- Review: What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell (Picador, 2016)
My interest piqued when I saw Garth Greenwell retweet “Call Me By Your Name in the streets, What Belongs To You in the sheets.” I loved CMBYN when I read it earlier in the year, noting its bisexual characters. I picked it up after my friend Claire Biddles named it as her favourite book. I still haven’t seen the cinema version, but for once, the tie-in book release wasn’t the ugliest cover I’ve ever seen. (For what it’s worth, I vastly prefer the hardback version of What Belongs To You, with its high rise windows, to the paperback with a face on it which looks like a thriller.)
Greenwell appeared at Edinburgh book fest alongside Eimear McBride this year (2017), who I’ll always buy a ticket to hear speak. He described his preference for writing on grubby scraps of paper, which could be mistaken for trash, and the media circus when the book was released in Bulgaria, where it is set. The launch took place in Bulgaria’s National Palace of Culture, which is where the book opens with a memorable scene of sex traded for money in a basement toilet stall. (The launch was upstairs.) In an interview with the Guardian, Greenwell discusses his decision to write of cruising spots. “These are places that are treated very dismissively, and very disdainfully, and they’re places of such human richness, and places that humans have human encounters. Of all kinds!” This is in the spirit of the artist and writer David Wojnarowicz, who wrote poetically and vividly in his memoir Close to the Knives of the beauty and intimacy, and occasionally fear, of the cruising within spaces such as abandoned airport hangers on NYC’s Hudson River, and the other lives he touched, briefly or otherwise.
It is true that Greenwell’s book is much darker than Andre Aciman’s. The sex is not so sun dappled, and there are no beautiful young bodies soaking up wine and art, although both feature hidden spaces and vulnerabilities, and a magnetic draw towards another man. Just as in Call Me By Your Name, the setting plays a key role in shaping how the characters interact. Locations and their nuances are key to where these gay characters can interact safely and with privacy away from the eyes of others. But instead of a summer in an Italian villa, with swimming and trips to the old town, What Belongs to You has more opportunities for miscommunication between the American teacher and the Bulgarian man he is drawn to, both verbally, physically, and culturally.
In this Bulgarian town, navigation is not by postal address but by proximity to the towers which loom over streets. The narrator invites Mitko, the young transient man he is paying for sex, to his home. He notices Mitko has been to the area before; he is uncertain, unhelped by vague responses to questions, whether it was to stay with a friend or to meet another client for sex. “You are my friend,” Mitko says, at various points throughout the novel. But with the language barrier and the narrator’s gradual adoption of colloquial terms and cultural context, it is uncertain what, exactly, is meant by friend. Mitko seems uncertain or at least vague in what constitutes a friend too. He appears with new shoes, given to him by a friend. He has been let down by others, who were not true friends like you, he says, when asking for money for transport and other necessities. The question remains throughout, whether Mitko, like the narrator, is seeking an intimacy beyond their sex for money arrangement, and whether he endures the sex or enjoys it. Is his ability to turn threateningly hostile a way of protecting himself from hurt? Later another question mark hovers over whether Mitko enjoyed the temporary work he picked up of intimidating debtors, which ended with a spell in prison.
A friend of of the narrator’s comes to dinner early in the book. Mitko likes him, but they do not share a language, and so he communicates by small touches. The narrator is acutely aware although not seductive, these touches could could turn so. He is jealous, and tired of translating. The two shut out the visiting friend to continue a conversion alone. It sours, as tensions come to a head. Between the three men at the table, the communication barriers are multifold.
At another point, Mitko shows the narrator photographs of himself on a website, from a time when his appearance was more wholesome. The two happy young men pictured embracing, existing only in onscreen and from a different time, with their clean clothes and clean hair could have fit into the world of Call Me By Your Name. The pictures of a younger Mitko show he has changed greatly. The narrator, concerned for him, still breaths deeply of his scent beneath the torn clothes he wears, doubtlessly sexually intrigued by his streetwise vibe. This is, in part, the local fashion. “He was tall, thin but broad-shouldered, with the close cropped military cut of hair popular among certain young men in Sofia, who affect a hyper masculine style and an air of criminality.” It’s also circumstance. Poverty abounds. The narrator describes, later in the book, how the youth he teaches are pessimistic about their opportunities beyond study. He touches little on this, as though it pains him to think about it but in an extended section engaging with a little boy on a train who is travelling with a grandmother, dwells on what Mitko might have become had his early life been different. In a moment of emotion upon leaving the train, he gives the boy a wrapped sweet from America. There is a paternal concern and duty lingering subtly in this relationship between an older and younger man, although despite the power imbalance this may suggest, the vulnerabilities of both are at risk from each other. The narrator is most interesting when examining his own sore points: ineffectiveness in helping Mitko as well as the young men he teaches English to in the face of circumstances and fate beyond his control. A nerve is struck when a frustrating trip to the doctor draws spite towards the adopted country he has chosen to settle in. A disease becomes a souvenir from “your beautiful country.” Later, he is shamed by the doctor’s kindness.
I found myself thinking that a character like Mitko, belonging to an underclass, is relatively rare to read about in modern literature, but has some parallels with street urchins of Dickens or Dostoyevsky. In one scene, the narrator watches from a window as a tattered Mitko is shunned by a family he stops to chat to on the street, who bustle themselves together into a building, away from his scruffy appearance. But to what extent is the narrator pinning Mitko’s tendency to manipulate him for money, and at times to turn violent, on his circumstances? An emotional distance lingers, as the characters pull together and apart, the narrator unable to resist the lure of Mitko’s erotic magnetism even when frightened by his volatility and permanently on guard against theft of his possessions, and Mitko in need of money but few sources to tap. In one scene Mitko stands enthralled by a window of mobile phones and other devices, his face lit up as he reels off their specifications. He has a reverence for technology, and cleans the narrator’s keyboard with careful hands. If only there was a job for him in this arena. He uses the narrator’s computer to log into Skype and dating websites, to chat to friends and men like the narrator, who appear in small distant boxes. He does not have his own computer, and takes the chance to plug in when he has it, which in this instance is by putting off a sexual encounter, or bounding back to the screen immediately after it. In front of the narrator, he agrees to meet a similarly older man, a different ‘friend,’ who promises the gift of a phone.
In the end, he never steals anything. He grows ill and even less financially stable. It is uncertain where he sleeps at night. At one point, when offered the money he returns to ask for with increasingly overt manipulations, he takes it, and repays it with sex, leaving the strawberry milkshake he has tasted for the first time with glee to surprise the narrator in the bathroom of a McDonalds, grinding into him from behind. Despite the gifts he claims are from friends, Mitko seems hesitant to accept the vulnerability, and intimacy, of truly accepting a gift without repaying it with the only resource he has to offer.
Like many first novels (Greenwell previously published a novella), What Belongs To You has a tendency to over-describe. Sections are given over to ruminations which are a little too poised and philosophical for the thoughts of a man taking a walk, and backstory explains distance from family but feels a little distracting from the main relationship with Mitko. Some tropes are repeated (the notion of seeing someone’s ‘true face,’ when an expression turns ugly or spiteful, and wondering which version best represents them was interesting the first time). There is an ending predicated by circumstances which are a little too convenient.
But on the whole, the questions underpinning the book are not neatly answered, and that is to its strengths. The narrator cannot find an emotional foothold in the country he has adopted, and Mitko cannot find a financial one. Sex only temporarily bridges the gap. This is a book capturing uncomfortable emotions in uneasy atmospheres and a narrator still finding footing in his surroundings. Is it possible to intervene in the tragic trajectory of a life, especially one lived in circumstances of poverty? Is true intimacy possible in a sex for money arrangement? What does it mean to be a friend? Why did I come here? Why am I drawn so inexplicably again and again to the skin and touch of this man?