In a 2016 interview with The Paris Review Daily, Garth Greenwell reveals that for him writing about sex is “a place where the physical and the metaphysical are really close to each other.” Sex is a liminal space, and What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell’s first novel, is at its best when it explores the longing and exuberance the narrator experiences in that space.
The first section finds the unnamed narrator reflecting on his introduction to Mitko, a Bulgarian sex worker, in a public bathroom. The reflection demonstrates a nuanced self-awareness of the ephemeral pleasures of desire—he muses, “always, we desire too much or not enough.” The narrator often returns to the dynamic energies of eros, with his fretful meditations as he observes himself moving toward or away from glimpses of pleasure.
As the complicated relationship between the narrator and Mitko progresses, we become more aware of the narrator’s position as an American teaching English abroad, living in a “nice two-bedroom provided by [his] school.” His socioeconomic status throws Mitko’s poverty into obvious relief, yet the narrator dismisses Mitko’s awareness of his status with a light-hearted comment—“of course he would think [all Americans have money], having seen my laptop computer, my cell phone, my iPod.” His observation gives him permission to jest about his status at Mitko’s expense and then promptly ignore the larger implications of the different worlds the two men inhabit.
The implications here show Greenwell losing some control of the relationship between the characters and the novel’s context and setting—a relationship that noticeably frays in the third section. After an extended absence from his life, Mitko persuades the narrator to get tested for syphilis, leaving the American bewildered, and tasked with navigating a foreign medical bureaucracy. In a tense scene where the narrator learns he does indeed have syphilis, his reaction to his situation is revealing. After the doctor dares suggest that the narrator may have contracted syphilis before he arrived in Bulgaria, the narrator counters by claiming the infection is a “souvenir of your beautiful country.”
What makes the exchange unfortunate—and emblematic of the vulnerabilities in this novel—is that Greenwell does not allow the narrator a full awareness of how unfair and petulant such a comment is, even for a person reacting to a recent diagnosis. It is a scene brimming with messy anxieties about his health in the wake of his encounters with Mitko. Surrounded by strangers, the narrator must calm himself down in the corridor of a clinic—and Greenwell captures his reflection movingly: “I didn’t understand the bitterness with which I had spoken, bitterness not just toward the woman but toward the place, this country I had chosen; I hadn’t known I felt it, and I wondered how deep it went.”
Despite this initial awareness, Greenwell misses an opportunity to explore the social implications of his narrator’s position as an affluent American living in a foreign country. The narrator’s willingness to assign himself the status of a tourist (with all of the psychic distance that implies) disrupts our budding empathy for him at a moment when Greenwell closes in on his alienation and mental turmoil.
Indeed, the narrator’s infrequent, yet assertive, comments on Bulgaria feel underdeveloped, especially compared to his careful studies of desire. In one of the final scenes, the narrator finds himself fascinated by the young energy of a passenger sitting in the same train cabin—an energy that reminds him of Mitko. The association, however, quickly turns grim as he worries “now that I saw Mitko in the boy, any future I could imagine for him gave me something to grieve.” In his grief, he parallels the well-being of his former lover with that of an entire country, justifying his pessimism about the prospects for both because he knows Bulgaria is a country “where there is no future.” It is a symbolic gesture meant to outline the somber tragedy of the book’s events. Instead, the narrator’s presumptuous perspective supplants the scene’s emotional dimension. Greenwell tries to have it both ways—he wants the (American) reader to feel sympathy for this culturally and linguistically isolated American living abroad while also giving the narrator space to critique his host country without having to reflect on the privilege that has allowed him to live comfortably—a maid visits his apartment every week— in another country for several years. Bulgaria never materializes as a necessary component of the novel. Instead, it acts as a convenient, implicit marker of the narrator’s privilege, which has very real consequences for the desire the narrator feels for Mitko.
Later on in his interview with The Paris Review Daily, Greenwell offers a revealing generalization: “for queer people I think the experience of desire is, from the start, the experience of exclusion.” I read What Belongs to You as an evocative meditation on homosexual desire, and a missed opportunity to discuss how privilege can coexist with such experiences of exclusion for a white, gay American. With a contemplative narrator, Greenwell celebrates the human fascination with the fickle nature of what it means to desire another person—but he fails to acknowledge the context of the world in which this desire exists. I look forward to reading more of Greenwell’s work, especially if he can offer intersectional investigations into his characters’ identities beyond and through their sexual desire.