Alex Gilvarry’s debut novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, is about a young Filipino who comes to New York to conquer the fashion world. The story takes place in the aftermath of September 11th, and the protagonist, Boy Hernandez, narrates from both sides of those years’ two faces: his present confines in the bowels of the war on terror, Guantanamo Bay, where he writes his story in the form of a forced confession, and his immediate past, in New York’s bright, bustling, willfully, and even, gleefully ignorant world of fashion, where he shares a building in Williamsburg with Ahmed, the fertilizer smuggler and fashion financier who makes Boy his patsy.
In Guantanamo, Boy narrates with a voice that’s part glib, and part bemused, but wholly detached. And this detachment relies on a series of denials: Boy’s denial of his suffering in prison in favor of complaining about how cold the showers are, and how the water only runs for two minutes; his denial of outrage over his captivity in favor of almost cheeky relationships with his guards; and then, finally, denial of culpability, with nobody responsible for Boy’s incarceration, and instead, everybody, from his guards to his interrogators, captives to a vague set of stipulations coming from Washington.
This detached tone governs the book more than its plot, with the story breaking open not at the revelation of how Boy became a patsy, but at the shift in his voice, after his bathing partner slices himself in the shower. Here, Boy becomes defiant, and begins to stand up for himself, and puts his detachment into relief.
In the book, Boy refers to Guantanamo as “No Man’s Land.” But Boy lives in a no man’s land all his own, in a vapid cultural space that brings to mind Benjamin Kunkle’s Indecision. Both books juxtapose this space, whether indecision or no man’s land, with September 11th, and fittingly, Boy’s no man’s land begins not when he gets to Guantanamo, but when he lands in New York, soon after the attacks. Boy throws himself into the fashion world, flush with ambition to be a designer successful enough to get into Fashion Week, and to make enough money to move from Bushwick to Williamsburg. He flatly refuses to want anything more than this, and while his hopes come across as both stunted and completely forgivable, it’s when they cross into his love life that they become an indictment. Boy starts sleeping with his ex-girlfriend, content that both of them are attractive enough to fool around without succumbing to love, as if this–good looking caprice–were the loftier ideal. And reading this, the whole world, from Williamsburg loft to Guantanamo cell, comes to feel corrupt.
This pervasive corruption, from its obvious home in Guantanamo to its equally insidious place in Williamsburg, is what makes this book such a stellar debut. With the fashion world as his stand-in, Gilvarry spins a web that stretches from consumer-driven recklessness—our cultural response to September 11th—to the bureaucracy-driven vagaries that somehow have managed to overshadow the wasting of lives in Guantanamo. And this web seems to be a strain of an even greater denial, wherein Boy’s interrogators cannot accept that he has nothing to confess. Wherein Guantanamo parlance calls attempted suicide by any other name, be it “self-injurious behavior” or “asymmetric warfare.” Wherein even the Williamsburg guy in the skinniest jeans won’t admit to being a hipster, and won’t allow himself the earnest space to admit to a true, sincere identity. Wherein the war on terror may as well be called the “War on Evil.” Wherein the “War on Evil” would be an impossible fight to win. Wherein a war like this is better off ignored in favor of, well, high-end clothing.
Since Boy had nothing to do with Ahmed’s fertilizer, the reader is meant to presume that, while Boy “confesses,” he’s in fact innocent. But ultimately, he’s guilty. He’s guilty for being complicit, for training his eyes so squarely on Fashion Week that he becomes willfully blind to what Ahmed’s really up to, and guilty because, at the end of the novel, when he gets released and sent back to the Philippines, all he wants is for his new girlfriend to be impressed by how big he’d been in New York.
This book is an indictment. It puts a hipster in Guantanamo and forces him to reckon with the role he’s played in our post-September 11th cultural folly. And if Boy’s guilty, then all of us in skinny jeans are guilty too, and this includes me as much as anybody. But reading this book, I actually felt relieved to be condemned. As if, by getting confronted with the glibness that’s invaded my own voice, I was liberated from my own denial, and forced to acknowledge something more honest—my own corruption, my own complicity.
Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.