Alex Gilvarry’s debut novel throws us into a complex world of a young Filipino immigrant who is unexpectedly detained by Homeland Security.
The memoir genre has become reflexively controversial, and Alex Gilvarry’s fiction debut leverages its dark side to the fullest.
Boyet Hernandez is the protagonist and chief narrator of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant. Over the course of the novel, he chases a dream, learns to act on ambition, falls in love, moves to New York–and falls victim to the kind of accidental circumstances that could cripple anybody. At least, so Gilvarry might have you believe. Whether what happened to Boyet could indeed occur without cause, or if he is somehow at fault in his predicament, are questions Gilvarry raises but doesn’t answer. Vacillation and doubt are key elements of the Memoirs reading experience, and unreliable narrators are Gilvarry’s core technique.
Recently arrived from the Philippines, Boyet—also known as “Boy”—is a diminutive designer of women’s clothes. He’s come to the United States to join the fashion big league; although he’s honest about his dreams of fame, he is goaded equally by fear. New York’s glamor is “physical proof of the impossible,” Boy says, “but mostly, dreams were crushed in this city.” Like most immigrants, he begins his stay in the US with awe and anxious hope. He launches his New York adventure in the young professional tradition, with budgets, clumsy networking, and a shared apartment.
Before long, this innocence is lost. Boy describes his early American years from No Man’s Land, a semi-clandestine detention facility for terror suspects. He is detained, but not arrested, because he hasn’t been charged with any crimes. In his search for an investor in his design collection, he’d met Ahmed—the enterprising seller of fabrics, foods, and improvised explosive devices. Boy is suspected of knowing about Ahmed’s illegal business, being a participant in a terrorist sleeper cell, or something in between.
Boy’s accounts of his early work, big break, and American girlfriend weave among his present-day interactions with Homeland Security interrogators, guards, and fellow detainees. It’s a clash of universes—one hopeful but ultimately shallow, another uncertain and unspeakably harsh. Gilvarry navigates the contrast with ease; in some places, you’ll want to leaf back and reread just how he moved you from one environment to the next so seamlessly.
Researched fiction often grows clumsy with excessive fact, but Gilvarry knows how to immerse his readers without harping on the trivial. Described in Boyet’s voice, both fashion and political imprisonment become acutely vivid. “Design was a puzzle, but it had a formula of its own,” Boy writes about the inspired construction of a suit, “and once I tapped this formula, the garment attained simplicity.” Describing his transport to No Man’s Land, he is frightened, but equally articulate: “I was grateful to the soldier who removed my hood. He gave me life. I cried at his knees as he sat me down in a chair and chained me.”
There is nothing about Boy that begs immediate suspicion. His logic carries no discernibly fatal flaw, and his tone paints him as a figure of innocent bewilderment. Writing the account at the bidding of his interrogator, Boy is honest about the difficulty of recalling details: “It occurs to me now that in day-to-day existence events simply don’t have much significance,” he says, “and therefore we forget the majority of our lives.” In the early pages, the corrective footnotes that litter Boy’s prose are almost touching—a signal of sincere forgetfulness and haste; the mark of innocence. Yet as the book progresses, his errors grow more severe. Boy misquotes and misspells; many of his quotes are misattributed. He talks of having an affair with a business partner, who denies the liaison. News of betrayal by a former lover has Boy boasting about infidelities that he himself had ruled out as inconceivable. One begins to wonder: is someone capable of manufacturing a crime they didn’t commit equally likely to cover up a real transgression?
Slowly, Boy’s personality begins to shift under the pressure. The burden of New York’s limelight had taken a toll even prior to his imprisonment: “Now that I was a known designer,” Boy writes, “the little [antidepressant] purple pills were the only things that could get me through a day.“ And how could it be otherwise? “Buildings surrounded me on all sides. I could no longer see the sky. Instead of out, the city just went up and up.” Boy had no choice but to move up with it. As much as his own ambition, New York City is implicitly at fault for any role Boy played in his present situation. Almost a character in its own right, the city is a temptress and corruptor. “The city beckoned me at every pothole struck.”
Boy is but the first of the novel’s questionable characters. Gil is the fashion correspondent who compiles Boy’s memoirs, and whose footnotes contextualize Boy’s words. Yet Gil’s single article on Boy prior to his arrest is revealed to be so pedestrian that it becomes difficult to trust Gill’s edits. Who is Gil, and why has he taken an interest in Boy’s story? Just how many edits has he made?
And what about the story of Riad, Boy’s fellow detainee? Why does Boy take time to describe this purportedly innocent captain of “a caravan of book peddlers,” who sold Shakespeare at the Afghan-Pakistani border? Gilvarry plants potent seeds of doubt as he moves from the tragic to the ridiculous and back. The moral, one could say, is that there is no final truth in Boyet’s situation. Even if he knew something about Ahmed’s illegal sales, Boy appears too fragile and downtrodden not to garner sympathy.
It’s easy to draw parallels between Gilvarry and Gary Shteyngart—there’s the ironic tone, the sharp social commentary, the stream-of-consciousness narration. Interestingly enough, both authors also earned MFAs from Hunter College. However, Boy is far more lyrical than most of Shteyngart’s characters. His depth could be compared to that of Lenny Abramov in Super Sad True Love Story, perhaps, but he is more morally dubious than Lenny, too. Most importantly, Boy changes far more throughout the novel than any Shteyngart protagonist to date. Towards the end of Memoirs, Boy is either broken or transformed; his name, his innocence, his citizenship, and even his gender are thrown into question. Is Boy defeated, or has he become a truer version of himself?
Intricately researched and expertly crafted, Memoirs is a poignant reminder of what contemporary fiction ought to be. You will laugh, but you’ll do so nervously, sitting at the edge of your seat. You’ll want to know what happened to Boy, but each detail Gilvarry reveals will make you less comfortable bearing witness to his story. Even as it entertains, this book holds a lens to worlds both familiar and niche, casting each in a new light by virtue of association. You will walk away more thoughtful than when you sat down—and perhaps more nervous about the clothes you buy.