The Epistolary Terrorist

Abigail Joseph

Alex Gilvarry’s debut novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, opens with an announcement that what follows is not a novel at all:


Editor’s Note: With the exception of footnote annotations, the author’s acknowledgments, the editor’s afterward, and a supplemental article included with permission, all material herein has been reprinted verbatim from the confession of Boyet R. Hernandez, composed from June through November 2006.


We are in the realm of very recent history, but the framing device and editorial apparatus, which enhance the work’s claim to authenticity while cleverly destabilizing it, put Gilvarry’s work within a long novelistic tradition. The faux-documentary gambit, the use of epistolary form, the technique of building a text out of a pile of other texts, all affiliate Memoirs with classic Gothic texts, such as Frankenstein and Dracula and The Moonstone, whose facade of hyper-realism and use of multiple voices heighten the stakes and suspense of their plots.

In this post-9/11 Gothic, the author of the reprinted “confession,” Boyet R. Hernandez (“Boy”), a fashion designer from the Philippines trying to make a name for himself in New York City, is arrested and thrown into indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay, where he is ruthlessly (and uselessly) interrogated about the terrorist plot to which, through an absurd series of coincidences and errors and betrayals, he has been connected. Suspected of terrorism, but innocent of everything except some dodgy business sponsors, Boy occupies a dual position as both “monster” and victim of monstrosity. The novel places its protagonist in a landscape of paranoia, imperial anxiety, transnationally plotted violence, and rampant dehumanization of the “other” that it shares with its Gothic predecessors.

The prison, “where men train other men to crawl like dogs, to eat and shit on command, and then to stand hind-legged for long, intense intervals,” is as grimly horrifying as any to spring from the Gothic imagination—worse, needless to say, because it is real. Gilvarry has said that the bulk of his research consisted in pouring over court transcripts and Guantanamo memoirs and he renders the detention camp in vivid, grotesque, maddening detail, heightening the horror by filtering it through Boy’s confused, outraged, sly, and increasingly despairing vision.

But for all that, the novel is less horror story than farce, a radical mash-up of genres that makes Gilvarry’s project original and bold, but also risks turning it into a clever but limited conceptual exercise rather than a gripping, cohesive narrative. Boy’s confession slips back and forth between the harshness of the prison camp and the absurdity and allure of the New York fashion world from which he was snatched on the verge of fame as a women’s wear designer. In one of the pleasurable glimpses of the larger sociopolitical world that Boy’s first-person narration provides for us, we learn that the press dubs him the “Fashion Terrorist,” a nickname that encapsulates the novel’s driving conceit: the forcing together of two worlds that would seem drastically unrelated. This gives rise to some great, dark humor—Boy cutting off the sleeves of his orange prison jumpsuit, or encouraging one of his guards to pursue a career as a male model—and Gilvarry handles the swerves in location and focus with pointed and often unsettling flair.

if this is an indictment of fashion, it is undermined both by the joyousness and conviction of Boy’s relation to that world and by Gilvarry’s failure to make him an entirely convincing part of it.

Yet the larger point of the juxtaposition feels elusive; ultimately, it is not clear what it tells us about either world or the relation between them. The fashion scene and the post-9/11 political landscape, Gilvarry seems to claim, share some unsavory traits: a quickness to judge; an invented, slippery terminology; fantasies of supremacy and control; an addiction to spectacle. But if this is an indictment of fashion, it is undermined both by the joyousness and conviction of Boy’s relation to that world and by Gilvarry’s failure to make him an entirely convincing part of it. Boy’s adventures in high and low corners of New York society have a gossipy, meandering charm, and his non-native voice, endowed with colorful malapropisms (“Chai Kaufsky” for Tchaikovsky) and accidental lyricism, lends a fresh and infectious sparkle to easily parodied social scenes (Fashion Week tents, Williamsburg lofts, Sarah Lawrence College dorms). But despite this, and despite some passages that evoke with grace and passion the aesthetic imperatives of design, Boy never feels fully realized as a fashion designer.

One source of the problem is Gilvarry’s somewhat forced representation of Boy’s relation to women. Tiny and flamboyant, Boy is frequently taken to be gay, and he defends his heterosexuality with great energy. To question those defenses is, of course, to indulge in the kind of stereotyping that the character defies. But they feel excessive. In response to his traitorous ex-girlfriend’s play, in which the “fashion terrorist” character has sex with men for money: “What a blatant attack on my sexuality! As I said before, I am a lover of women! My lovers back home I can plot out in my head, visualize them on a map of New York and metro Manila as needles, little pinheads, all of them, stabbed into my brain.” Add to this the often awkwardly or hastily drawn female characters in whose erotic thrall Boy is supposed to be held. We glimpse a queerer version of this novel in the editor’s afterward, a post-Guantanamo coda that doesn’t quite fit but in its way feels darker, weirder, and more interesting than much of what precedes it. One wonders what the entire novel might have looked like, or been able to do, had it applied that queerer, more Gothic aesthetic throughout.