Saïd Sayrefiezadeh: “A Brief Encounter With the Enemy” from The New Yorker, 1/16/12

New Yorker illustration by Zohar Lazar

New Yorker illustration by Zohar Lazar

So we were quiet again, the fifty of us, we were fearful again, but it didn’t last too long, because fear can’t persist unless you have at least a little evidence to sustain it. Fascination can’t persist, either. What can persist, however, is boredom. I had come all this way hoping for something ground-breaking to happen, and nothing had happened. Now twelve months had passed, and tomorrow I was flying back home.

It’s hard for me to talk about war stories, because I don’t understand war. I understand battles, to some extent; when I read War and Remembrance I understood the Battle of Midway pretty well, in fact. But I don’t understand why the U.S. and the Japanese were fighting over Midway Island. Just like I don’t understand taking the hill or storming the city.

War seems to be about convincing someone in charge to surrender because they think they’ll lose, not about actually losing. A TKO, rather than a KO. I don’t understand what men with guns killing other men with guns have to do with anything. Maybe because I grew up in the Vietnam era, which is about when wars stopped making sense to anyone but the men with guns and the guys making money from selling the guns.

What I appreciate about this story is that it’s all about how absurd war is. That’s a war story I can understand. Kind of.

In February 2011, The New Yorker published a story, “Paranoia,” by Sayrafiezadeh, which was about a couple of friends affected by an impending war. So now the fictional war has been going on for a while. Luke, the first-person narrator, left his boring, nondescript job in a cubicle to undergo a “life-altering experience” (a parallel to “Be All That You Can Be” – can you even read that line without singing it?) fighting the war in the Army. It was partly to get away from the boredom of his life, and partly to impress Becky, who declined a date six months before but seemed more impressed with him after he enlisted.

The Army isn’t really the life-altering experience Luke had expected. Most of the fighting is (supposedly) going on elsewhere – “on the other side of the country” – but he and his battalion are building a bridge to advance to a hill where eight hundred and eighty of the enemy await. They’re building as slowly and incompetently as possible, since nobody actually wants to meet the enemy.

I could have scrubbed toilets for the rest of my life. Anything not to get over that hill and find eight hundred and eighty enemy waiting. But the next day I was back to working on the bridge, bright and early. He needed all the help he could get. His superiors were probably screaming at him an inch from his face. Their superiors were screaming at them, and so on and so forth, until you go all the way up to the President screaming and panting as if he’d run a race. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the casualties were mounting.

I kept trying to remember Bridge Over The River Kwai but I never really paid attention to that war movie, either.

Luke’s camp has an Internet Café and bowling alley and movies. They watch the Indiana Jones movies a lot. It’s pretty boring. But he gets emails from Becky, which is nice.

What’s going on down there, Luke?” she wanted to know. “Tell me everything.” She ended her e-mails with “xoxo***.”
“What’s that mean?” I had to ask one of the guys.
“Hugs and kisses,” he said.
“But what do the asterisks mean?”
He didn’t know.

I don’t know, either. I’m not sure what role the asterisks play in this story, other than to symbolize the mystery of women – or perhaps their perfidy, if one thinks, as I did, that the asterisks were sort of crossed fingers: hugs and kisses, but only because you’re a hero in uniform, don’t hold me to anything when you come back and you’re a drudge in a cubicle again.

This romance is just a little detail that creates interest and texture and depth in what is actually an indictment of war as an incredibly stupid activity – the male equivalent of “xoxo***.” Or, “Let’s put on a play in the barn.”

The bridge eventually gets built, and Luke and his buddies discover there are not eight hundred and eighty enemy on the hill. There’s nobody there. They wave at planes going overhead, carrying bombs to the other side of the country where the action is happening, cheering on the pilots, only to be told they’re pilotless drones. Day after day, Luke patrols the hill, looks at the vast expanses of nothing, and walks back to camp. He has little to tell Becky about what’s going on down there.

In short, I was going to get out of the Army and be exactly the same person I was before I joined. I was going to go back to that same cubicle with those same spreadsheets. At night, I would dream of fantastic adventures, full of action, shot in vivid color, not unlike the Indiana Jones movies. I dreamed of being possessed by exceptional courage and heroism. I dreamed of confronting the enemy. In the morning, I’d wake with disappointment, eat, shower, clean the dorm, and then go bowling. My bowling improved.

Now, at this point, in this atmosphere of Luke wanting adventure and fearing it at the same time, just before the climactic event, I have to bring up the outstanding Book Bench interview with Sayrafiezadeh, in which he explains:

From the very beginning, I knew what was going to happen on the hill. That’s why I wrote it. The event on the hill is the story I wanted to tell. The ending takes up probably about five hundred words, but it’s the first five thousand words that are really the key—that’s where the hard work went. If the reader was going to be affected by what happened on the hill, they’d have to believe that Luke was capable of such a thing.

That means – if you’ve got even the slightest intention of finding a copy of The New Yorker and reading this story, stop reading this post, because what happens next is the crux of the story, and needs to be experienced as presented, not as summarized.

On his routine patrol on this last day before he goes back to his cubicle, Luke sees someone. It’s not a soldier. It’s just a guy, unarmed, over a mile away. He has a sheep or goat or something with him. Luke thinks about this for a while. Then he shoots the guy. The sheep or goat turns out to be a kid. So he shoots the kid, too. He goes back to camp:

I could hear my father saying, over and over, “What have you been doing, Luke? What have you been doing for the last two or three hours?”
Nothing. I’ve done nothing.

It’s pretty shocking, this ending. He wrote a different one, which he describes in his Interview:

He goes back to the office and has ice cream with Becky. I wanted to give the reader a breath, to show them that he’d returned to the city and now life has resumed. I also wanted to imply that he now has to live with what he’s done. He’s gotten to have his ice cream, but at what cost? ….
I decided to cut the ending. After such a harrowing scene it was too disconcerting and distracting to have to relocate back to the office for a page. It also undid the drama. So I wrote a new ending, the one we have now, and instead of talking to Becky, he imagines his father’s voice asking him what he’s been doing for the last few hours. I think it’s open-ended enough to still give the same echo of what I wanted.

I have to admit, I’m more interested in how he wrote this story, his intent, his choices, than I am in the story itself. I’m not sure why that is. For whatever reason, this story never really grabbed me, though I applauded throughout the exposure of the more nonsensical aspects of war.

Sayrafiezadeh is releasing these stories in a collection soon, and I have to admit I’m curious. But I think I’m more curious about his process, and his message, than I am about the stories.

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2 responses to “Saïd Sayrefiezadeh: “A Brief Encounter With the Enemy” from The New Yorker, 1/16/12

  1. Karen, What I love about your posts is that you agree with me. No, um what I love about your posts is that you actually do work for them. I love that you hunt down interviews, I love that somehow, you know that New Yorker “short stories” are really excerpts from longer things. You put a lot of effort into your work. And that just validates me and my laziness when we have the same opinion. :)

    Your post made me like this story more. Thanks.

    • Hah, hey thanks, Paul. I liked this story a lot more after reading the interview – which isn’t really good news for the story itself (should stand on its own, blah blah). But the process comments fascinated me.

      Hint: TNY almost always does interviews with authors, where excerptness (which usually enrages me; it feels disrespectful of short stories) is admitted since the point for the writer is to sell books, but these interviews don’t always appear immediately on publication. Here my advantage is that I’m always two, three, four weeks behind everyone else (you, Cliff, Trevor, etc) because I’m not a subscriber – I xerox it from the library copy (shhh… I hope I don’t get arrested by the xerox police), which can take a couple of weeks to get to a shelf near me and might be snatched away by some other library patron, or the xerox machine might be busted, etc etc. But sometimes it pays to be slow.

      My purpose was originally to write better, so author comments on process (and reviews from other bloggers) are important to me. I haven’t written in a long time, but I’m still trying to figure out what makes a “good” story good – which is why I go for the officially goodest stories around, prize collections, TNY, etc. I’ve also realized that as an old fart, I tend to forget stories I don’t write about, even when I liked them.

      I do spend a ridiculous amount of time on this. People think, wow, you must spend an hour a day on reading and blogging, that’s a lot. An hour?!? Hah! I’m much slower than that. But it keeps me off the streets. ;) I think of it as my do-it-yourself MFA.

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