On Garth Greenwell’s ‘What Belongs to You’
Greenwell’s novel draws us into its world of shame and desire, love and invasion, and witnessing as a form of caring.
8” x 5.5”
First Picador Edition
New York, New York, USA
In the last fifty or so pages of Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, the narrator, an unnamed American teacher living in Bulgaria, takes a long, crowded bus ride through the capital of Sofia to receive medical care for a venereal disease. He notices a fly on the window and a man threatening to squash it with his bulk at any moment. The narrator becomes heavily invested in the fly’s survival, a life that is suddenly dear to him:
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?
This idea of looking as care radiates throughout the novel. Looking at a thing long enough, as he says, can be a radical act of both love and invasion, the way we worm ourselves into people and places we may not belong, and that may not, as the title suggests, belong to us in turn.
The novel’s opening sees the teacher, who remains unnamed throughout, paying for sex in a public bathroom. From the beginning, Greenwell takes what might be familiar tropes (the shame and secrecy of homosexuality, the futility of translation abroad, the impossibility of knowing strangers) and deepens them by finding symbols everywhere, and in everything. In one sense the novel is a list of echoes, pulled together by the narrator’s watchful, introspective eye. His consort, Mitko, immediately looms large in his life and in the novel, even though he is absent from both for large swaths of time. Speaking in rambling, spiraling first-person, the narrator weaves together symbols of decay and care, love and looking, strangeness and familiarity in both his relationship with Mitko and life in his adopted country of Bulgaria.
No history lesson of the Balkan states here; instead, the narrator describes the trees in their spring bloom, the city center and its stinking river, the winding walkway to the Black Sea lined with boarded-up hotels all in luxurious, thoughtful detail. Everywhere is the sense of absence. The summertime tourist crowds are gone during the cooler months, and economic boom times are long past. In one scene he watches a little girl and her father play, and meditates on the way that parents and very young children seem to fully possess each other, gestures of love and care so deeply embodied and that someday, like everything else in Bulgaria, would be gone:
And so it is, I thought then, as the man and his child released each other and moved away from the water, 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 middle section of the novel, prompted by the unexpected death of his estranged father, temporarily takes us out of Bulgaria and into the narrator’s childhood as a quiet, gay kid growing up in Kentucky. Though Bulgaria and Mitko don’t make many appearances in this section, these pages truly unite the novel, bringing into sharp focus the narrator’s life and yen even as we lack concrete details about him. He tells the story of his first love, with another young man named only K., who eventually pushes him out of his life just like his father does later. He links these circumstances, the stifling of desire and withholding of pleasure and love, to the development of a sexuality that he believes to be inherently performative and manipulated:
I’ve sought it ever since, I think, the combination of exclusion and desire I felt in his room, beneath the pain of exclusion the satisfaction of desire; sometimes I think it’s the only thing I’ve sought.
We track time by the ease with which the narrator is able to converse with Mitko, how much they are and are not able to say to each other. When Mitko returns after a two year absence to break the news that he has contracted syphilis, the narrator invites him into the house where, as he says:
[…] nothing had changed, the bare table was still by the window, the shabby sofa along the wall, with a street map of Sofia pinned above it.
But fluency remains just out of reach, both because Bulgarian is a complex, arcane language (even Mitko can’t read Cyrillic and instead relies on chatroom transliterations of his native tongue) and because the nature of their relationship dictates that so much remains unsaid, lest some kind of magic be ruined. The narrator is aware of this, and often meditates on the self-consciousness of desire, its inherent performance, especially when Mitko keeps himself, the body the narrator so desires, just out of arm’s reach:
I fell back from him then, I lay next to him thinking, as I had had cause to think before, of how helpless desire is outside its little moment of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed, even if that welcome is contrived.
The novel is sparsely populated, the narrator surrounded by just a few friends and family. Greenwell deftly moves these figures around like constellations known only by initials: G., K., R. Mitko is the only figure with a full name referenced in the text. The writing goes on for pages without paragraph break, the sentences run on and on, comma splices, embedded clauses for days. It is a striking prose style that requires a certain sense of sinking, of trusting in the voice and its vulnerability. Mitko and Sofia weave a web of familiarity around the narrator, little insistent whispers that he is of their species, that he belongs with them. In the same way the narrator draws us into his world of shame and desire, familiarity just as exhausting as its lack.