How easily we are made to feel, I thought, and with what little foundation, with no foundation at all.
I’ve done an almost complete 180 on this book. When I first picked it up, I read about twenty pages, then put it down to make a cup of tea or something and realized I wasn’t dead keen on picking it up again. It’s not exactly plot-driven—slightly surprising for a novel that begins with its nameless protagonist picking up a male hooker in a public toilet—and the thoughtful, reflective rhythms of its prose give it a melancholy air that I wasn’t really in the mood for. It’s January, for God’s sake, I thought; reading this isn’t really helping with the whole winter blues thing. But I stuck with it, and halfway through the first of its three sections, something happened: I got into it. Those reflective rhythms became more propulsive, more electric, as the book went on. There was urgency humming just under the surface of the narrator’s seemingly placid existence, and a sort of anger that fascinated me because I didn’t quite identify with it. It was not the rage that I have come to be able to pick out instantly because it hums in harmony with my own. It was something else, terrible and sad, and unspoken.
The book opens with the aforementioned scene: our narrator encounters Mitko, a young prostitute, maybe in his early twenties, in the bathrooms at the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria. The narrator is an American; he teaches English in Sofia’s American College. Over the course of the book, his relationship with Mitko deepens and intensifies, never ceasing to be transactional, but also, as Greenwell has said in interviews, no longer “exhausted” by the transaction, by which I think he means that their relationship pushes beyond its foundation, that it has the ability to encompass things other than (and less well defined than) a business exchange. What Belongs To You is a very apt title: the book is concerned, in a lot of ways, with obligation, and with what giving to, and taking from, someone can mean. Mitko takes money and gives sex, but the narrator knows he’s taking more than sex. He is taking the satisfaction of economic power, the rush of being the one who can grant wishes, give cash and presents. I wondered briefly if there was an element of allegory here—the benevolent West extending a patronising hand to its post-Soviet Eastern-bloc dependents—but if there is, I don’t think that’s Greenwell’s focus or intent. He’s much more interested in how relationships that are meant to stay simple almost always become fraught with difficulty, just by virtue of the participants in those relationships being human. You can’t have a simple relationship with someone if you recognise them as human; it’s painful:
That’s all care is, I thought, it’s just looking at a thing long enough, why should it be a question of scale? At first this seemed like a hopeful thought, but then it’s hard to look at things, or to look at them truly, and we can’t look at many at once, and it’s so easy to look away.
Looking carefully, thoughtfully, isn’t simple either. Repeatedly, What Belongs To You figures vision and perception as inherently artificial. The narrator, looking at Mitko’s Facebook photos online, thinks how even the most informal and intimate of them are in some way staged: even if Mitko only took them with the intention of looking over them again later by himself, the photographs by their very existence suggest forethought, arrangement, performativity. In the final section of the book, as the narrator is traveling by train with his mother, he encounters a little boy—barely more than a toddler—with his grandmother, and they pass a pleasant afternoon in the same train carriage. As the narrator and his mother rise to leave, he thinks about the boy, who has reminded him of Mitko in his absolute conviction of his right to everyone’s attention and admiration. It’s not conceit, but a painful innocence, a comfort in one’s own skin that is the result of simply not knowing that not everyone is kind and loving. The narrator thinks that he’ll write a poem about this little boy, and then he wonders whether that would really achieve the artistic truth that he’s always assumed his poetry achieves:
Making poems was a way of loving things, I had always thought, of preserving them, of living moments twice; or more than that, it was a way of living more fully…But that wasn’t what it felt like when I looked back at the boy, wanting a last glimpse of him; it felt like a loss. Whatever I could make of him would diminish him, and I wondered whether I wasn’t really turning my back on things in making them into poems, whether instead of preserving the world I was taking refuge from it.
It’s a worry that I think most writers can identify with, this concern that by turning an event or a person into art through words, you’re somehow obscuring them. There’s that sense of performativity again: even if you intend only to capture the truth of a moment, your intention renders that act a little bit insincere. It’s the observer effect of literature. Writing about a phenomenon changes it.
He’s a very distant narrator and at the same time terribly intimate: the second section is essentially about his childhood, about the betrayals of friends and family that made him feel, as a young boy, as though his sexuality was a “foulness”, something that made him worthy of punishment. We learn all about this, all about the pain of seeing the disgust on his father’s face, and yet at the same time, we know little of his life in Bulgaria, other than his encounters with Mitko and vague references to his work in the American College. He has a boyfriend in the third section, a Portuguese man named R. with whom he seems to be truly in love, but he doesn’t tell us how they met or how they make this long-distance relationship malarkey work. R. doesn’t even appear in the book, never taking a weekend trip to Sofia or hosting our narrator in Portugal—we see him only on Skype, though the implication is that they do visit each other regularly. R.’s absence serves to heighten this sense of the narrator as a solitary man, not in the closet by any means but still lonely, still scared, still basically longing to be obliterated by something.
It’s hard to do justice to this novel because it’s not really about the story. It’s about a man coming to terms with the nature of his own desires, and how desire works in the real world, how it bestows and removes power, how shame and deprivation in youth can cripple us for life. It’s about being lonely, and it’s about intense charisma, and it’s about feelings you can’t really describe. It is, in its own unromantic way, about love, and it’s a love more honest and complex and frustrating than much of the other stuff our culture gives us with that word slapped across the front. Don’t buy it for your lover for Valentine’s Day, but buy it for yourself when it comes out (after V-Day, thank goodness), and read it, and be moved.
Thanks very much to Camilla Elworthy at Picador for the review copy. What Belongs To You was published in the US on 19 January; its UK publication date is 7 April.
This is an ace interview with Garth Greenwell by the Paris Review, in which he elucidates a lot of the things I tried to say here and didn’t manage very well.