My brother ordered this collection for me for my birthday but it took a while to arrive, and then the Ulysses ordeal intervened, so I only was able to buckle down and read it after the holidays. I’d heard Said read pieces of two of the stories–including the chilling one that appeared in the New Yorker–so I had an idea of what I was in for when I finally got to reading and I was certainly not disappointed.
The collection is unusual, I think, in that it is linked–neatly and coherently–through premise rather than character. In almost every story, present is the idea of going to war. Whether it is the protagonist enlisting himself or sending off a friend or coworker, much of the circumstances surrounding the event are similar. In general, these men are not idealistic or going to fight for a particular cause, but instead to get positive attention of the sort they don’t get, and don’t necessarily deserve, in their everyday lives. Often, they toil in low-wage, low-imagination, and/or low-stakes positions, navigating bus strikes, heat waves, and generally demoralizing situations, and somehow latch on to the idea that going to war is the answer. Is it? Of course not.
Throughout the stories, some of the same phrases and language appear in more than one place. At first, I was jarred by this–did he forget he already used this expression in another story? But I quickly changed my mind and realized how Sayrafiezadeh was tightening his book and the world in it. This all keeps happening, I thought.
Despite the amazing consistency Sayrafiezadeh created to link the stories in Brief Encounters with the Enemy, I didn’t find the stories repetitive. For all their though-lines, they are singular, too. From a cartographer being proposition by his weirdo boss to an undocumented worker, disproportionate due to his mismanaged workout regimen, from a shoplifting rich girl love interest to a roller coaster date with a dreamy Orthodox Jewish woman, there is a lot of quirky, awesome stuff happening in this book. Highly recommend!