January 16, 2012

"A Brief Encounter with the Enemy"

Winner, 2012 Criticus Award!
(View announcement here. Runner-up here.)

By Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
~5300 words

On the last day of his tour, a U.S. Army soldier stationed in an unnamed location does his best to combat boredom.

The first-person narrative is told entirely from the perspective of the main character, Luke. Most of it follows his meandering thoughts as he reflects on his military service and prior civilian life. The action comes at the end of the story, when he uses his weapon for the first time.

A brilliantly conceived voice is the driving force behind this powerful story. The droning, repetitive syntax initially has an incantatory and sometimes amusing quality that perfectly captures the boredom and absurdity of the narrator's circumstances, a kind of blue-collar lyricism:
It wasn't the rainy season now. It was the hot and dry season. No one needed boots anymore. I made it to the end of the path in fifteen minutes. I could have done it in flip-flops. I could have done it barefoot.
We had built the bridge in order to get across the valley. We had to get across the valley so we could get up the hill. The hill was the goal. The hill was where the enemy was waiting for us.
As the reader proceeds, however, he comes to recognize in the clumsy narrative voice an alarming psychotic quality. In one scene, for example, Luke associates looking through the crosshairs of his rifle with a period from his childhood in which he spent hours a day spying on a woman in an adjacent apartment. In a war zone, of course, such callousness cannot but lead to tragedy—a conclusion confirmed in the story's horrific ending, which is narrated with characteristically icy detachment.

At the same time, the reader can't help sympathizing with the main character as his desire that "something miraculous was going to happen to change my situation and make me into someone new" gives way to reality:
The days dragged on. Instead of getting in shape, I started to get fatter. If I ever let myself reflect on matters of spirit or psyche, I reflected that at the end of my tour all I would have to show for my effort was that I was one year older. 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.
The complexity of a character who can elicit sympathy even as his actions provoke horror is one mark of a great writer.

It is tempting to interpret this story as a parable of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. As in Sayrafiezadeh's "Paranoia," there are enough similarities to invite such a reading. At the same time, the author is right not to specify the setting of "Brief Encounter," for in keeping it universal he avoids political sermons and allows the story to shine for what it is: pitch-perfect language, powerful storytelling, and superbly drawn characters.



  1. I agree that this is a pretty powerful story. It's worth looking at the opening: simple, but powerful. In a couple of sentences the scene is set and we can feel the tension building. The path on the hill is like the Chekhovian gun, which, one it appears, has to be fired.

    That said, I was a little less satisfied with the ending. It might be worth describing my reaction in detail, but I'm not sure what the policy is here on spoilers and spoiler-alerts. Suffice it to say that it felt a touch predictable and manipulative to me.

    1. Hmm, very interesting. I have a pretty sensitive manipulation meter, but I didn't feel it move in this case, maybe because the voice pulled me in so completely.