BASS 2019: Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, “Audition” from The New Yorker, 9/3/18

NYT art by David Benjamin Sherry

NYT art by David Benjamin Sherry

This piece began as nonfiction, which is to say, as the truth. I had originally intended to title it “How Cigarettes Saved My Life,” because if I had not become addicted to smoking cigarettes at the age of nineteen, I would not have been self-aware enough to realize that, two years later, I was following a similar trajectory with crack cocaine. This guiding principle comprised the final four pages of the story, and the final four pages of the story were eventually, with great reluctance and remorse, completely cut. Many other facts were cut as well, and many others were bent and reshaped in the interests of make-believe. Even so, I continued to try to cleave as closely as I could to reality, perhaps as a way to make direct use of what I’d experienced, but also because I’ve always believed that the truth is generally more compelling than invention.

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Contributor Note

This is one of those stories where I really wasn’t sure what it was about until the final paragraph, at which point I had to go back and read it again to make sure. Jake Weber put it beautifully in his analysis by comparing it to Michael Jordan: “It goes one way, crosses back, fakes again, pulls back, and before long the would-be critic’s ankles are as broken as Craig Ehlo’s” (no, I have no idea who Craig Ehlo is, but it’s such a good metaphor and fits the read so well, I know exactly what he means). And then, a couple of days later, it grew broader than that. Maybe a little too broad.

It starts out with a nineteen-year-old son of a rich man working construction incognito on one of Daddy’s housing developments. Oh, I thought, a kind of paying-your-dues story. Except this kid had planned to go to college and study acting. Oh, I thought, a breaking-away-from-family-expectations story. Exactly why that breaking away was delayed wasn’t clear, but now his plan is to go to LA and work his way into acting that way. Why that plan isn’t being put into action isn’t clear, either.

When lunchtime arrived, I’d sit around with the other general laborers, thirty of us on upturned crates in an unfinished living room with a spring breeze blowing through the glassless windows, eating roast-beef sandwiches and talking about money problems, home problems, work problems. My problems were not their problems, but I wished they were. Their problems were immediate, distinct, and resolvable; mine were long-term, existential, and impossible. When I spoke, I tried to approximate the speech patterns of my co-workers—the softened consonants and the dropped articles—lest I reveal myself for the outsider that I was. No hard “k”s, “x”s, or “f”s. The irony was that my father’s specified plan of self-improvement for me dovetailed with my own: experience real life up close and personal.

Eventually he ends up giving Duncan, one of the other construction guys, a ride home. Duncan has some books on carpentry, but figures “they won’t give a guy like me a chance.” I don’t know what “a guy like me” means. One thing Duncan is very good at is fashioning a crack pipe out of aluminum foil and a piece of Chore Boy. Oh, this is going to be a descent into darkness story, drugs, crime, rich kid’s fall. The first line of the story kind of set that up – “The first time I smoked crack” – but I’d pretty much forgotten about that. Or maybe a coming-out story when eyes meet over the crack pipe. None of that happens, either.

His former acting teacher gives him a tip about an audition he should take for “a central role as a character who would be onstage for all three acts but had zero lines. I could not tell if this was a step backward or forward for my career.” More dues, or is this payoff? I find the question fascinating, but that’s easy to say when you don’t have skin in the game; it’s not my acting career on the line.

The story ends with the second time the kid smokes crack, again with Duncan, and the story starts to pull together. He moves between Clarity and Delusion as reflected states, always seeing himself from the other. In a couple of spectacular paragraphs, he moves through space for three acts:

It was nine o’clock. I had entered a strange dimension of time—it was progressing both slowly and quickly, as marked by the ticking of that basement boiler. Nine was early for night. It would be night for many more hours to come. I was nineteen. Nineteen was young. I would be young for many more years to come. What exactly had I been so troubled by a few minutes before? Light and airy clarity descended upon me. Ah, this was clarity, and the other, delusion. I had reversed things, silly, overstated them, compounded them, turned delight into cynicism. I was going to be onstage for three acts, moving through space, another credential to have on my résumé when I arrived in L.A. It was ten o’clock. Was ten o’clock early for night? Was night moving slowly or fast?…. This is the last time I’m doing this, I said to myself, even as I knew that saying so implied its inverse. At the A.T.M., I took out another forty dollars. I noted my balance. My savings account was still large. It was midnight. Midnight was still young.

I started to think this is a story about addiction, a thought that was strengthened by the Contributor Note. And the opening line. The essence of addiction: to be able to convince yourself that this is the last time, that it’s necessary, that it’ll be ok even though you know there will be interpersonal, medical, and/or legal consequences. This is why Twelve Steppers will tell you it isn’t about willpower, because the addiction is in control, not will or logic or character.

So I started to wonder if these guys are addicted to being stuck, in addition to crack. Our protagonist, pre-crack, has choices. He could go to college and study acting (if Dad won’t pay, there are alternatives, just ask all the poor kids in college). He could go out to LA. Duncan could study carpentry. But it’s easier to go to work and come home and smoke crack, forgetting all those “long-term, existential, and impossible” problems. And whatever time it is, it’s still plenty early. Until it’s too late.

I had a moment when I realized I wasn’t young any more. People who know me, who knew me back then, would be very surprised because it seems so out of character for me. When I turned 35, I realized I couldn’t join the Air Force any more. Yes, back when I was about 20 and was particularly lost and confused, I thought I might do better in a more structured setting like the military, and the Air Force seemed less… war-like, or something, than the Army or Navy. This was the first time I heard a door closing. That it wasn’t a door I really wanted at 20, and certainly wasn’t a door I wanted at 35, didn’t matter; it was the sound of the slam that shook me, that made me realize I would be hearing more doors slam as time went on.

A day or so after reading the story, I saw Duncan as the future for the protagonist: a little less sure of a future, the dreams of acting being tossed on a chair because he wasn’t ever going to get his chance. Not getting his chance would have nothing to do with who he was; it would have to do with never really going for it. But “guys like me” or “a town like this” or “my father wouldn’t let me” is easier. Not exactly addiction, but maybe somewhat related.

I just happened to be watching Season 3 of The Crown as I read this. I kept wondering about all these people trapped in their royal lives, unable to fly planes or breed horses or marry a particular someone or express an opinion about something important. And yet they all stay; the one who got away years before was viewed within the family as a tragedy, a cautionary tale. Why do they stay? Is it the same insecurity our protagonist feels, that keeps him from chasing his dream, because he might fail? Is the frustration that draws him to crack similar to that which results in so much royal misbehavior?

I realize I took this far afield, but the story’s multiple foci allowed that. It could be, probably should be, taken as a story of addiction (I realized, literally as I was putting up this post, the similarity of the title, “Audition”, to “addiction”). It can be taken as more.

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.

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: “Paranoia” from The New Yorker, 2/28/2011

Bastienne Schmidt, "Bodybuilders, New York" 2010

Back in the 70’s, Robin Williams surprised everyone by choosing for his first movie role a subtle and sly comedy called Moscow on the Hudson. The running joke throughout was that everyone his character, a Soviet saxophonist from the Moscow Circus who defects during a New York visit, meets in America is from somewhere else. Not a WASP to be found. I got that same impression here, where the only thing we really know about Dean, the first-person narrator, is that he is fair and blond, and the people he knows – his best friend Roberto, Roberto’s cobbler boss and landlord, his old buddies from high school football – are not. And they’re all paranoid, though as it turns out, Dean is the only one who is actually paranoid – the others really do have someone out to get them. Roberto gets sent back to Chile (presumably). The football guys end up in the Army going to a nice fresh hot war. Dean goes on as before.

That’s where I have a problem. One of the cool essays Steve Almond wrote in This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey says: “The Only 2 Qs About Which The R Truly Gives An S: They are: 1. Who do I care about? 2. What do they care about?” In this story, I cared about Roberto, and he cared about staying out of the INS’s sights, but that got blurred by Dean’s POV. I love observer tales, but most of Roberto’s caring is not translated well by Dean. He uses a fake name in the hospital. The INS is tracking him using packages addressed to the former tenant in his apartment. Roberto is definitely paranoid. But he has reason to be. He does body-building, a la Schwartzeneger (another immigrant), but ends up lopsided, all upper body and no legs. I want to care about this guy who buys a DVD player with a loaned $200, but the story makes it hard, because I can’t see him too well through the haze of distance that is Dean.

Dean seems to care about things, too. He objects to pejoratives used in conversations with him. He loans Roberto money. He goes to see him in the hospital, even though it involves riding three busses in ninety-degree weather (I can sympathize). But, I’m not sure what it is, it’s like he’s under glass. It just doesn’t come through. And sometimes he’s downright dense. He’s talking to the guys from his high school football team, they wonder what he’s doing in their part of town (he’s on his way to see Roberto in the hospital) and they start talking about the impending war. They think the factories will bloom with jobs once the war starts, and they’ll be able to get essential jobs to avoid a draft (which sounds like something out of WWII, actually). He assures them there won’t be a draft, it’ll be a quick war because that’s what the lady on TV says, and besides,

“even if it’s a long war there’ll still be plenty of people willing to join up.”
“Plenty of people?” the man I didn’t know snorted.

Because Dean isn’t one of the “people” who’ll be willing to join up. But the guys he’s talking to, are. They know it. Dean is clueless.

As for this impending war, it frames the entire story. It’s not clear who the war is with or what it’s for, but it’s hanging there throughout, creating national paranoia. Maybe that’s the point – but I’m not sure if it’s national paranoia that filters down to individuals, or individual paranoia that congeals and becomes national. But the football guys are paranoid about getting put into uniform and shipped off to war, Roberto’s paranoid about the INS, the cobbler is paranoid about Dean yelling up to Roberto’s apartment and not very comfortable with the people who come to take Roberto away, and in the background the lady on TV is talking about war being imminent. Dean, the blond boy, doesn’t need to be paranoid. But he sometimes is, on Roberto’s behalf.

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh said in his interview that he wrote about Roberto many years ago, in the first story he ever wrote. But this story was initially about a city as it responds to war; it wasn’t until later he realized Roberto and his friendship with Dean was the central theme. He has some very interesting insights on what it’s like to be American from different perspectives – his mother is a Jewish American and his father, who left when he was a baby, is Iranian, and thereby hangs a fascinating background, eh? Maybe that’s why this story about Americans is so compelling.