The word “shame” occurs frequently in What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell’s exquisite first novel, and it is always related to desire. His narrator is gay, which causes him shame as a child; later he’s ashamed of the places—public toilets and other cruising grounds—where he goes to look for sex. It’s in one of these places, the bathrooms of Bulgaria’s National Palace of Culture in Sofia, where he meets a young hustler named Mitko, and it’s the peculiar, lopsided relationship between them, suffused with desire and shame, that is the subject of the book.
As might be expected, Mitko is rough, from a poor background. He’s in his early 20s, has a broken front tooth, is nearly always drunk, smokes weed, and gets into fights. He also makes a living from selling his body to a succession of shadowy men he mostly liaises with online. No big surprises there, yet he remains to some extent unknowable. “Never before,” says the narrator, “had I met anyone who combined such transparency (or the semblance of transparency) with such mystery, so that he seemed at once overexposed and hidden behind impervious defenses.”
The same could be said of Greenwell’s American narrator, whose name we never know. He seems to be absolutely forthcoming, yet there’s a great deal he doesn’t tell us. Who is he? What’s he doing in Bulgaria? We know that he’s a teacher at the prestigious American College there (as Greenwell was too for a while), but why? The reasons he provides are both informative and opaque. “I think I hoped I would feel new in a new country, but I wasn’t new here, and if there was comfort in the idea that my habitual unease had a cause…it was a false comfort, a way of running away from real remedy.”
At first the two men see each other regularly, but things predictably turn bad. There is the possibility of violence and blackmail, and a later unpleasant episode involving syphilis, despite all of which Mitko would like our narrator to believe that he is not just a client, but a priyatel, a friend. The word is inaccurate—friendship implies something fuller—but it’s clear that the usual barriers have broken down. Mitko keeps coming round, not just for sex or money, but sometimes out of a need to talk, to be seen and heard by somebody who likes him. There is mutual exploitation, but also emotion; each of them wants something more from the other, something harder, maybe impossible, to define.
A kind of answer lies in the second part of the book, aptly titled “A Grave,” when our narrator receives a message that his father is dying. The two of them have been estranged for a long time, and this news stirs both memory and conflict in him. Long ago in the past, there was a sense of wholeness, the Edenic innocence of childhood, from which he has been expelled by the original sin of his sexuality. In his father’s eyes, he is a “faggot,” a judgment from which his shame can’t be separated. The scene of rejection is cruel (and painful to read), all the more so because of the narrator’s palpable yearning for the love that has been taken away. This has been foreshadowed in an earlier moment when he watches a young girl being held by her father while she leans over a river, and he reflects on how the meaning of that simple embrace will change as she grows older. He thinks: “So it is that at the very moment we come into full consciousness of ourselves what we experience is leave-taking and a loss we seek the rest of our lives to restore.”
The connection is implied, not explained, but we suddenly understand a great deal about why the narrator is so drawn to Mitko. To be loved, to be held, to be cared for, without condition: It’s the deepest human craving, one that promises to annul all the abrasions and imperfections of our lives. An impossible promise, of course, but no less powerful for that. He doesn’t want to let Mitko down, in the way his own father did to him. In another telling scene, he watches a fly in the window of a tram and becomes anguished at the idea that a passenger might crush the little insect. He reflects: “It was ridiculous to care so much, I knew, it was just a fly, why should it matter; but it did matter, at least while I watched it. That’s all care is, I thought, it’s just looking at a thing long enough, why should it be a question of scale?”
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The narrator cares for Mitko, and his tenderness shines through the transactional nature of their relationship. He wants in some way to save him, to change his destiny, but of course he can’t. They are separated from each other by age, nationality, language, and class—divisions that can at some times seem minor, and at others as inescapable as fate. Structurally, the book is divided into three parts. In the first, the two men are groping toward each other, searching for connection. The middle section, dealing with the narrator’s father and his early years, is a pivotal moment, after which, in part three, he begins to move away from Mitko, to let him go. By now he has a lover and is trying to change his own future, yet through all of this he continues to feel for the young man. The process is sad, because it’s both inevitable and gentle. By the end, when their parting is final, the rupture has the weight of a much fuller relationship reaching its terminus, though in fact their connection had been slight and intermittent, and most of its gravity comes from yearning rather than real experience.
This goes, like the story, to the heart of desire. There is something ephemeral and ungraspable about wanting another human being, because the hunger can never be fulfilled. Love, if that’s the term that applies here, is like a question without an answer. That’s as true of Heathcliff or Lolita as it is of Mitko, and Garth Greenwell knows this very well. Although he uses words with precision and care, taking pains to describe small details, they can never pin down the longing that burns at the center of the story; instead, they outline its shape by filling in everything around it.
Stylistically, Greenwell owes more to Sebald than to Nabokov; his long, meditative sentences, which often veer aside into a seemingly unrelated observations, are powered by reflection rather than feeling. One of the great pleasures of his prose is how profoundly thoughtful it is, even when considering physical needs and passions. This is emotion recollected in tranquillity, or rather in melancholy. There is an almost visceral disjuncture between places and actions that are grubby, even squalid, and the delicacy of the lens through which they’re seen. Yet the effect, paradoxically, is one of almost pure emotion, though I wouldn’t care to put a name to it.
There will be speculation about whether Greenwell is writing directly from his own experience. He and his narrator seem to share a common biography, but that could be a game. Less playful is the note of candor and sincerity, which is hard to fake. “I’ve never been good at concealing anything,” the narrator says, “the whole bent of my nature is toward confession.” Well, yes—but also no. He certainly doesn’t shy away from describing all kinds of bodily functions and failings, only some of them sexual. Nor is he afraid of looking at emotional distress, his own included. But at the same time there is a very definite edge to the map, past which the narrator won’t tell us anything, not even his name. What’s odd is that he’s forthcoming about what most people would instinctively conceal and reticent about obvious information that can usually be taken for granted. This duality is beautifully judged; we’re being told the truth, but not the whole truth, just that part of it worth knowing.
Without all the normal markers, the narrator becomes not a character in the usual sense, but a voice. It’s this pensive voice—free-floating, refined, and with its lack of anchor or explanation—that is the biggest (though quietest) achievement of the novel. It’s a voice of the mind, remembering and contemplating and examining its own compulsions. At the same time, Greenwell is very good at conjuring the physical world, in all its beauty and decay. He’s especially deft at little snapshots of urban Bulgaria, often gritty and bleak, but he registers it on an aesthetic level, not historically or politically. The real landscape is internal.
For obvious reasons, a voice like this is very much alone. The sense of solitude and isolation is overpowering, all the more so when the narrator tries to break free. The constant translation of Bulgarian words that pepper the text only serves to reinforce—sometimes to slightly comic effect—that he’s a stranger in a strange land. But of course it’s with Mitko that he most wants to connect, and their painful dance becomes emblematic of something much larger. This is a world in which nothing and nobody really fits together, and people are always reaching for each other over small but impossible distances. What belongs to you? The answer: Probably nothing.
If this sounds depressing, the desolation is frequently offset by little sunlit moments where nature, or human nature, shine through. Children and childhood have a special place, like a state of grace before things go awry. But perhaps the biggest consolation is, once again, in language. The world might be ugly, but the words that describe it are beautiful. “Making poems was a way of loving things,” the narrator says, “of preserving them, of living moments twice; or more than that, it was a way of living more fully, of bestowing on experience a richer meaning.” There is some redemption in that.