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Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a lonely man in a foreign country arranges an assignation with an irresistible and mysterious sex worker. The man becomes obsessed, and increasingly frustrated by the idea that the things he really wants from this object of desire— love, commitment, trust— are the things he cannot buy. Think Madame Butterfly and its many adaptations. But if, in the early chapters of What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, you think you’ve read this one before, don’t stop: his conversational prose and post-Soviet Eastern European setting may add enough original spark to keep interest kindled.
The mysterious, unknowable object of desire in this case is Mitko, a Bulgarian in his early twenties who scrapes by as a enforcer for a loan shark and with gifts from his lovers— the men he calls his priyateli, friends. He meets the narrator in an underground bathroom where gay men go to cruise. This encounter, as the novel’s opening sentence states, ends with a betrayal – an immediate hint about the high-stakes, morally-tinged framework within which the narrator encounters the world.
We are nestled into a tight first-person perspective, never even learning the name of the narrator, an American poet and English teacher. In fact, no one besides Mitko is given a name at all. Greenwell’s eschewal of quotation marks serves as a constant reminder that Mitko and these nameless others are not speaking for themselves, but are filtered through the narrator’s memory and subjectivity. Fixated on the ugly, utilitarian Soviet architecture that characterizes the Bulgarian cities he visits and lives in, the narrator can engage only superficially with the people and places around him. The bulk of his mental energy is dedicated to self-interrogation and self-reflection, to bemoaning the labour of upholding the life and façade he has constructed for himself, apparently unconscious of the fact that this self-obsession is the real root of his isolation. In the third section of the novel, when he reveals that he now has a boyfriend he loves, it is almost hard to believe; his confession, in the midst of an encounter with Mitko, that “I thought of R., though it shames me to recall it, as though our life together, open and sunlit and lasting, were entirely without substance; I felt it disappear, simply disappear, like a flammable shadow, and part of me was glad to feel it go” rings much more true.
The novel’s second section, a Mitko-free interlude, breaks into a breathless, almost stream-of-consciousness recollection of the narrator’s sexual past, flitting from father to sisters to first love with a convincingly natural scatteredness. Greenwell has a knack for exposition, and this second section, dense with backstory delivered under a pretence that is never addressed again, makes up for its heavy-handedness with its deft prose. From the opening scene, Greenwell finds an assured balance between the narrator’s writerly instinct for description and analysis while avoiding the feeling that we are being narrated to, that we are anywhere but inside the narrator’s own thoughts. As with so many protagonists in his vein, Greenwell’s narrator is more interested in the sexual symbol, the poem he can write about the country than the country itself— at least for much of the novel. Despite his protagonist’s myopia, Greenwell displays an obvious skill in evoking his bleak setting, the patches of loveliness within a country ravaged by economic disarray.
There’s traction in old stories. There’s a reason, after all, that we love fairy tales, love remakes, love new twists on familiar frames. Greenwell is a skilled and sensitive writer, with an ear for the way self-conscious intellectuals wrap themselves up in their own words and thoughts. But whether or not the tale of a relatively affluent (not by American standards, as the narrator tries to convince Mitko, while silently acknowledging his wealth by Bulgarian ones) man learning, though his sexual relationship with a partner far less powerful and privileged than he, that there is a world outside of himself is a story that demands one more retelling may be a question worth asking, too.
Greenwell has been compared by critics to Alan Hollinghurst, known for his cerebral, elegiac novels about gay life. These comparisons seem to hope that Greenwell, like Hollinghurst, will dedicate his subsequent work to the exploration of the queer experience, a topic which, in the relative grand scale of literary history, has only recently emerged from behind the veil of innuendo and coded references. And while, within this broader scope, Greenwell’s recasting of the strange-man-meets-foreign-lover trope is perhaps an admirable act of appropriation (though American playwright David Henry Hwang explored a version of it, with a greater dedication to subversion, in his play M. Butterfly), and while Greenwell’s prose is richly deserving of praise, both he and Hollinghurst walk a fairly narrow representational path. Both Greenwell and Hollinghurst are deeply interested in class, but lean towards the upper-middle end of the scale; characters who, like Greenwell’s narrator, can claim they aren’t that well off and mostly mean it.
Queer literature and film are rich with representations of the white, western, and relatively well-off, often at the expense of other visions of homosexuality. The controversy over the release of the film Stonewall, which recast the black and Latina transwomen who historically sparked the New York City riots generally viewed as the birth of the gay rights movement as a wide-eyed, white Midwestern boy, is a case in point. Greenwell has certainly not committed an artistic crime so egregious, or indeed, any at all. But as well-crafted as his narrator’s self-centred perspective is, I couldn’t help but long for more time spent with the tantalizing details of Bulgarian culture and history that the narrator touches on only glancingly: the national obsession with naming streets for “the nation’s whole history, its victories and defeats, the many indignities and small prides of a small country”; a bizarre, presumably politically motivated medical embargo that has made penicillin unavailable country-wide; and most of all, the community of rural homosexual boys that Mitko interacts with only via Skype. I wished, in short, that Greenwell, unlike his narrator, would turn his exquisite eye for detail and compelling turns of phrase towards people and stories that are a little less familiar.
What Belongs To You is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.