Tag Archives: What Belongs to You

2. What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell

11 Jan

What Belongs to You, By Garth Greenwell

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.


18. Mitko, by Garth Greenwell

20 Mar

Mitko by Garth Greenwell

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.