14. From the Memoirs of A Non-Enemy Combatant, Alex Gilvarry

31 Mar


I am following up last week’s Bush-Era George Saunders read with a 2012 book by Brooklyn writer Alex Gilvarry. “From the Memoirs of A Non-Enemy Combatant” makes a nice companion piece to Saunders’s “Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil” and makes me think that if I were a Comp Lit professor right now, I’d be designing a class that would compare Vietnam War lit with Bush Era/War on Terror lit.

The novel’s premise is a “memoir” or “confession,” written by Boy Hernandez, a Filipino fashion designer/ NYC immigrant who was wrongly arrested in the mid 00s and taken to Guantanamo Bay. The combination of the fashion industry and Guantanamo Bay is just so weird I’m surprised that any mainstream publisher thought it was marketable. (Or maybe not? “It’s like The Devil Wears Prada, but set in Guantanamo Bay”!?) But oddly it turns out to be a nifty device for looking at what’s being lost in America’s heavy-fisted attempts at national security.

The fashion-designer tale is a classic American-dream of coming to NYC and making it in a sexy industry, which is what makes it work so well as a case study of our modern dysfunction. We expect satire because the idea of Homeland Security picking up someone like Phillip Lim (an actual Filipino designer who, in the novel, is a friend of Boy’s) is ridiculous, and in Gilvarry’s hands, hilarious. But the writer plays the designer tale funnily but without snark, and what comes through is Boy’s human dignity as he writes his “memoir” in captivity.

He writes:

“When I arrived I thought I was done for. Finito. The steel cot, the thin mattress no thicker than a yoga mat, a towel for my head–what kind of conditions were these? At home I had been sleeping on a platform bed from West Elm and a $150 Swedish pillow that adapted to the contours of one’s neck. My first morning in No Man’s Land, when I heard the call to prayer start up at sunrise, I thought I’d been dropped in a pit of hell. But soon enough I found that my surroundings could be tolerated.”

The details are funny, but they also provide a clever insistence not on our most important freedoms, but on our least important ones, for canary-in-the-coal mine effect. West Elm beds and Swedish neck-contour pillows aren’t a human right, but freedom to buy them and use them if you can, is one. Boy is not a terrorist; he’s a designer, and in sticking to his precisely detailed story of the fabulous self he’s created, he’s defending an American Dream. So, when he does something like attempt to tailor his orange detainee jumpsuit to make it “more breathable,” it’s funny but it’s also more meaningful than you might think.

When I think of war literature from Vietnam, it tends to be books written by men involved in the conflict. In our era of drones, volunteer armies and a huge population of bystanders who are both complicit and not involved, the literature is looking a little weirder and more experimental. There’s a kind of necessary ventriloquism, an imagining-ourselves-there that a book like this perpetrates, I think fruitfully. “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant” is one for the shortlist.

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