Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

"What belongs to you" by Garth Greenwell (Picador, 2016)

A fairly young American man in Bulgaria frequents gay pick-up toilets. He becomes obsessed at first sight with Mitko. The initial pages express ambivalence and uncertainty using synonyms for "but" and "albeit" in sentence after sentence, as in the following - For all his friendliness, as we spoke he had seemed in some mysterious way to withdraw from me; the longer we avoided any erotic proposal the more finally he seemed unattainable, not so much because he was beautiful, although I found him beautiful, as for some still more forbidding quality (p.6)

He wants more than purchased sex yet he misreads signs of emotion, hopelessly gullible for one so experienced, and so literate too - "there's something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly", (p.9). All is mysterious, beautiful, astonishing. His main justification is that he has nothing to lose - no riches, reputation, security - yet he's a teacher at a prestigious school, with two-bedroomed accommodation and gadgets. Whenever he thinks Mitko is "artificial, calculated and sly", hormones take over. The suspended adolescence (leading to comical outcomes) is a conceit one needs to buy into.

He takes Mitko home. After sex, Mitko uses his host's laptop to Skype his clients/friends and arrange his week ahead. The host sits watching this happen, occasionally being introduced to a client while reading Cavafy and hoping for "the recovery of something like nobility from the mawkishness of desire" (p.28). His Bulgarian isn't good enough for him to understand all of what's happening. The gay jargon makes things harder still. Later we get one of many anecdotes about parenthood and lost innocence - "He watches a father embrace his little daughter, and imagines how that innocence will be lost - "as the man and his child released each other and moved away from the water, so it is that at that 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" (p.34)

Part 2 begins with him being informed while he's teaching that his father is mortally ill. This triggers memories and reflections while he walks. He recalls becoming sexually excited while showering with his father - which compares with the observation on p.34 quoted above, and ended their father-son bond. He found out from his half-sister that her father used the web to contact lovers. So does the narrator - "it's one of the things I crave in the sites I use, that I can carry on these multiple conversations, each in 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, I suppose, or the self I inhabit when I teach, the self of authority and example. I know they're all I have, these partial selves, true and false at once, that any ideal of wholeness I long for is a sham; but I do long for it" (p.70)

We learn that in adolescence he'd become booky. Friends said he should get in touch with K, another booky boy. They have long phonecalls. When they finally meet he thinks they might have more than books in common. I like the father-son interaction on p.82-84 where the narrator and K. are in the car driven by the narrator's father. But K. finds a girlfriend, asks the narrator to help him have sex with his girlfriend by being present in K.'s room while it happens, acting as lookout in case K.'s parents pry - "if this wasn't the intimacy we had known or that I craved it was still a kind of intimacy, which I could be part of even if it wasn't mine ... I understood that this was what he wanted me to see all along, that I was there not as guard but as audience. I was there to see how different from me he was ... He knew I was watching and let me watch. It was like a parting gift ... 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" (p.86-90).

He recalls how his father reacted when he came out and decides not to see his father again. At the end of this part of the book he finds a horse - "It wasn't tied up, I saw, it could have wandered off anytime it chose; but there was nowhere for it to go, of course" (p.102)

Mitko returns in part 3 after a 2 year gap to tell the narrator he's been in jail and has syphilis. The narrator (who has a regular boyfriend now - R., Portuguese) has mixed emotions - "I realized too late that I had used the polite form of the verb, so that my invitation at once welcomed and held him off" (p.107). They go to MacDonalds and have sex in the toilet - "I was used to feeling regret in such moments, of course, sometimes I thought it was part of my pleasure" (p.134). After tests he finds he has syphilis, so does his absent lover. Mitko asks for more money. The narrator breaks things off.

His mother visits. They find seats on a train, which leads to a typically long meditation - "My mother took my lead, dismissing any discomfort as she arranged her things, even as her discomfort was clear, not least in how she eyed the other passengers sharing the small space. My mother has always been mistrustful of strangers, a part of the timidity or fear that at times seemed to dominate her life and that I feared I had inherited, learning from her a hesitancy, a kind of suspicion or doubt of my forces that kept me, that might still keep me, from finding how far they could run. Anything foreign could her alarm, as I could see in the way she grasped her purse, even when she delighted in the newness of what she had seen. She was uneasy now, too, though any sign of it was restrained by the politeness that was an imperative almost equal to her fear" (p.159). Several pages are taken up describing the antics of a little boy. It's done well. The narrator realises that "What was charming in the child would not be charming in the man, I thought, remembering Mitko and his bewilderment at my exasperation, his disbelief at every refusal. He had been a child just like this" (p.167) ... "I knew I would write a poem about him, and then it would be the poem I remembered, which would be both true and false at once, the image I made replacing the real image" (p.170).

Mitko returns to the narrator's door after a few weeks, looking ill and drunk. Despite himself, the narrator lets Mitko in. Mitko cries, says he has a year to live. He eats, lies on the bed, leaves on his own accord. The narrator watches as he disappears down the street.

Mitko is I think the only character given a name. K. and R. are mentioned. The narrator's name isn't revealed. At one point Mitko "stopped his chant and said my name, or not my name but that syllable he used to approximate it, since my name was unpronounceable in his language" (p.177). There's much reminiscing while walking, or on a bus or train. His father's (and society's) disgust became internalised, and never quite went away. There's Proustian analysis of emotion, the main ploy being that emotions are never pure - the boy on the train is both sweet and naughty; self-humiliation can be exquisite. At first, allowing himself to be exploited was in exchange for pleasure but later it became a pleasure in itself, a deserved punishment.

Other reviews

  • Neil Bartlett (By the end of this short, intense novel it becomes clear that the collision between our hard-won new capacity for frankness and a deep-rooted sense of archaic guilt and grief is precisely Greenwell’s subject. ... In the book’s opening third ... I found it hard to believe the narrator’s implicit claims that his mutually exploitative relationship with Mitko provided any sort of model for more general workings of desire. In the second part of the book’s triptych ... The writing becomes fired by some much-needed anger, and a convincing voice begins to rise from Greenwell’s prose. ... The last sequence includes some marvellous vignettes of loving kindness between parents and children, but they are presented as something that only other people can ever have, and the final pages of the book are memorable for their bleak and desperate sadness.)
  • James Wood (In an age of the sentence fetish, Greenwell thinks and writes, as Woolf or Sebald do, in larger units of comprehension; so consummate is the pacing and control, it seems as if he understands this section to be a single long sentence. Rhythm, order, music, and lucid exposition: there is undeniably a mandarin quality to the way that Greenwell narrows the frame of his inquiry and then perfectly fills this reduced space. ... “What Belongs to You” is fairly explicitly about shame, punishment, and disgust, among other things. What is unusual is not the presence of these themes but the book’s complicated embrace of “foulness,” and a barely suppressed longing for punishment, a longing embodied in the narrator’s relationship with Mitko. Greenwell’s novel impresses for many reasons, not least of which is how perfectly it fulfills its intentions. But it gains a different power from its uneasy atmosphere of psychic instability, of confession and penitence, of difficult forces acknowledged but barely mastered and beyond the conscious control of even this gifted novelist.)
  • Jonathan McAloon (it is the book’s midsection, unconcerned with the Mitko plot, which proves we are dealing with a writer who deserves his plaudits)
  • Arifa Akbar (My discomfort, amid my awe at Greenwell's talent, is over the politics of its central relationship: that between an older, richer, expat American and a young, foreign, dispossessed rent-boy lover, who must, through these inbuilt inequalities, play the part of the Other, and never become more human for us. ... That the American narrator seems aware, and in mourning, over the "othering" of this gay "lover" (does he become the lover or is he really a rent boy until the end?) does not entirely excuse their clich├ęd dynamic.)
  • Max Liu (Erotic holding, emotional withholding and the question of who holds power in a relationship are all examined in a work which gripped me all the way to its sad and beautiful ending)
  • Jeffrey Zuckerman (The compression, made possible by poetry, is evident in the way Greenwell’s sentences effortlessly encompass multiple time frames (recollected memories are often alluded to; “I would learn” is a frequent parenthetical aside), and slide easily from immediate descriptions to larger-scale observations and considerations. Narrative time expands and contracts)

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