Where I Saw Tragedy, I Also Saw the Absurd


Debut novelists David Abrams and Alex Gilvarry discuss “what they learned at the movies, the literature of war, and satire’s reverberations,” in Tottenville Review:

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.