American Estrangement, a new story collection by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, sketches America in both space and time. We are anchored in the here and now, yet the stories do not read as grasping for relevance, or as dated. Rather, Sayrafiezadeh captures one of the most essential feelings of the modern-day United States, apathy, and holds us to that feeling. The result is an at-times subtle, at-times on the nose, depiction of deterioration and uncertainty in a changing nation.
This slim collection brings us just seven stories, but most are long enough to flesh out entire ideas and realized narratives. Some of these narratives prove simpler than others. The first story, “Audition,” depicts a struggling young actor who works in construction between auditions, though his precipice is cushioned by privilege. His father owns the construction company, and his livelihood is ultimately secure. While the story takes us through early forays into drug use, namely crack cocaine with fellow construction workers, the crux of the matter is represented by a single idea. Youth and means forgive every mistake. The story is self-aware, even if the characters are not.
“Expedition,” perhaps the strongest story in the collection, veers into the speculative, but barely so. Borders between countries have now become borders between states, and the simple act of road tripping is transgressive. What Sayrafiezadeh acknowledges, however, is that for many people the acts of everyday life are already seen as transgressive. We are shown two characters, the narrator and his partner Lizzy. When stopped by passersby or law enforcement, the narrator is thankful and genial, while Lizzy quips in many different ways “why do you thank them for what is yours by right?” This can be read as a difference in privilege, a difference in conditioning, which many people of color understand innately. And of course, there is the undercurrent of detachment in the relationship, building to an end that may or may not come.
Perhaps the most thorough depiction of apathy in the collection is the simply named “A, S, D, F,” featuring a narrator whiling away his hours as a secretary in an art gallery. We are shown the intricacies of the workday, all its nine-hour glory; the momentum shift of a lunch break, the knowledge of time wasted and spent. In the hands of a lesser writer these observations may feel trite, but Sayrafiezadeh conveys this ennui with skill, and in turn we’re left with an interesting character study and an even more interesting window into day-to-day American life. Stepping back from action allows the story to focus on theme, differentiating ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ when it comes to art and life, and narrowing in on character histories and tenuous relationships. To handle boredom without coming across as boring is more challenging than it seems, and Sayrafiezadeh accomplishes this with ease.
The apathy has its shortcomings as Sayrafiezadeh delves into some of the more shocking subject matter of the collection. For instance, the story “Fairground” is a retrospective telling of a public hanging. What the story ultimately becomes is the exploration of a family in disarray, a failure to bond with a new step-parent, and a difficult mother-child relationship. While the descriptive writing remains strong throughout, it’s easy to want stronger emotional moments to pair with a public hanging. Instead, the tone stays consistent and the collection marches along, rendering everything in a tonal lull.
“Metaphor of the Falling Cat” amps up the paranoia and heightens the stakes, however, and the final story “A Beginner’s Guide to Estrangement” is a true highlight. In this tale, the narrator visits Iran to see his estranged father and must face a long-neglected aspect of his personal history, his heritage. He’s changed his own name, accepted fatherhood from another man, yet visits Iran laden with memories of the past and expectations for the future. Ultimately the story stands out from how it differs from the rest, being the only one to directly address culture and heritage. Indeed, the collection as a whole challenges our perspective of diaspora writing. How essential is an author’s heritage to his writing? Is the omission of race in much of the collection accepting a certain default, or are those our own biases as readers speaking? By closing his collection with an embrace of realism, Sayrafiezadeh leaves us with the understanding that in every iteration, we’ve been reading about America all along. Its doldrums, flaws, shortcomings, and the myriad of characters that grow and thrive within its borders.
by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
W.W. Norton & Company
Published August 10th, 2021