Some notes on Alex Gilvarry’s From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant:
1. First of all: the sheer chutzpah, to write a comedy about Guantanamo. But comedy it is: Boyet (Boy) Hernandez, just-off-the-jet fashion designer from the Philippines and armed with a degree from the Fashion Institute of Makati; landing wide-eyed and hungry in New York to get the “dollar dollar bill y’all;” roaming through an underworld filled with exotic models, Williamsburg hipsters, and bad performance art; then, in a narrative shift worthy of a comedy of (t)errors, arrested and spirited away to Guantanamo as a “fashion terrorist.” A comedy set in Guantanamo is too soon, one might say, but as the detention camp just celebrated its tenth birthday, one may argue that remembering it is not soon enough.
But is it funny? Oh yes, often hilariously, but sometimes, smugly so. (More about this later.) The novel is, at its core, a stinging sendup of the fashion industry (though all I know of Fashion Week, on which Boy’s labors are focused, is when the inevitable profiles of designers appear in The New Yorker): its apparent shallowness, the skipping-song rhythm of the names of its Eastern European denizens (“Olya and Dasha, Irina, Karina, Marijka, Kasha, Masha”), couture’s pretense to (political) relevance. (One of Boy’s runway creations, a transparent burka — worn by a model clad only in pasties and a thong, no less — is described by Boy as “exploring our collective fears about Islam.”)
But there’s empathy, too, and perhaps even admiration, for the vision, and for the hustle, and one detects, in Gilvarry’s vivid and detailed prose, a more affectionate undercurrent. (The novel is also, in many ways, a love letter to New York City and its boroughs — well, some of them.)
2. One of the interesting things about the novel is how it dispenses, in a sense, with the cliches those on the outside “know” as prison life: no cafeteria scenes, no trading for cigarettes, no escape. Since Boy is guarded 24/7, there is hardly any interaction with other prisoners (they’re disembodied voices, almost), and so interminable stretches of time are necessarily spent with only a guard or an interrogator, or the spectral designers, ex-girlfriends, and social climbers that haunt his memoir. Gilvarry simply sits back here and makes the reader wonder whose company is worse.
3. So it isn’t like a Solzhenitsyn novel by any means, but in this “memoir” Gilvarry has a deft way of tightening the noose around Boy (and the reader), so to speak. The laughs are broad, and come easy, sometimes too easy, at the start. When we discover that Boy has hired a publicist named Ben Laden (changed by his Irish grandfather from McLaden, who was tired of being called Mac), we know exactly where it’s going.
Even the privations of Boy’s isolation in Guantanamo have a mock-despairing quality to them; it helps a lot, too, that Gilvarry has written Boy’s character as not particularly likable, and callous about his quest for capital. One of Boy’s first actions upon arrival at the prison is to cut off the sleeves from his orange jumpsuit, which he later refers to as his “sleeveless top.” (“Never before in my life have I had to wear the same thing every day,” he complains.) But slowly, the grimness increases, until the reader is forced to reassess the humor of the beginning.
4. Yes, the narrative twists are artificial, but surely no more so than the legal contrivances of military lawyers who argued for the constitutionality of extraordinary rendition and the suspension of habeas corpus, among others. The absurdities of Bryant Park fall away, to be replaced with the even greater lunacy that is Guantanamo.
5. SPOILERS FOLLOW:
I was chatting on Twitter with someone who thought the ending — I had in mind the 25-page afterword, written by Gil Johannessen — was an abrupt shift in tone. (It’s a rude and sudden shift in perspective too.) But it’s significant that the memoir ends once pen and paper are taken away from Boy; the absence that we experience is Boy’s voice, literally, taken away from him, and the reader.
Someone else has to speak for Boy at this point; the body, under torture, cannot speak except for its scars. Boy’s inevitable torture is left only to the imagination; we may casually toss around adjectives like “unimaginable,” but it’s precisely that gap in the narrative that serves to highlight the work of imagining for which the reader is responsible.
6. I’m not sure I like how those footnotes function, though. Some are corrections to quote attribution, some are additions of detail, but some just seem plain smug. (I won’t ruin a particularly funny footnote regarding Dostoevsky though.) But this has the effect of undercutting Boy’s voice, its perceived veracity being the raison d’etre of the memoir. Indeed — and this perception is enhanced by the fact that “Gil Johannessen” and Alex Gilvarry share a syllable — these footnotes seem to be the explicit moments where the protagonist is being ridiculed, if gently. The fact that they mostly serve to point out mistakes in Boy’s cultural literacy don’t always seem very fair.
7. I met Alex Gilvarry at a book reading he gave in San Francisco last month. Upon hearing that I was born and raised in the Philippines, he said he’d be curious to know what I thought of the novel, given that perspective. Obviously I enjoyed the book, as you can see above, but I’m still not quite sure what he meant.
On this blog and elsewhere I generally take pains to use words like “authenticity” and “accuracy” as concepts to be analyzed, not as criteria or values to be assessed, and so the portrayal of Gilvarry’s imagined Philippines is his own. But there’s a sense in which Boy’s Filipinoness is, in an odd way, merely part of the window dressing, pun intended; it’s not really necessary to the plot. Boy’s instant assimilation and cultural cosmopolitanism, despite all the misquotes, brands him as one of those semi-mythic elite, globe-trotting sophisticates, ignorant of terrestrial sovereignties, unbothered by petty nationalisms, and whose allegiances lie more along class lines and the capacity to consume. But Boy seems, at least as far as his character is willing to reveal, of squarely middle-class background in the Philippines.
I also find it somewhat hard to believe that Boy, in his six-by-eight-foot cell, wouldn’t entertain memories of his homeland, which hardly figures in his reminiscences at all; when he closes his eyes and thinks of his “former life,” it’s a “fall fashion week in New York City” instead. But I guess that’s the kind of man Boy is.
[Also crossposted on Goodreads.]