In W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, the narrator embarks on a disturbing process of reflection in which the horrors of a colonial nation, perpetrated far from its borders, are projected back onto the geography of the homeland and its people--a projection that is apprehensible in both spectral and physical traces, subtle and obvious, carved into wood, flesh, and air. The connection between Belgium and the Congo is always there, simmering below the surface, alive in the minor, unbearable aspects of day-to-day life. Even in the 1960s, for instance, Brussels is still tainted, as it were, by the virus of a colonial past:
Indeed, to this day one sees in Belgium a distinctive ugliness, dating from the time when the Congo colony was exploited without restraint and manifested in the macabre atmosphere of certain salons and the strikingly stunted growth of the population, such as one rarely comes across elsewhere. At all events, I well recall that on my first visit to Brussels in December 1964 I encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year…The hotel by the Bois de la Cambre where I was then lodging for a few days was so crammed with mahogany furniture, all manner of African trophies, and pot plants, some of which were quite enormous among them aspidistras, monsterae and rubber plants reaching almost to the twelve-feet-high ceiling, that even in broad daylight the interior seemed darkened with chocolate-colored gloom.
Similarly, in Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s 2013 collection of grim and gripping short stories, Brief Encounters with the Enemy, we are confronted with the “chocolate-colored gloom” of chronic geopolitical conflict, refracted back onto a long-decayed home front. In counterpoint to Sebald’s works, Sayrafiezadeh’s visions take place in an American dystopia, a parallel universe consisting mainly of an unnamed urban sprawl at the end of decades of decline. A cook in a dead-end job with little hope of advancement becomes fascinated with a newly hired waitress who appears to be anorexic; a low-level manager at Walmart is compelled to steal merchandise in the pursuit of a sexual obsession, bracketed by the texts of former co-worker now serving in the war zone. A congenitally disabled janitor strives for a better life, lashing out against a patronizing society while seeking love. Alienated urban victims of a stagnant economy, immersed in dead-end work, react to their hopeless surroundings with soul-crushing ambivalence drenched in cynicism. Even when a young cartographer finds mildly satisfying work, it’s naturally offset by a hostile office environment and the urban decay that surrounds him.
In many ways, this material is age-old stuff, but with a twist: these depictions of lower-middle-class millennial malaise and hopelessness are set, in classical absurdist tradition, against the looming buildup, execution, and escalation of an ever-ubiquitous war (sound familiar?) in an unnamed foreign land. The distant war--frequently susceptible to fetishized, dubious-sounding events, like the taking of a “peninsula”--weaves itself into and out of the storylines: ever-present in people and places, infused in the atmosphere through varying degrees of omnipresent force.
Because of this creation of a coherent and frightening fictive world, the book’s collection, as a whole, succeeds in being more than the sum of its parts. Many of the stories have stood alone in the past, selected by a veritable “Ivy League” of publications, such as the Paris Review and the New Yorker. Read as a single body of work, the repetition of various tropes, characters, situations and phrases is starkly evident. Everyone works in a cubicle; everyone hates his onerous job; everyone is ultimately part of the machinery of war. In college-level academia, this type of recycling sometimes gets you hauled before the disciplinary committee; in writing, it’s seen as branding consistency, like Jasper Johns painting flags or Pete Doherty singing about being high. With a closer reading, the repetition in Brief Encounters is additive and has a suturing effect, bringing together the collection as a cohesive whole.
The aggregation of the stories makes clear that Sayrafiezadeh has accomplished, depending on how you look at it, a feat that is either totally brilliant or too cute by half: using little more than formal conventions, he has made an actual war into a fictional one--and thus has effortlessly converted a boring and faceless urban environment from a realist set piece to a dystopia. The war, of course, is real; yet the very reluctance to name it, or to discuss it in recognizable topical terms within the real-life discourse, pulls it into the realm of a fake event, right up there with the destruction of the Death Star or the Elves departing Middle-Earth. And once we have a major fake event, nothing in the fictive world can be taken for granted. Specifically, it’s gloomily implicit to the reader--even if Sayrafiezadeh never abuses the point--that everything can get even worse than it is in real life. Potentially a lot worse. The war is woven in and out of each of the narratives as an ever-threatening beast of chance, rolling the dice of destiny: it doles out glory, death, or more often a generalized anxiety, subconsciously consumed by individuals and by society writ large. Baudrillard would be proud.
The government’s long arms are omnipresent, even if the relevant war zone is halfway around the world. In one story, a loner confronts racial fear, dysfunctional public transportation, and the crushing power of the state while dealing with the troubles of an undocumented friend. More obvious are the recurring stories of the ordinary people-- cubicle dwellers, mailroom boys, and unemployed--who find their lives somehow altered by the distant conflict. Disaffected young men join the military in search of identity and social approval. Back home, as if things weren’t bad enough in dystopia, the weather is always too hot or cold. As several of the characters state, it’s unfortunate that the soldiers have to come home during a spell of unusually cold weather; war is hell.
Brief Encounters contains recurring instances of superficial and ubiquitous displays of nationalism, which are invariably accompanied by compulsive and unquestioning support for the prevailing foreign military policy. Micheal Billig, a prominent British social scientist, coined the term “banal nationalism” to describe what he called “the everyday representations of the nation, which build an imagined sense of national solidarity and belonging amongst humans.” This concept is repeatedly demonstrated by the hapless inhabitants of Sayrafiezadeh’s world, not least as a sub-textual critique of the nature of the American war-society:
Sitting in the back of the J-23B with the air-conditioning barely working, I stared out the window as we crawled through residential neighborhoods whose houses were all hung with flags. There was no breeze, and the flags hung limply. Some of the homes displayed the MIA and POW flags from bygone wars, and every so often there’d be a sign stuck in a window that said PEACE or NO WAR or something to that effect, but those were few and far between, and for the most part everyone was on the same page.
In another piece, the narrator’s coworker hosts a party before his departure to basic training and then subsequent deployment to the war. The atmosphere is described in bland, devastating detail:
Joey Joey was on the deck with everyone I hadn’t seen in a long time. Everyone had put on weight. The flag was out and it was waving in the breeze. The breeze felt nice. It was going to be a nice spring. “If more people made an effort to keep the flag out,” someone said, “we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in today.” Everyone agreed.
The same protagonist is bombarded by propaganda on public transportation:
I would recline in my seat with my cup of coffee and stare at the advertisements above my head of the handsome young men in their spotless uniforms, standing on the beach or a mountaintop, smiling at the camera and draping their arms around their buddies’ shoulders as if they were having the time of their lives. “You too can help,” the advertisements read. “You too can make a difference.”
The nationalistic messages that permeate life lie in stark contrast to the onerous day-to-day life depicted throughout Brief Encounters. These displays of patriotism go beyond mere cultural representation: they are part and parcel of a statist agenda by which dissent is muted and pressing domestic and local concerns are lost in the noise. The narrators in Brief Encounters comment cynically about these nationalistic themes, but at the same time see no reason to cease passively consuming and accepting the government’s conclusions with spineless compliance. After all, that’s what everyone else is doing.
Perhaps relatedly, the collection’s strengths lie in evoking the sentiment of a distant war; on the single occasion when Sayrafiezadeh tries to depict an actual war, it’s awkward. Contrary to what some might say, this is not necessarily because, unlike actual veterans-turned-authors like Phil Klay of Redeployment fame, or the author of Fobbit, David Abrams, Sayrafiezadeh is an elite, latte-sipping New York man of letters who’s never been to war or spoken to anyone who has done such a thankless thing. Nor is it because Sayrafiezadeh lacks the adequate imagination. The fundamentally structural problem, we suspect, is that the war simply is not a part of the universe that Sayrafiezadeh has so cleverly constructed, which consists of the unrelenting impact of war on things that are not war. Or, put another way: in an imaginary (we hope) world where everything revolves around war, war is the Derridan center. Once you actually get there, there isn’t a hell of a lot to say about it. Perhaps we shouldn’t be trying.
Mr. Sayrafiezadeh’s work is extremely compelling, well crafted, and compulsively readable. It forces the reader to confront the past 12-plus years of constant war and its effects on society. In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald keenly observed the lingering effects of Belgian colonial oppression, which he compared to a cancer continuing to mestatize. Sayrafiezade’s examination of the incessant war drum, and its impact on the spirit of a nation, is not after the fact but real time.