGLISTED FOR THE PEN/ROBERT W. BINGHAM PRIZE • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY BOOKPAGE AND BOOKISH

When The New Yorker published a short story by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh in 2010, it marked the emergence of a startling new voice in fiction. In this astonishing book, Sayrafiezadeh conjures up a nameless American city and its unmoored denizens: a call-center employee jealous of the attention lavished on a co-worker newly returned from a foreign war; a history teacher dealing with a classroom of maliciously indifferent students; a grocery store janitor caught up in a romantic relationship with a kleptomaniac customer. These men’s struggles and fleeting triumphs—with women, with cruel bosses, with the morning commute—are transformed into storytelling that is both universally resonant and wonderfully strange. Sometimes the effect is hilarious, as when a would-be suitor tries to take his sheltered, religious date on a tunnel of love carnival ride. Other times it’s devastating, as in the unforgettable story that gives the book its title: A soldier on his last routine patrol on a deserted mountain path finally encounters “the enemy” he’s long sought a glimpse of.
 
Upon giving the author the Whiting Writers’ Award for his memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, the judges hailed his writing as “intelligent, funny, utterly unsmug and unpreening.”  These fiercely original stories show their author employing his considerable gifts to offer a lens on our collective dreams and anxieties, casting them in a revelatory new light.

Praise for Brief Encounters with the Enemy
  
“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
 
“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

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Steve Almond
…a stark and unsettling vision…The young men who narrate these eight stories evince little in the way of ideals, let alone idealism. They are wage slaves fueled by can-do aphorisms and ambitions—for a raise, for respect, for sex—as routine as their work schedules…In his memoir [When Skateboards Will Be Free], Sayrafiezadeh told the remarkable tale of a childhood steeped in doomed dogma. His stories, despite their meandering plots and feckless heroes, 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.
Publishers Weekly
A young American soldier combats boredom in the title entry of this collection of eight bleak stories about life during wartime. In “Victory,” a disabled supermarket cashier woos a kleptomaniac high school student from a wealthy family and watches as his coworkers get called off to fight. Jealous of the attention given to a friend returning from military service, a miserable call center employee takes out his dissatisfaction on his customers in “Operators.” “Enchantment” shows a man trying to readjust to his former life as a prep school teacher and his relationship with a married woman after coming back from his tour of duty. Set during an unnamed conflict and in unnamed cities, these stories revolve around the way war affects middle- and working-class Americans, whether they are leaving to fight or staying behind. Sayrafiezadeh portrays the repetitive monotony of depression and stagnation in his character’s lives with skill, and though this repetition can be hard-going, the collection as a whole illuminates the wide range of motivations that drive people to go to war. Often beautiful, sometimes lifeless, and almost entirely without hope, these stories reflect the listlessness of our times. Agent: Zoë Pagnamenta, the Zoë Pagnamenta Agency. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
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

Kirkus Reviews
It turns out that war is more boring than hell in these tangentially connected short stories from the author of the memoir When Skateboards Will Be Free (2009). The author's collection feels very much like a product of work created for the audiences of the New Yorker and Granta, publications to which he contributes. While the stories aren't strictly linked to each other, it's obvious that they've been set in the same world, although Sayrafiezadeh goes to great pains to strip his milieu down to a pure, abstract canvas. The stories are set in a world at war, or wars, somewhere on a peninsula. It's not always clear which country each story is set in, either, although the United States is clearly identified as one of the combatants. The centerpiece is "A Brief Encounter with the Enemy," during which an American serviceman named Luke finally finds a way to break up the tedium of war. But the story is a rare jab to readers who may be put off by the obscurity of the rest of the collection. Many of the stories, such as "Cartography" and "Appetite," deal with characters who are not living up to their potentials, toiling in dead-end jobs. Others, like "Enchantment" and "Operators," examine the aftermath of war with a perplexing simplicity for a writer who is clearly capable of deeper insights. The soldier in "Enchantment" is particularly disappointing, as he waits for a class of prep school students to recognize that "We won" is the right answer to his question: "I'd hold nothing back and they'd be spellbound. Death by drowning, by burning, by whatever means we had available. That was how we won the war." An interesting experiment in nontraditional fiction but a somewhat disappointing follow-up from a talented new voice.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812993592
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/13/2013
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 773,321
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh was born in Brooklyn and raised in Pittsburgh. He is the author of a memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta, McSweeney’s, The New York Times Magazine, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading, among other publications. He lives in New York City and teaches at New York University.
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Read an Excerpt

Cartography

The winter the bus drivers went on strike I was twenty-three years old and living on the edge of the city in a neighborhood that was on the verge of becoming a ghetto. The parks had closed, and so had the supermarket, and also the elementary school, and every night the streetlights appeared to have gotten dimmer. The easiest way into and out of the neighborhood was by crossing through an underpass, but everyone had stopped using that. Instead, we took the long way up the hill and over the thoroughfare that ran six lanes. It was no longer a surprise to pick up the morning newspaper and learn that there had been yet another regrettable occurrence in the neighborhood the previous day. In the middle of the night, I would be jolted out of my dreams sometimes by the sound of police sirens or fire engines or car alarms or once even the voice of a man, just beneath my bedroom window, cooing submissively, “Please take my wallet.”

Earlier that fall, things had taken a turn for the worse when I had been fired from a good job as a cartographer in a design studio that I had worked in for only about four months. The owner of the firm was a tubby, bearded, gregarious, well-read man named Ned Frost, who had large white teeth and a habit of vigorously rubbing his hands together when he laughed, as if he were attempting to start a fire with his palms. He wore tweed jackets, had bad breath, and fancied himself a poet. “I am the state’s leading poet,” he had announced once to everyone in the office—this despite having never been published. When I had first met him, he seemed pleasant, unassuming, charming even, and on my third day of work he had taken me out to a special lunch, and then a few days later out to a special dinner to discuss “the work that lies ahead.” He seemed to find many of the things I said delightful, and a few times he leaned back in his chair and laughed and rubbed his hands together. His interest in me gave me confidence that I was someone who might have a bright future after all. But no more than three weeks after I had started working for him, he informed me that I was a closeted gay man and that if only I had the courage to admit this, then the two of us could be together. During the day, instead of doing work, he would compose long, meandering letters to me that began with “My Dearest Rex” and included phrases such as “and yes, yes, I saw you standing there, yes” or “there is a leaning into warmth, a leaningintoness that only eyes know.” I could hear him typing away in the adjacent office, and I would know that the printer beside my desk would soon begin to hum and out would come five, six, seven single-spaced pages. An hour or so later, he would enter and stand by my desk, hovering, shifting from foot to foot, his hands deep in his pockets jingling coins, pretending to busy himself with files, waiting for me to initiate conversation.

I had learned from a female intern that I was just one in a succession of young men whom Ned Frost had hired, courted, and then, when they rebuffed him, fired. I wanted to keep the job, of course, so I tried my best to pretend things were normal and aboveboard. My only identifiable skill was apparently an ability—recognized by Ned Frost—to design maps, and I envisioned myself as a great failure if I allowed this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at a vocation to slip away. “You have to walk through the doors when they’ve been opened for you,” my father often counseled. Sometimes I would wonder if I was imagining Ned Frost’s advances, if I was exaggerating the nature of his interest in me. “Perhaps I am overplaying all of this,” I would reason with myself, and it would help me to feel calm and even hopeful. But one afternoon any ambiguity was finally put to rest when, at the end of an immense sixteen-page letter about the movie E.T.—particularly the scene in which the alien presses his throbbing finger against the young boy—Ned Frost signed off, “My cock feels full with the thought of you in my heart.”

It was winter now and it was cold and the bus drivers were on strike. And the war was coming, everybody said so. Because of this confluence of events no one was sympathetic to the drivers’ cause. It was seen as a selfish act of sabotage. Each night the mayor would make an appearance on the news, explaining how this wasn’t the time for individuals to worry about personal gain. “Now is the time to come together,” he’d say. In reality, it was only poor people who needed to ride the bus, so they were essentially the ones who were affected by the strike, scrambling to get to work by any means, sometimes eight to a car. The only poor person I knew who wasn’t affected was my neighbor Frankie, a fifty-year-old man who lived across the hall from me and whose left side had been paralyzed by a stroke several years earlier. It took enormous effort for him to stand or walk, and he went outside on average twice a month, once to the bank and once to the post office. He also had a difficult time speaking, and when the news first broke of the strike, he stood in his doorway grinning at me and stammering, “I could care . . . I could care . . . less!” For him the strike had become a great equalizer, handicapping everyone, including me.

In spite of his miserable physical condition, Frankie was easygoing, affable, a man who had come to accept his lot in life. I believed I would have killed myself if I had to scrape down the stairwell like him, doing in five minutes what a two-year-old could do in thirty seconds, but he never complained. He had become adept at managing everything himself, mostly by using his right hand, and he would adamantly turn down any offers of assistance.

“I can help you with that, Frankie,” I’d say, watching him wrestle with a can opener as if it were a live fish.

“Look at me! Look at me!” he’d exclaim proudly, and the can of beans would pop open.

A lifetime of alcoholism had been responsible for his stroke, so he had only himself to blame. This seemed to be an empowering thought for him, and he repeated it often and with great intensity. “Me!” he’d say, and tap his chest. “Me!”

When I had first moved into the apartment and seen Frankie standing in the hallway in a dirty white T-shirt, leaning on his rocker, stubble and no teeth, I was frightened and repulsed. He struck me as a pervert, a degenerate, the kind of man who would have dressed in a trench coat. Then one evening he knocked on my door, handed me a few crumpled dollar bills, and asked if I would do him a big favor and buy him three boxes of M&M’s. “Two . . . two . . . peanut. And one plain.” I told him I was busy, sorry, and shut the door. Then I felt guilty, went out into the hallway to find him shuffling off in slow motion, took his money, walked six blocks to the Buy ’n’ Save and bought him what he wanted. After that he began inviting me over to share the Chinese food he would order. “I can’t . . . I can’t . . . eat all this shit,” he’d tell me. At first I took cynical advantage of his generosity, sitting on his couch, stuffing my face with chow mein, thinking the entire time that listening to him sputter on for half an hour wasn’t a bad trade-off for a good meal. But after a while I began to enjoy his company, and I would look forward to him inviting me over so I could hear his stories about working as a low-level manager in a VA hospital. “I never did . . . a damn thing!” he’d say, and his shoulders would shake with laughter. Eventually I ceased to be nauseated by the fact that he ate with his fingers, kept his false teeth in a glass on the table, blew his nose into an old pair of underpants, and pissed into an aluminum cooking pot while standing in the living room because it was too difficult to walk to the bathroom. “Pardon me,” he’d say, and unzip himself. After our meal was over, we would sit around and watch basketball on his cable. Frankie told me that he had been a star basketball player when he was in high school, a story I found hard to believe and which I kept making a point to look up but never did. “They all suck,” he’d say of the players on television.

In the beginning the experts thought the strike would last only a few days, but after two weeks it was going strong with no end in sight. A neighbor took pity on me and drove me to the supermarket, where I bought enough food to feed a family of five, but other than that, I was unable to leave the neighborhood. I would walk around in the cold afternoons like a convict exiled to Siberia, ignored by the authorities because the region was too vast to flee. There was the empty playground, there was the Buy ’n’ Save, there was the laundromat with the ever present attendant who sat motionless like a bear in a zoo. The wind would whip across the flat land. In the evening I would sit around waiting for Frankie to knock on my door and invite me over. On the rare occasions when he didn’t, I would take out a zucchini and a carrot from the refrigerator, sauté them in a pan, and put them on top of a bed of pasta, then cover everything with an excessive amount of Parmesan cheese. As I ate, it was impossible for me to avoid reflecting on the possibility that the bus strike would never end, which led me to consider that the general condition of my life would also remain as it was.

The day after Ned Frost gave me the E.T. letter, I walked into his office unannounced and said that I didn’t want to receive any more letters like that or I would sue him for sexual harassment. It seemed like the right thing to say. From his desk he stared up at me sheepishly, silently. He looked like a balloon, as if someone had blown up a shirt and tie.
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