Garth Greenwell’s beautiful debut novel, What Belongs to You, opens on a minor betrayal.
Our narrator, an unnamed American teacher, descends into the subterranean bathroom beneath the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria—a well-known gay cruising spot. He pays fifty stotinki to an old woman attending the facilities and slips inside, amid low voices rising from from behind stall doors. One voice stands out, loud and confident over the murmuring. It belongs to a young hustler, Mitko B. Our narrator and Mitko draw up their first invisible contract, one that Mitko breaks almost immediately, ending their exchange before the narrator receives what he has paid for.
The ensuing relationship between these men will form the heart of the novel, raising questions of performance and authenticity, of love and objectification, of what we owe to our lovers and loved ones, and of what we can and cannot possess.
The plot covers the full course of the affair, with frequent gestures toward the future and dips into the past. At just about 200 pages, What Belongs to You feels at once expansive and instantaneous, and its lyrical use of time is one of its most striking and immersive elements. In any given section, every moment of the book is present.
Take the first scene, the meeting in the bathroom. The whole relationship between Mitko and the narrator is contained there: an offering, a refusal, an overwhelming excitement, an implicit threat of violence, two histories moving bodily against each other.
His smile widened when he realized I was a foreigner, revealing a chipped front tooth, the jagged seam of which (I would learn) he worried obsessively with his index finger in his moment of abstraction.
Their future intimacy is invoked by the parenthetical, and when, forty pages on, we learn how Mitko broke his tooth, this first meeting is called forward. The multiplicity of the moment is built into the prose again and again.
Of the novel’s three sections, the first and third are primarily concerned with the fictions and truths of the narrator’s evolving relationship with Mitko. The narrator is driven by bald physicality—an overwhelming desire for Mitko’s body—but from the beginning the relationship is charged with nuance. Their connection is a performance of pleasure and intimacy, and, as the narrator often reminds us, ever transactional. But it also holds something of the true and the tender. Late in the book, when Mitko says, “You are a real friend,” we believe him. We believe him even as the narrator revises the sentiment, and even as Mitko hurtles toward another betrayal.
But in the book’s second section our narrator seems truly bared, as if his ribs had been taken in two hands and cracked open. It begins with the reception of grave family news, delivered on a “single, unfolded page,” while he stands before his high school students. In 40 pages reminiscent of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, the narrator takes a walk between graffiti-covered blokove, across sticky puddles of rotten fruit, past a stray dog that nudges his hand, through ankle-deep mud. All the while, old memories bubble up scenically, including a recent visit by his two younger half-sisters, the dissolution of intimacy between father and son, and a first attempt at connection with a young boy.
We come to see that these experiences, which the narrator says he has not recalled in years, have shaped his perceptions from the novel’s first pages—that they have been present in his every move: in his recognition, beneath the National Palace of Culture, that Mitko’s exaggerated courtesy could shift instantly to exaggerated rage; in the intense noticing of a father holding a child as she peers safely over rushing water; in the sexual quest for what the narrator calls the “combination of exclusion and desire,” which, he tells us, may be “the only thing I’ve ever sought.” Rather than offering answers, the layering of memories raises more questions, deepening each scene.
What Belongs to You fits alongside those novels that push against the border between fiction and nonfiction, with the authors’ aesthetic choices suggesting an ambition to draw authority from the real. The externally verifiable facts of our narrator’s life—his southern upbringing, his poetry background, and his teaching post at a prestigious Bulgarian high school—match Greenwell’s own biography. Every character except Mitko is unnamed, identified by initial only. With its essaying, its external world mediated through an incisive eye, and its privileging of interior experience, the novel recalls works like Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and Teju Cole’s Open City; and, of course, it descends stylistically from Sebald.
This is very much a book of our world and of our time. We recognize Mitko’s infatuation with cell phones and laptops, the power of an old photograph on a gay hook-up site, the necessity of blocking someone on social media in order to break a bond. In a particularly powerful moment, Mitko sits in our narrator’s apartment, chatting over Skype with another man, and tilts the screen toward our narrator, so that the two men can “meet.” It’s an artful exposure of the connective and isolating forces of technologies in our relationships.
Greenwell has MFAs in both poetry and fiction—some readers will know him for his poetry first—and, while reading What Belongs to You, one has the sense that its writer could only be a poet. There is a gentle patience in his descriptions of a fly caught on a city bus and of a weak horse nibbling at sparse grass, chained to a cart. The narrator’s inwardness is conveyed in sentences that seem to revise themselves as they unfold, capturing the sounds of the narrator’s mind. This is characteristic of Greenwell’s prose, including his stories “Gospodar” in the Paris Review, and “Mentor” in A Public Space. What Belongs to You declares its poetry from its first sentence:
That my very first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely.
In 2011, Greenwell told the Rumpus that he didn’t turn from writing poetry to fiction until moving to Bulgaria, and a traveler’s sensibility is present here throughout. The narrator’s displacement as an American in Bulgaria serves to push him further inward, and the novel is interested in language and translation, attentive to the specific words chosen when another would have functioned, and to the insufficiency of words in our narrator’s rawest moments. There is a messiness or brutality in the language itself that mirrors the messiness or brutality of interaction. Often in moments of vulnerability, the narrator tells us about language: the translations of words Mitko uses while speaking with another man over Skype, the words chosen by a nurse delivering STI results, the narrator’s efforts to communicate to Mitko that he is in a new relationship, a slur wielded by Mitko to inflict pain. By doing so, the narrator simultaneously bores deeper into these moments and pivots slightly from the heat of them.
In one of the novel’s loveliest sections, the narrator laments his inability to say a proper goodbye to a very young boy he has met on a train, whose gestures remind him of Mitko’s. In watching the boy charm other passengers, in observing his cleverness and ease in the world, the narrator feels a great yearning hope for the boy’s future, and a fear that his bright potential will be stamped out as Mitko’s has been. The narrator tells us that he’ll always remember this boy—he will write a poem about him. But, no, he revises: he will not always remember the boy. He will always remember the use he has made of him. The reality of the poem will supplant the reality of the boy: the external experience will become the inner experience. The gap left by the boy will be filled with poetry. He gives the boy a peppermint candy as a parting gift.
What is this novel, if not poetry filling the gap that Mitko has left in the narrator’s life? The book is a document of our narrator’s spiraling sense-making of his relationship with Mitko, of his efforts to situate Mitko amid elements of his life, his questioning of whether it is possible, truly, to ever recall a real moment, a real person. What do we carry with us, from the ones we have loved, beyond the use we have made of them?
What Belongs to You is a haunting, gorgeous, and fierce debut, capturing desire in every sentence—holding the space of what we long for and what can never truly be ours.