Last summer while vacationing in Bulgaria I picked up my copy of The Paris Review and read a stunning and unforgettable story about a semi-anonymous, dangerous BDSM sex scenario between gay men that coincidentally was also set in Bulgaria. The country is so homophobic and the material was so graphic and disturbing that I felt somewhat anxious about having The Paris Review in my luggage, which was amusing, but probably not a first in that magazine’s history.
The story made me uncomfortable in many ways, but I haven’t been able to forget it in the ensuing months, so I went ahead and ordered another of Greenwell’s published works, a novella called Mitko, which is a about a gay American college professor’s brief and tortured relationship with a Bulgarian street hustler.
Like the story that captured my attention, the novella is an exploration of a shameful passion that reason cannot justify. The college professor meets the hustler, Mitko, and almost immediately embarks on a series of humiliating, possibly dangerous encounters that none of his intelligence or better nature can stop.
Desire here is presented as an absolute force, divorced from rationality. Early on he writes of Mitko, who is drunk, possibly dangerous, reeking, and partially contemptuous of the narrator, clearly in it for the money…. “in my own estimation this body, the enjoyment of which I was contracting to rent, seemed almost infinitely dear.” And later, after several such encounters in a public bathroom at Bulgaria’s Palace of Culture, he brings the man to his apartment (dangerous, stupid) and writes,
“I felt myself gripped yet again by both pleasure and embarrassment, and by an excitement so terrible I had to look quickly away.”
One of the novella’s symbolic motifs is double-faces and double-sides. As a hustler Mitko is double-sided, of course, “vulnerable, over-exposed, and unrelievedly hidden behind impervious defenses.” And the narrator has his own faces. He wonders how Mitko has transformed from a prosperous boy to a homeless man, and of himself
“how it was I had become one of these men in the dark, offering whatever was asked to rent something we wouldn’t be given freely, accepting without complaint our own diminishment.”
There’s double-sidedness as well in the novel’s treatment of passion, whose overwhelming physical, emotional, sensual force Greenwell meets with an outpouring of language, which is “as always interposing itself between ourselves and what we see.” The paragraphs sometimes run for several pages, and the whole, short 86-page novella sometimes feels like one long, very articulate, breath.
There’s tension in this treatment of passion. Can all this analysis say anything about desire in the right register? Is this book finding the truth about this affair, or obscuring it? Is there even truth to be had between two people? Greenwell seems to think not, explaining that in sexual encounters,
“our responses are never in any simple way our own, where they are always balanced against the responses, perceived or projected, of our partner, and also against our own fears and enthusiasms, our claims and generosities, our failure of nerve, so that sincerity, authenticity, flees ever more swiftly away from us, like a shadow that we ourselves cast out. “
Or maybe the narrator is just justifying the moment because Mitko has faked an orgasm and he’s faked believing in it.
Passion in Mitko is both overwhelming and fleeting, doomed to dissatisfaction almost before the satisfaction has come. The narrator doesn’t get the thing he longs for. Maybe what he wants is not the thing but the longing. Or, in another layer, the shame. “The whole bent of my nature is toward confession,” he says. But his confession is in such a clinical, flaying tone, one wonders how there can be pleasure in it. Until one realizes that the twinning of pleasure and pain is the point.
It’s all very thought-provoking and I really enjoyed reading it.
From some Google-stalking of Greenwell, I’ve discovered that he has a book-length novel coming out in 2016 called What Belongs to You, which seems like maybe it’s an expanded version of the story in this novella. I will be interested to see these themes drawn out more, and to read more of Greenwell’s flaying prose. Where, for example, at a Bulgarian seaside resort “elaborately themed facades” are described as having “garishness mitigated by desolation.” This is both a good echo of the dual-faces theme and—as I can attest from personal experience of traveling in Bulgaria—a spot-on accurate description of the seaside town he’s describing.