‘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’ (34)
I first heard about Garth Greenwell and his new novel, What Belongs to You, via a pre-release review in a U.S. newspaper back last winter. The review was almost hyperbolic in its breathless praise for the book, which piqued my interest, only to find it wasn’t yet available in the U.K. But I had one of those experiences where once you’ve heard of someone o
nce, they crop up continually. Garth Greenwell and this beautiful bookcover suddenly seemed to be everywhere. It was covered in the Guardian, London Review of Books, and the New York Times, and discussed by queer theory enthusiasts at Queen Mary (so basically me, to several undergraduates trying to politely ignore me). As I told more and more friends about this new gay novel apparently making waves across the Atlantic, I thought I should probably get my hands on a copy to check it out for myself. As I framed it to Garth’s publicist, it might be interesting to think about the work in academic terms. And reader, it is.
The book opens with a cruising scene in a public toilet in Sofia, Bulgaria. The narrator almost immediately introduces the reader to Mitko: part-hustler, part-crook, all enigma. The (male) narrator’s desire for Mitko is palpable, and their journey, which reads at time like more of a struggle, proceeds through uneasy exchanges of sex for money over several months. This in turn leads to a deeper attachment – seemingly for both characters – trying in their own ways to understand the terms of the relationship. Don’t be fooled by the sex: far from being disinhibited or sexy, the narrative cleverly constricts into a melancholy and at times almost painful reflection on everything from family to memory, and from identity in the present to ideas of home in the past. Still, the sex remains important, because it is how the narrator (who may or may not touch on autobiography; I couldn’t ultimately decide) and Mitko battle for symbolic status against each other.
Yet for a novel set in 2012 (or at least it is if the earthquake Greenwell describes refers to the Pernick earthquake), locative (i.e. mobile) dating and hook-up apps such as Grindr are almost totally absent, despite regular instances of online encounter in the novel. There are, however, frequent references to the economic and social value of mobile phones in a country where most of the population is institutionally poor. Meanwhile, the digital interfaces of desktop-based male networking sites are one of the couple’s main contentions. Mitko frequently prioritises his online life and related attachments above his embodied prescence in the narrator’s real home. Greenwell has a real eye for detail – we readers have no trouble hearing the ‘chime’ noise of a new Skype conversation from across the room, which stops Mitko from attending to the couple’s precious shared time. But Greenwell doesn’t let his protagonist off the hook either. This is someone self-aware enough to admit that the persona he inhabits online is subjective and fluid, mediated by the context in which he wants to appear:
‘It’s one of the things I crave in the sites I use, that I can carry on these multiple conversations, each its own window so that sometimes my screen is filled with them; and in each I have the sense of being entirely false and entirely true, like a self in a story suppose, or the self I inhabit when I teach, the self of authority and example.’ (70)
Thus Greenwell defines perfectly the double-bind of technology. These virtual realities allow the user to be whomever they want to be; but in such a freeing space without physical constraint, how can anyone ever be sure that those with whom they communicate with are not themselves also constructing imagined identities? What is at stake when we can be truly ourselves – or, indeed, truly unlike ourselves – online? For a technology ostensibly designed to speed up people-matching, little time seems to be saved. Greenwell is refreshingly alert to some of the issues at stake here; I only wish there was more fiction writing in press right now cohering around these technological debates.
Greenwell also has a flair for describing place, and this works very effectively throughout the narrative as an anchor for the reader. I know nothing whatsoever about Sofia, Plovdiv, or Bulgaria more widely, and yet it felt like familiar territory seen through Greenwell’s eyes. This was particularly the case in what almost read like a standalone scene late in the novel, set on a train (fear not for spoilers: I’ll keep them to myself). The protagonist manages to dovetail an account of a playing child on a train with a sort of ode to Bulgarian scenery, mixed with reflection on the passing of time, and – if that weren’t enough – thoughts on mother-child relationships. It makes for a very tender, bittersweet passage, and now, a week on, I still remember it as my favourite part of the whole book.
Elsewhere, What Belongs to You remind
ed me of Alan Hollinghurst’s fiction, not least because of its strong geographical context. But whereas Hollinghurst had an easy sell in terms of fleshing out his protagonist’s spatial context via a familiar London – split between the rich, establishment city and the counter-cultural cruising scene (most memorably in The Swimming Pool Library), few readers of What Belongs to You will have even a rudimentary knowledge of the novel’s Bulgarian setting. It is only by looking back at Hollinghurst’s catalogue that I see how easily British readers can frame Hollinghurst’s stories, even those less familiar with London, because the action is so embedded in the landmarks, streets and parks that have long been a part of our cultural capital. Greenwell has none of these cues for anyone unfamiliar with Bulgaria, and his novel is all the more interesting for it. I got a clear sense of this Balkan city. In Greenwell’s prose it reads as a place wounded by its Soviet past, particularly in architectural terms; yet nor is it fully fledged in a Western Capitalist context. Greenwell’s description of the coastal Black Sea resort of Varna in winter is fascinating – this is a country where tourism is new and cruelly seasonal, and it is almost natural that the geographical surroundings reflect the narrator’s mournful progress.
If only someone else hadn’t bagsied The Sense of An Ending already, Greenwell might have put the moniker to good use. This is a novel all about change and changing, beginnings and endings. Despite the big themes, this is a slim book, and the narrative lacks at times full exploration of its different subplots. For example we learn tantalizingly little about the Sofian American school, despite it surely providing rich pickings for character and story. Who are the expats of Bulgaria? Why did they choose Sofia, and for how long have they lived there? Yet this minimalism leaves us wanting more – an approach that many of Greenwell’s contemporaries would do well to observe. Taken as a whole, this is an impressive, poetic new chapter in the queer canon, and it fully deserves the praise it is receiving.