Where I Saw Tragedy, I Also Saw the Absurd: David Abrams and Alex Gilvarry in Conversation

Dear Reader,

Funny is powerful stuff in literature, but easy to botch.

So funny done well – funny with a soul, the potent, arm-whack-you-have-to-hear-this, new-image-tattooed-on-the-back-of-the-brain kind of funny, provocative funny — always gets the attention of the Discover selection committee readers. 

Debut novelists and 2012 Discover picks David Abrams (Fobbit) and Alex Gilvarry (From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant) share a gimlet eye, the chops to make brutal absurdity feel immediate and real, and

the comic timing and outrageous imagination to illuminate often unpleasant emotional truths.  They’ve created darkly funny novels,  easily read as companion pieces, that compelled our selection committee readers to think long and hard about war and death, race and human rights.

Funny that challenges us to think, really think about the world and our places in it, well, that kind of funny is the kind that the Discover Great New Writers program seeks out

So here are David and Alex discussing what they learned at the movies, the literature of war, and satire’s reverberations, among other things…



Cheers, Miwa



Discover Great New Writers: Why satire, and why satire now?

Alex Gilvarry: I was brought up on satire. Comedy in general. Woody Allen’s Bananas and Zelig affected me quite early on before I could comprehend what was being satirized. That’s the power of humor. Then there were the books I first purchased on my own. Woody’s Without Feathers, Getting Even, then S.J. Perelman. Eventually I branched out into discovering more serious literature like Catch-22. You know, I guess I was only interested in reading New York Jews. They spoke to me and my little life on Staten Island. I felt a familiar voice, a kinship. There’s that bit by Lenny Bruce which goes “If you’re from New York and you’re Catholic, you’re still Jewish.” I’m half-Filipino with a Scottish last name, but I was brought up in the same shouting, anxiety-laced household that these writers came from—where one needed to raise their voice in order to be heard. That’s what first got me about Philip Roth. There are those scenes in Goodbye, Columbus where I felt like it was my family. You couldn’t take a phone call with a girl without two or three people butting in or picking up the other line. I learned to negotiate life and its embarrassments with humor.

 In writing From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, a satire about one man’s journey from young immigrant, to celebrated fashion designer, to suspected terrorist imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay, I discovered a type of book that I felt we were missing. By 2006, I suppose I was a serious reader of contemporary fiction, and not a lot of what was coming out reflected the fears and climate of what made up my twenties. That is, post-9/11 New York, two wars, and the circumvention of certain human rights. During these formative years I became obsessed with the stories of men locked up without due process, afraid that it could happen to any one of us, and the language being used to designate and dehumanize them—”enemy combatant,” “detainee.” Where I saw tragedy I also saw the absurd. And the topic I found pressing. So the novel became a combination of everything I had loved about humor and literature, with the addition of trying to stick it to the man. The only way I knew how to do that was satire.

I think Fobbit does something quite similar, and it takes us to the heart of the matter with an authority that’s so authentic, funny, and tragic. It’s the novel I feel like I’ve been waiting for all these years. And were it to have existed when I began mine, Memoirs might have turned out very different by your influence. Did you also feel a pressing need for a satire?

David Abrams: I’m so glad you mentioned Woody Allen.  He, along with his prankster cousin Mel Brooks, were so important to the formation of what I guess you could call the comedy pulse of my writing.  I like to think of my childhood development in two parts: from age 4 to about 12, books were the focal part of my existence–everything from Richard Scarry to Encyclopedia Brown to Laura Ingalls Wilder to the dog books of Jim Kjelgaard went into my system like vitamins; then from 13 to 19, I discovered the movies and went to as many of them in the two theaters in my small hometown as I could.  Movies titillated me in a way that books never could….or maybe I was just ready to be titillated at that age….or maybe I just liked saying the word “titillated.”  At any rate, I became wholly obsessed with movies (this was in the mid-70s to early 80s).  I still remember sitting in the theater watching Blazing Saddles like I was an explorer looking through a telescope at a New World.  The same with Annie Hall, Manhattan, and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy–and Sleeper–oh God, yes, Sleeper!  I learned so much about comic timing and how loud to hit the jokes–pianissimo or forte?–from Brooks and Allen.  When it came time to write something like Fobbit, I didn’t think consciously of those structural choices or the comedy pulse, nor did I necessarily set out to write a satire about war.  But because movies like Annie Hall and lines like “Hey, don’t knock masturbation! It’s sex with someone I love!” were so ingrained in me, I think the comedy pulsed naturally on its own.

I say I didn’t start out to write a satire, but about midway through the first draft of Fobbit, I found it was going to be inevitable.  Part of it was the material I had to work with–the absurdities I’d witnessed first- and second-hand when I was in Iraq; but part of it was also the basic idea of the book: the mismanagement of war by “soft soldiers.”  I suspect the same was probably true for you, too.  We’re taking on big, serious themes (WAR!  HUMAN RIGHTS!) but we’re juxtaposing them with characters who seem ridiculously out of place: a nose-bleeding mama’s boy (Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad, in my case) and a fashion designer terrorist (Boy Hernandez, in yours).  How and when did you come up with the idea for Boy?  (He’s a brilliant creation, by the way).  Put another way, which came first: Guantánamo or the fashion designer?

Alex Gilvarry: Boy Hernandez came to me first, I should say, through the voice of the character. Over the course of a few months in 2006, a five-foot-one Filipino immigrant, flamboyant, fashionable, egocentric, superficial, with all odds stacked against him, emerged. I was trying to write about myself but was worried that the novel would be taken as autobiographical, so I thought it clever to reverse Boy’s appearance from my own. I’m 6’3, he would be 5’1, and no one would be the wiser. Also, six-foot-three isn’t funny. Five-foot-one: funny. It’s a formula. In fiction, you put on a coat of armor in order to be as personal and honest as you can. For me, it was living in the skin of Boy Hernandez, fashion designer. But the topic of wrongful detention and the feelings surrounding it goes back to when I was in college. I found that I was always being stopped by the NYPD on my way to school in the subway after 9/11, my bags checked. There was a feeling of everyone being suspect. The city, the country, the way we travelled, the way we saw each other had all changed overnight. I always wanted to write about this. When I wrote the sentence that led Boy into detainment, I stumbled upon writing about Guantánamo Bay, the prison that opened eleven years ago, a prison I assumed would be closed if I ever finished this book. It hasn’t.

 Now Fobbit revolves around a whole pool of great characters, specifically, they revolve around an “Australian pool” if I may reveal that to the reader. Chance Gooding, Jr., Vic Duret, Abe Shrinkle, and Harkleroad, who carries a hilarious diminutive. You give your characters almost equal attention, and even in their mishaps and ineptness, you treat them with a great deal of compassion. That’s why I loved them. Which character came first and when did you begin writing him? I suppose I’m wondering if you managed to write some while you were in Iraq.

David Abrams:  It’s hard for me to look back, from the unbelievable span of seven years, to say for sure which character was the first to be patted into shape from the clay of my imagination.  Because Fobbit began as a scenario-based story–I was drawing from a bunch of funny-sad, bizarre-mundane real-life events lifted from my war journal–it feels like they all sprang into life at once.  But if I had to pick one character who was there from the start, it would probably be Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding because–it’s futile for me to keep denying it–he most closely resembles me.  As my wife is quick to point out, there are bits and pieces of me scattered like confetti throughout the rest of the characters (Harkleroad’s insecurities, Duret’s passion for his wife, Shrinkle’s blind devotion to duty), but Gooding c’est moi.  He was there alongside me–hell, he was me–as I started working on the book back in 2005 when I was still deployed to Iraq.  Unlike your relationship with Boy, I didn’t really try to disguise my alter ego.  I reduced him a rank (I was a Sergeant First Class at the time) and I made him a divorcee, but most everything else is pretty close to the bone.

 I don’t know about you, but I always get a little squirmy when I talk about things like this.  Because I was so determined to have Fobbit treated as a novel, I took pains to erase my tracks leading into the story.  I wanted readers to focus on the larger picture–the follies of men at war–rather than spend time dissecting it, separating truth from fiction.  I didn’t want to wear the label “autobiographical fiction” (even though I’ve just admitted to you here that the label is at least partially warranted).  In the end, it’s fruitless for us as authors to worry about these things.  I found that during the question-and-answer period after my readings, the one thing I could always count on folks to ask was: “How much of this is true?”  I don’t know if they want someone to confirm their belief that government is run by a bunch of inept monkeys, or if they’re unwilling to believe I could fabricate the novel’s events out of my imagination.  I usually ended up saying something pithy like “It’s all true and none of it’s true.”  Still, I think they were skeptical.  Some readers are determined to read Fobbit as a near-factual account of my year in Iraq.  Like you say in Memoirs, “We see only what we want to see, do we not?  And when what we want to see isn’t there, we create it.”  Have you found this to be true with your readers?  Do you find people really believe there’s a 5’1 fashion designer falsely imprisoned in Guantánamo?  In a way, you sort of set yourself up for this with the narrative’s structure, didn’t you?  I mean, you even included footnotes, for God’s sake!  We all know that footnotes only belong in non-fiction and not fiction, right?  (winks and waves at David Foster Wallace)

Alex Gilvarry:  God yes. I’ve come across readers who thought this really happened to me, and that there was a fashion designer sent to Guantánamo, and that I was that fashion designer. Even though it says “A Novel” on the cover, a thing we always print on fiction in the US, some readers still read it as this man’s memoir. I know that sounds like a ridiculous claim, but I Skype with book clubs around the country, and there will be a few readers in there who perhaps don’t regularly read novels, and somehow I got looped into their memoir book club. I don’t take any offense, it’s practically a compliment to the fiction. I did set myself up for it. Something I learned from reading Mordecai Richler, especially Barney’s Version, the funniest book I’ve ever read, is that the novel can begin right on the title page, as soon as you open the cover. I love novels that do this, that have fun with the actual form of a book, the pagination, the front matter. They transport you immediately. Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart does this. I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch does it to perfection. Then there’s Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, and more recently Arthur Philips’ The Tragedy of Arthur. The guy wrote a Shakespeare play. Someone give him an award. But Pale Fire is the king of them all, beginning with an epic poem, then telling the story within the end notes. Nabokov, that brilliant bastard, he could do anything. If I only had his vocabulary.  

David Abrams: Likewise, Alex, you use language like a whip in your novel–a razor-tipped whip.  And, just as a side note, one of the things you and I have in common with Pale Fire is the use of “found documents” (emails, legal transcripts, diary entries).  This might be one of the reasons behind some readers’ difficulty in distinguishing between fact and fiction.  Those artifacts lend an authoritative-sounding voice to the proceedings and blur the boundaries.  If you’re like me, I suspect that was intentional on your part. 

One of the things I loved about From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant was the way you dunked us so completely into the New York fashion scene.  I mean, sure, I’ve watched my fair share of Project Runway, but I never really felt so–pardon the pun–clothed in that world until I read your book.  Here’s just one example of a passage I loved: “The dress is a performance–its only responsibility is to the moment.  It is elegance and ephemeral.  It can’t sustain a woman’s body for very long.  Women’s changes are far too radical.  In coutere, some dresses can be worn for only a few hours, max.  What’s the saying?  Elegance is a dress too dazzling to wear it twice.”  I’m curious about how much research you had to do for such literature verite.  For me, most of my “research” was simply living for a year in war-torn Iraq.  What was your relationship with the fashion industry prior to writing your novel?

Alex Gilvarry: Unlike yours, my research didn’t put me into any imminent danger. Comparatively, it’s gonna sound pretty superficial. But thank you for selecting that passage, because it’s a point in the novel when the character of Boy suddenly clicked, where the voice and the intention converged. I think of writing fiction sometimes like playing a part as an actor… in character, you know what to say, you can improvise, you’re suddenly living in another’s skin. Your imagination is turned up to 11. You know, like in Spinal Tap. I came to the fashion world because I spent a lot of time dating a model who would take me to fashion shows and lavish parties in clubs that were only open for three months at a time before they were considered “dead.” I observed some very thin people smoke and drink and use cocaine like it was New Years Eve 1987, and this was on a school night. While it seemed like everyone was having a good time, I recognized a certain sadness to some of them, and maybe that’s why I chose to write about it. But in order for a reader to buy what you’re doing, it has to be as real and true as possible. So I ended up giving myself a fashion education, learning how to write about women’s clothes. Boy is a designer of women’s wear, so I read a Coco Chanel biography, then The Beautiful Fall about the rivalry between Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. That was a good one. I subscribed to Vogue magazine.

This is what I was doing while you were probably deployed in Iraq. And the feeling of not acting when your country is at war, the feeling of leading a superficial life that moves at a regular pace during some of the most violent years in Iraq, that feeling of powerlessness–that’s what I wanted to juxtapose in Memoirs.

Which leads me to think of what a remarkable year it’s been for fiction and the Iraq and Afghanistan novel. Now we have Fobbit, The Yellow Birds, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. A new literature is being created. And I can imagine in the years to come, we’ll have even more. I’ve been waiting for these novels. They bring to the surface a humanity, a humor, a new way to look at something we’ve been afraid to look at through fiction. Do you have any feelings on the the timing and emergence of these books? And now that I’m a fan, I’m also curious to ask what you’re working on next?

David Abrams:  It has been a great year for war literature.  In addition to those you mentioned, I’d add The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya and Hold It ‘Til It Hurts by T. Geronimo Johnson–both on my short-list of books to read in the near future.  I did read (and love) The Yellow Birds and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and thought they each brought a unique dimension to the conversation about U.S. involvement in the so-called War on Terror.  One was a gripping account of the high cost of sending young men and women off to war, and the other was a scathing criticism of how our nation flounders in its clumsy attempts to welcome those soldiers home from battle.  And then you add your book into the mix–a biting satire about the often wrongheaded politics of the post-9/11 era–and you’ve got a great third leg of that tripod.  I think all four of us are trying to poke a stick at the slumbering beast–America which, for the most part, is complacent in its hibernation away from talking about the real issues of the War on Terror.  That is, the fact that Iraq and Afghanistan may seem like “distant wars” to many Americans, but they come with a high price tag.  Or, as Karl Marlantes put it so well in his book What It Is Like to Go to War: “We cannot expect normal eighteen-year-olds to kill someone and contain it in a healthy way.  They must be helped to sort out what will be healthy grief about taking a life because it is part of the sorrow of war.”  I think these conversations are going to continue with more fiction about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  This spring, for instance, there’s an anthology of short stories written by veterans (including me) called Fire and Forget.  Of the contributors to that book, I’m looking forward to Phil Klay‘s forthcoming story collection, and Roy Scranton’s novel he’s working on (tentatively titled War Porn).  As for me, I’ve been working on a novel that’s a radical departure from Fobbit–at least in terms of subject matter.  It’s a screwball comedy about a 20-year-old little person who comes to Hollywood from a small town in Idaho in the late 1930s.  He ends up getting a job as a stuntman for a child actor–a spoiled brat who’s the reigning box office champ of 1938, 1939, and 1941.  When the kid accidentally kills a rival studio’s mascot (a dog, similar to MGM’s lion), the stuntman has to figure out how to protect this person he’s come to barely tolerate over the years.  The book grew out of my life-long love of movies–especially classic films from Hollywood’s “Golden Age”–and was sparked by a question I asked myself one day: What would happen if an adult were hired to do all the dangerous on-camera stunts for a child actor, and what if that adult started out worshipping the kid as a movie idol but ended up hating him for the real person he turned out to be?

Alex Gilvarry: First, thank you for including me in that wonderful group of writers. I’m also awaiting Phil Klay’s collection just from reading that story he published in Granta.Redeployment.” What a great story. I think you and I are both working within similar time periods in our next projects. Part of the novel I’m writing now also takes place in the late 30s and early 40s. What is it about that period? I recently went to the New York Historical Society to see their exhibit WWII & NYC, and it sent my imagination spinning. Anyway, my next book is about a notorious war correspondent who squanders a few decades of his life after WWII as a philanderer. Once he awakes from his thirty-year hangover, he decides to go off and cover Vietnam in order to get his mojo back. But it’s also a love story about the love of his life, the one who got away.

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.