Garth Greenwell’s first published short story, “Gospodar,” which appeared in The Paris Review in 2014 takes place entirely within the frame of a BDSM sexual encounter between two men in a tenement high rise outside of Sofia, Bulgaria. I read it in a single terrified gulp, not because of the transgressive nature of the material (though it was plenty transgressive) but because of the depth and precision with which Greenwell revealed his character’s passions. There is a sense in which two people with their clothes off in a room bring everything in their lives in with them, but I’ve never before found a writer who is able to convey it as well as Greenwell can, in elegant, formal sentences. He is the new voice I’m most excited about for 2016, the writer whose style feels the most like he’s made up a new way of speaking. His first novel, What Belongs to You, is out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on January 19th.
Like “Gospodar,” What Belongs to You is set in Bulgaria. The novel concerns an American teacher who has an affair with Mitko B., a Bulgarian street-hustler and prostitute. The narrator meets Mitko in the bathroom at the National Palace of Culture, a cruising spot of which he explains, wonderfully:
“There was only one reason for men to be standing there, the bathrooms at NDK (as the palace is called) are well enough hidden and have such a reputation that they’re hardly used for anything else.”
He at first turns down Mitko’s proposition that he pay for sex, “reflexively and without hesitation,” explaining:
“It was the answer I had always given to such proposals (which are inevitable in the places I frequent), not out of any moral conviction but out of pride, a pride that had weakened in recent years, as I realized I was being shifted by the passage of time from one category of erotic object to another.”
What a sentence. How much it tells us about the narrator. He admits the places he frequents, his own vanity, and even how the vanity crumbles in the face of erotic necessity. This is a man who will tell us everything, without illusion. I also adore “being shifted by the passage of time from one category of erotic object to another,” a deft characterization of the effects of age on beauty—one that I’ve noticed myself, alas.
The narrator quickly changes his mind about Mitko’s proposal and offers ten leva, which is increased to twenty. He says:
“the sums were almost equally meaningless to me; I would have paid twice as much, and twice as much again, which isn’t to suggest that I had particularly ample resources, but that his body seemed almost infinitely dear.”
What follows is not a happy story. The narrator in some ways wants more from Mitko—sex, reciprocal desire, intimacy, possibly—but is stuck renting something he “wouldn’t be given freely.” The moments in which he finds satisfaction are fleeting, vastly offset by the lies and transparent manipulations of a man who can’t care for him, really. The book’s excellent title cuts several ways and the first is that Mitko does not belong to the narrator and never will. Very near the end he describes him as “this man I had in some sense loved and who had never in the years I had known him been anything but alien to me.”
Throughout, I was struck by how this category of experience—desire with a tarnished motive, a sexual relationship that isn’t quite legit, that exists outside our ordinary boundaries—can be so self-revealing. This is the second sense of the title, What Belongs to You. The buttons pressed to produce a Mitko of whatever form Mitkos come in our lives, belong to us too, gifts or burdens we’ll never relieve ourselves of.
In the book’s second section (where the new material starts after the novella version, which I wrote about—kind of incoherently—here), the narrator returns to his childhood and teenage years, exploring the foundations of his sexuality, drawing out the particulars of the mechanism that created the affair with Mitko. His shames are both common and terribly sad, beginning with his father’s violent rejection of his homosexuality. He expresses this history in a single, 40-page paragraph that again in the precision of its psychology is almost like nothing I’ve ever read.
In a climactic scene where his father offers him a chance to deny his homosexuality (he doesn’t) and then disowns him for being gay, the narrator says,
“As I listened to him say these things it was as though even as I laid claim to myself I found there was nothing to claim, nothing or next to nothing, as though I were dissolving and my tears were the outward sign of that dissolution.”
This goes several layers deeper than the cliche of claiming one’s truth. Greenwell packs the emotion and its opposite into a single moment, the assertion and dissolution of self. And then he complicates the picture further:
I was still crying but more than shock or grief I felt anger, more than anger, I was enraged, and rage filled me up with something that would not dissolve.”
From his later perspective, he adds:
What would I be without the anger I felt then, I wondered as I stood looking over the water, the anger I still feel, it ebbs or surges but is always there; whatever it has kept me from, without it I would have lost myself altogether.
This is not a happy or uplifting foundation for selfhood, but it’s the truth. We can trust his anger. He can trust his anger, has chosen to.
Almost every scene in this book is that complex, that wonderful. There are many other themes—story-telling, divided selves, false faces—but I think I’ll leave it with the anger, negative possibly, but belonging to the author, the way the story of Mitko does.