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NEW YORKER Stories

Said Sayrafiezadeh

"Appetite"

March 1, 2010

Every now and then, along comes a New Yorker story that, no matter how carefully I re-read it, remains opaque. Sometimes the opacity is suggestive of great, hidden depths of meaning, but more often it merely conceals the merits of the piece that attracted the editors. The sensibility that I can discern in Mr Sayrafiezadeh's writing is underdeveloped and immature.

It will be observed that the story's narrator is underdeveloped and immature. He is a slacker, without a shred of genuine ambition. He wants a raise rather badly, it's true, but he doesn't want to work for it. A short-order cook, he befuddles his manager by contriving to burn the bread on a grilled-cheese sandwich without melting the cheese. This would describe his own character development as well. He has lived for years without growing up.

The nub of uncrackable mystery at the heart of "Appetite" concerns, I think, the difference between boys and men. It seems that the narrator would prefer to be neither.

One of the boys happened to glance up at me. "What are you looking at, white man?" he yelled out. Then he sped away as if I might be able to swoop down and catch him. I was humiliated, not by the use of "white" but by the use of "man." He sees me as a man, I thought. When I was eight years old, I had spent the afternoon playing with a group of my friends and a lone black boy who lived in the next neighborhood over. All afternoon we played, until another one of our friends showed up, making the lone black boy superfluous. "Time to go home, fella," my friend had told him. The boy refused to go home and an argument ensued. I wanted to stand up for him, but before I could figure out what to say, my friend's father threw open the kitchen window.

"Go home, boy," he said, assuming that the black boy was the cause of the trouble. "Go home before I come down there and slap the taste out of your mouth."

This sad sidelight is affectingly well-written but somewhat mysterious. Why is the narrator humiliated by being called a man? Because it reminds him that he is not one? Without an anchor to ground the narrator's responses, the story drifts incoherently. That is as tedious in fiction as it is in life, with the difference that a tedious story is a theft of my time.

It's possible that my sympathies were stilled by the narrator's refusal to name his characters or to extend their appearance beyond one or two defining features, such as the manager's kind-looking face. Notably, there is an "anorexic" waitress, too thin to raise the ambient temperature. At the end of the story, she picks up the narrator on a rainy night and takes him on a pointless drive, calling him "pretty boy." In my youth, I was not unfamiliar with pointless drives and affectionate teases, but if I'm to be reminded of them now, I should like to know why. Mr Sayrafiezadeh's narrator is too furiously self-absorbed to care about anyone in the story, much less me. It's possible that this story would have worked better for me if it had been written in the third person. The blaze of young male egoism is as irritating as a runny nose. 

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