Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: “Paranoia”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Paranoia” was first published in The New Yorker‘s February 28, 2011, issue.

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I haven’t read this story yet because I’m deeply engaged in a few other reading projects and don’t want to take the time just yet.  When I read it, hopefully soon, I will post my thoughts here, but in the meantime I’d love to see how people are responding to it.  I was so-so on Sayrafiezadeh’s last New Yorker story, “Apetite.”

7 thoughts on “Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: “Paranoia””

  1. Tim says:

    I enjoyed what Said Sayrafiezadeh was trying to do in this story, but felt like it didn’t come off successfully. The characters, Roberto and Dean, are a pleasing odd couple who have a shared history. It’s one of those situations where they’re friends, because they were friends. The relationship has changed, but they still hang out and don’t really address the changes. While Sayrafiezadeh’s writing is humorous at times, I found myself waiting for an emotional impact. Dean’s response is so nonexistent that it left me cold. Did anyone else experience something deeper? I have a longer response here: http://digitaldunes.blogspot.com/2011/02/paranoia-said-sayrafiezadeh-humor-and.html.

  2. Betsy says:

    Dean, the narrator/main character in Said Sayrafiezadeh’s “Paranoia”, seems to embody several levels of conflict: civic, personal, and intellectual. This conflict, however, is only dimly experienced by him, although it is experienced acutely by the reader. Wake up, Dean, wake up! He never does. At all levels, his story is marked by extreme passivity.

    I’ll admit that I found this story hard to stay with because I find passivity so extremely irritating. It is interesting to contrast Dean with Bartleby, Trevor. Bartleby’s passivity is somehow active, mysterious, and compelling, where Dean’s is – well – irritating, as I suspect the author meant him to be. (Perhaps one of Melville’s secrets is that Bartleby is not the narrator.)

    Dean observes the government’s war coming, but he admits that “he hadn’t been following matters that closely”. Dean observes that his city’s urban planning is “abysmal”, but his reaction is to say that it is “humiliating and crushing.” He has a silly physical reaction to riding on the bus – he “kept urging the bus on by tensing and twisting and leaning forward like a bowler who imagines that his body language can influence the trajectory of the ball once it’s left his hand.”

    (The awkwardness of this metaphor expresses the irritation the author himself feels with Dean when he thinks about him – even the writer gets all twisted up.)

    At any rate, Dean is aware that things are not right, but his reaction is to not follow things very closely, and when he is confronted by the government’s ineptitude, he feels flattened out of any action, intellectual or otherwise.

    On the personal level, he is aware that his acquaintance Roberto is suffering from his choice to become an illegal alien, but he does nothing to help him reframe that choice. In fact, he seems interested in Roberto as someone he can observe: he is disgusted by Roberto’s dark skin and Roberto’s idea that he is “just like” Dean. He is repulsed and entertained by Roberto’s ridiculous and ineffective body building. When Roberto is disappeared by men in four cars in broad daylight, (as Dean knew he could be), Dean’s reaction is to steal a cigarette and wander down to the train track. His passive involvement with Roberto, like the observance of an insect, is over.

    Childishly, he closes this chapter in his life by signalling an engineer on the passing train to pull the whistle. His passivity, the writer seems to be commenting, has been akin to just that – blowing the whistle on Roberto.

    There is in Dean a stunning intellectual deadness: he sees with blind eyes.

    Dean is a maddening character, and he makes for a very dull story. The reader recoils from his passivity. There is the additional strain that Dean seems to be unfamiliar, at least to me. But I admit the writer is proposing we look in the mirror.

    The author’s ambition is palpable – the story is packed with references and ideas too numerous and complex to go into here.

    The problem for the writer, here, is that he may have lost most of his readers before he can make his point. Yes, I know the story is reminiscent of Kafka, and it would be naive to claim that Kafka is irrelevant because he is strange. Well, strange, yes, but dull, no.

    The story is burdened with a lack of concision that would unite its numerous references and ideas. It is also burdened with an abstract “government” that seems to want to function as a character. In this story, however, this government is too abstract to work. Another look at “Bleak House” illustrates the way to make government a living and vicious organism. Of course, Roberto’s body-building is an effective metaphor for a government that is bulked up on weapons but can’t prevent 9-11.

    For me, the story fails in its dreariness. I am riveted only by Roberto – full of spark, imagination, loony determination, and a little magic. More Roberto, please.

  3. Ken says:

    I’ll have to go along with Tim and basically also with Betsy. I’m rarely puzzled by a story like I was by this (not in terms of what happened obviously). I agree it’s flat tone left me cold and yet I didn’t see much reason for it beyond rather tired commentary about American’s being zombiefied by the news and propaganda and being indifferent. Passive narrators can be interesting but this one isn’t. I think this would have worked better if set in a particular time and place (not a generic American city sometime in the recent past) because otherwise as allegory it’s rather bland as I stated above. I did like the story “Appetite” that he wrote last year. There is something nagging at me about this and about Sayrafiezadeh and I’ll be quite interested to see what his next story is like.

  4. Aaron says:

    I’m very late joining this party, but since I once again disagree, why not? I like the passive narrator (http://thatsoundscool.blogspot.com/2011/03/short-day-said-sayafiezadehs-paranoia.html), and I like what he callously says about our culture: the way he both fits in and sticks out like a sore thumb, the way he contributes nothing — and yet is asked to contribute nothing of value, and more importantly, the ways in which those around him are picked off. Roberto, accosted in broad daylight by a horde of INS agents; his former football players — not drafted, but for all their choices, more-or-less drafted nonetheless, because the military targets the poor and undereducated. The slight observations are what do it for me here: what “opulent” means to someone as poor (or “indigent”) as Roberto; the damage the INS raid does not only to Roberto, but to his off-the-books employer (who knows less English than Roberto); so on and so forth.

    Also, in response mainly to Tim, I think Dean *does* care about the loss of Roberto — though you nail it when you say this reverts him to a sort of childhood — but he also realizes his own helplessness in the face of that. What can he do? This is a guy who is several financial levels above Roberto — and yet who still cannot smoke unless it’s for free. Above all, if it’s like this now (goes the mantra of the story — this hot, this cold), what will it be like in the future? The train is moving full-steam ahead . . . and it’s carrying missiles.

  5. Betsy says:

    I see your point of view, Aaron, especially this one: “The slight observations are what do it for me here: what “opulent” means to someone as poor (or “indigent”) as Roberto…”. But in the end, I just struggled to stay with the story.

    I am struck by your discussion, however: “the way he both fits in and sticks out like a sore thumb, the way he contributes nothing — and yet is asked to contribute nothing of value…”.

  6. Betsy says:

    Aaron – I find your discussion of “Paranoia” useful and interesting. Nevertheless, I still find it hard to stay with the story itself. But I am reminded now, perhaps by your discussion, of Ellison’s Invisible Man. That also attempted to sweep the culture up in one sprawling literary work. I wonder if Sayrafiezadeh is influenced by Ellison at all.

  7. Aaron says:

    Betsy: I think I should go back and re-read me some Ellison (or huff some paint thinner to get in the mood); hard for me to believe that there are many multicultural writers dealing with immigration and admixture in America who aren’t in some way living in Ellison’s inimitable shadow. Good points, good discussions, and as I said, I just happen to be moved more by a reflexive or passive story than most (see my undying love for DFW).

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