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Beneath the Pain of Exclusion

Garth Greenwell’s "What Belongs to You" is the Great Gay Novel for our times

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Perhaps emotion becomes most intense when it cannot be openly expressed, when it has to be inhibited or repressed. Non-normative feelings—same-sex desire, for example—are often cloaked in normative behavior, and this fear of judgment or disapproval breeds lies and deceit. Certainly the recent surge of support for same-sex marriage throughout the United States and the widespread celebrity support for the “It Gets Better” project have helped legitimize such feelings. But life outside conventional experience often remains enormously difficult to embrace in contrast to the acceptance that mainstream life offers.

Thomas Mann saw as much. In his Death in Venice, the aging protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach is summed up in two gestures by an observer: “‘You see, Aschenbach has always lived like this’—here the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand to a fist—‘never like this’—and he let his open hand hang relaxed from the back of his chair.” He is introduced as an incredibly disciplined writer, almost to the point of self-abnegation, but over the course of Mann’s novella Aschenbach’s growing infatuation with the young boy he calls Tadzio brings about his own ruin. Struggling with this fascination, the old writer descends deeper and deeper into self-deceit and isolation as he attempts to justify and normalize his actions. While trimming his graying hair, a barber tells him: “You, for instance, signore, have a right to your natural color. Surely you will permit me to restore what belongs to you?” He proceeds to dye the man’s hair and apply makeup to feign youth and virility.

The barber’s canniness—his proposal both honest and deceptive, twinning faithfulness with betrayal—is implicit in the title of Garth Greenwell’s astonishing debut novel, What Belongs to You. Here, as in Mann’s novella, an older man falls for a younger one, and finds himself overwhelmed by that desire. However, the passion Mann condemned by equating it to the plague overrunning Venice and the war looming over Europe is thoroughly reframed by Greenwell’s acceptance. He exchanges the oppressive decadence of Venice for the poverty of modern-day Bulgaria and rural America, the two bleak landscapes providing a blank slate for this life carved by human need.

In the most acute moments of What Belongs to You, emotion transmutes from an aspect of the scene at hand to an observable object. This is most obviously seen in the exactitude with which Garth Greenwell’s narrator describes and measures and analyzes the body of Mitko, the Bulgarian prostitute he meets in an underground bathroom and falls in love with. This extraordinary focus transcends psychological realism and enters a realm of hyperrealism: “It had become difficult to imagine the desire I increasingly felt for him having any prospect of satisfaction.”

WHAT BELONGS TO YOU by Garth Greenwell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp., $23.00

Indeed, satisfaction proves nearly impossible to attain. What Belongs to You is, from its very first line, a story of unrequited love, and its narrator—whose name is never revealed—finds himself again and again struggling to turn his fantasy into a fully fleshed reality. Early on, we learn that he is an American expat teaching in Bulgaria, barely able to keep up a conversation in Bulgarian or ascribe concrete value to the leva and stotinki he keeps in his wallet. As he spends more time with the handsome Mitko, he comes to hear about Mitko’s priyateli, a title the younger man applies with equal ease to his friends and to the clients he sleeps with. The narrator may gradually shift from the latter category to the former, but if Mitko’s word for the narrator remains unchanged, the question remains of whether Mitko’s compassion undergoes any transformation into actual passion.

And so love itself is scrutinized and considered just as carefully as the various words of Bulgarian and the customs that the narrator witnesses from students and nurses and passersby. This lack of knowledge, however, does not seem to him solely an impoverishment. At the end of the book’s first scene, Mitko abandons the narrator after faking an orgasm, a betrayal that we are told presages many others yet to come. The sudden absence angers him, until he comes to realize that the void created by Mitko’s departure “had only refined our encounter, allowing him to become more vividly present to me even as I was left alone on my stained knees, and allowing me, with all the freedom of fantasy, to make of him what I would.”

This keen awareness of emotion—of its malleability as well as its materiality—situates What Belongs to You solidly in a lineage of deeply psychological literary fiction. More so than Thomas Mann, Henry James and Marcel Proust are Greenwell’s strongest forebears, with James Baldwin and Alan Hollinghurst as equally discernible inspirations. That these four particular progenitors are all gay or queer is no coincidence. Greenwell has highlighted, in a talk given at the AWP Conference, and in a conversation at Guernica, his relationship to such a heritage, and why this would result in a keener awareness of the world’s mechanics. “History is only ever invisible when it abets your sense of self, your desires, your ambitions, when it carries your life along in a kind of frictionless way,” Greenwell mused. Proust and James are both characterized by a hypersensitive attention to emotional states—so thoroughly observed that I had to put down Within a Budding Grove in despair because Proust’s descriptions had so vividly revived an old breakup—which are a direct consequence of their own inability to freely and unguardedly reveal their intrinsic desires.

And Greenwell, like these authors before him, has sublimated this frustration into a poetic prose calling to mind the carefully orchestrated syntax of Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III and Frank Bidart’s Desire. The compression, made possible by poetry, is evident in the way Greenwell’s sentences effortlessly encompass multiple time frames (recollected memories are often alluded to; “I would learn” is a frequent parenthetical aside), and slide easily from immediate descriptions to larger-scale observations and considerations. Narrative time expands and contracts: The book’s first part centers on the few months when Mitko enters the narrator’s life and then violently departs; the second part opens with a note given to the narrator as he teaches class, and then allows his childhood memories of America—some joyful, some shameful—to subsume the narrative until we find ourselves abruptly pulled back to the Bulgarian present; and then the book closes on Mitko’s reappearance some time later. Greenwell’s narrator tells his story retrospectively, but this choice somehow does not strip the story of the immediacy of reality.

Does it feels so real because Greenwell has drawn upon his own experience as a former expat teacher in Bulgaria? “It’s true that I write a kind of fiction that hints at, or more than hints at, autobiography,” Greenwell said in his AWP talk, “and it’s also true that the lines between genres seem in large part arbitrary to me, or at least I don’t really care about them.” Like the title itself, What Belongs to You hints at truth and fiction alike. It lays bare the experience of growing up and living as someone gay in the early twenty-first century, with an openness virtually impossible in the era of Death in Venice or Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle.” Mitko may present himself as a prostitute, and he often performs his desire in a transactional manner, but this desire is sometimes genuinely felt, and bound up in a complex history. If we come to understand both Mitko and the narrator as deeply real characters, animated by their urges and their contexts, it is because Greenwell has so carefully and fully revealed each of them to us. There are no archetypes or clichés in these sentences—only people struggling to reconcile their many contrary impulses and actions.

Late in the book, long after a new lover has entered the narrator’s life, Mitko tells the narrator, “You are my friend.” These words are not merely performative; they have been proven true by innumerable small interactions in the book’s preceding pages. The two characters’ final separation, then, has all the force of a traumatic breakup or death, and we close the pages of What Belongs to You changed as thoroughly as the two men we have spent so much time with.

Garth Greenwell’s writing is alive to the foreign and the unknown; he opens our eyes to worlds we had not realized existed alongside our own. Even the landscape of Bulgaria, one of the poorest and least-known countries in Europe, is made vivid and vibrant. Five years ago, The Economist summed down Bulgaria in half a sentence: A brief article discussing money and happiness concluded that “the saddest place in the world, relative to its income per person, is Bulgaria.” But no country can be reduced to a single emotion, nor can any relationship. If truth and lies can be concomitant in a phrase, so can love and sorrow, belief and despair, anger and wistfulness. Just as a chance encounter beneath the National Palace of Culture enmeshes an American expatriate within a passionate relationship he had never considered possible, so does Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You make visible all the painful and beautiful facets of human life and human love.