The advance praise for What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the debut novel by Garth Greenwell, has been superlative to say the least. The handsome, nearly 200-page hardcover boasts blurbs from Edmund White and Hanya Yanagihara, among others, and early rave reviews have appeared in Interview and Booklist, in addition to starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, which hailed the book as “the first great novel of 2016.”
Greenwell’s elegant, meticulously crafted prose certainly merits such endorsements, and for its probing, unusually candid inquiry into gay desire, his book seems poised to be received not just as the first great novel of 2016, but the next great gay novel — a somewhat fraught designation that Greenwell has himself considered in his review of Yanagihara’s A Little Life for The Atlantic. There, Greenwell defines the category in passing as “a big, ambitious novel about gay life in America today,” and goes on to argue for A Little Life’s qualification. Funnily enough, however, it’s his own novel, spare and set abroad though it may be, that offers us the most exacting and visionary reading in contemporary literature of what it means to be gay in America today.
Of the many favorable comparisons What Belongs to You is sure to invite, none seems quite so apt — or useful in understanding just what it is that makes it a great gay novel — as its parallels to James Baldwin’s 1956 classic Giovanni’s Room. Both books take place in a European city (Sofia, Bulgaria, and Paris, France, respectively) and center on an ill-fated gay love affair between an American expatriate narrator and a titular, foreign man. Both Greenwell’s Mitko (who gives the novel’s first section its name) and Baldwin’s Giovanni exemplify and are othered by a working-class masculinity, in addition to being tragically beautiful. And like their protagonist counterparts, both love objects have also left behind their home cities, though, Mitko, meaningfully, has not escaped his native Bulgaria or the effects of its depressed economy, and, unlike Giovanni, is identified as a sex-worker upon his introduction. (Greenwell is a writer of such subtle clarity, however, he never need name him explicitly or euphemistically as such. Many reviewers, unfortunately, have not been as careful in their treatment of Mitko, a complex and lovingly rendered character whom Greenwell goes to great pains not to reduce to the role of predator.)
In many ways, What Belongs to You inverts the terms of Giovanni’s Room: where in Baldwin, Paris is the only place where the expatriate is able to experience some semblance of sexual freedom, ultimately compromised by the impossibility thereof elsewhere, in Greenwell, Sofia mirrors the recalled Southern city of the narrator’s aspirationally middle-class childhood, a last outpost of a conservative worldview in which gay happiness cannot be imagined.
The action of both books is, for the most part, recalled — though retrospection and introspection might be even more central to What Belongs to You, in which everything that happens is explicitly filtered through the mind and/or memory of our unnamed narrator. The main character, like Greenwell himself, is a thinking writer and a poet, which informs his language and his approach to art-making. During his first encounter with Mitko, in which he pays Mitko for his performance, so to speak, he muses:
But then 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.
The novel is bursting with such observations, as quotable as they are uncanny in the precision with which they reveal the transactional, often confounding nature of desires — and what determines them. Two sections that chronicle the narrator’s relationship with Mitko bookend a single-paragraph, 42-page second section of astonishing urgency, scope, and skill, in which the narrator, out on a long walk, re-enacts the joys and traumas of his childhood in order to consider his father’s legacy and imminent death.
Its place in the larger narrative of our protagonist, as he’s teaching English at the American College and looking for love in all the ostensibly wrong places, functions much like David’s recollection of his first lover, Joey, from his school days, in Giovanni’s Room — as an origin point. Once again, however, the terms of the two books are inverted: while it is an ashamed David who puts an end to his relationship with Joey, it is Greenwell’s narrator who is essentially abandoned by his best friend and first love K. after they spend an evening in an intimate (but chaste) embrace. Later, the desire between the two boys is triangulated between K.’s first girlfriend, for whom the narrator becomes both watchman and voyeur:
He knew I was watching and he let me watch. It was like a parting gift, I thought as I kept watching his face and the movements it made, it looked almost as if he were in pain. I was in pain too, and almost without thinking I let my hand drop between my legs and gripped myself hard. 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; sometimes I think it’s the only thing I’ve sought.
The indefatigable desire realized in K.’s room, and its repetition in the form of Mitko, also recalls David’s description of Giovanni’s: “It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room.”
For the narrator of What Belongs to You, K.’s rejection is also already something of an echo — of an experience with his father when he “must have been nine or ten” in which he unknowingly transgresses the boundaries of filial affection and which signals “the end of care:”
…his look entered me and settled there and has never left, it rooted beneath memory and became my understanding of myself, my understanding and expectation.
There’s nothing particularly revelatory in the idea that our relationships with our parents and early attempts at intimacy shape what we seek in our romantic pursuits as adults — the credit goes to Sigmund Freud there — but the remarkable intervention Greenwell makes in What Belongs to You, as Baldwin did in Giovanni’s Room, is that for gay men, the sociocultural trauma of sexual difference is just as integral an etiological force, and one that informs both our relationships with our parents and our adolescent fumblings. Neither What Belongs to You nor Giovanni’s Room is a coming-of-age novel, quite, but both deal with the consequences of having come-of-age gay in a particular time and place.
That the two novels differ substantially should be obvious on the basis of their differing authors and publication dates alone, but both are great gay novels, and, I think, achieve that success according to a similar mechanism. Just as Giovanni’s Room was the novel that best expressed the precarious and shifting social position of American gay men in the mid-20th century, so What Belongs to You offers us an almost uncomfortably clear articulation of our own time.
Published 60 years prior, in a time when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness and the prospect of same-sex marriage must have seemed laughable, Giovanni’s Room is, accordingly, a sadder book. This isn’t to minimize what a sad book What Belongs to You is, however (if you are, like me, a crier, you’ve been forewarned). Its story and title invite us to consider what does belong to us, whether we share the relative social privilege of its narrator or, like the doomed Mitko (or Giovanni, or even David), are trapped in an environment in which it seems impossible to follow our desires to their fulfillment. What belongs to us, Greenwell opines, is what we inherit — from our lovers, our families, and our cultures. What Belongs to You commits itself to revealing how our desires are forged in our early moments of rejection, frustration, and punishment, how even as we grow up and into lives in which we might be free to pursue our desires in whatever form they take, we are never truly free. We do not shape our desires so much as they shape us.
In a sense, the novel’s first sentence is a synecdoche of the whole, in which Mitko’s betrayal is a stand-in for the much larger betrayal of a world that teaches us to be ashamed of our attractions:
That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should have in turn made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely.
But finally, the response this book offers to the question of what belongs to us, if it is not quite joyful, is hopeful — and key to understanding what makes it the great gay novel of today. Greenwell’s narrator does ultimately find a healthy, reciprocal love in the form of a long distance relationship. And the role that Skype plays in that relationship is not incidental. Though the narrator first meets Mitko in an old-world cruising spot, the new possibilities for gay connection that technology has created are central to this book, as reflected in Mitko’s fascination with electronics he cannot afford, and both his and the narrator’s use of gay chatrooms as a means to mitigate loneliness (and for Mitko, to arrange his appointments).
We live in a time of a great transition, in which, for the fortunate, the experience of being gay does indeed get better. But the very construction of “it gets better” depends on the fact of it once having been worse, and it is this difficult passage between rejection and acceptance (from others and of the self) that characterizes gay identity in What Belongs to You. In his narrator, Greenwell has created a character who, somewhat counterintuitively, functions as an archetype of the gay experience today: moving from shame and secrecy toward liberation, even as liberation remains difficult to realize. Despite the vivid specificity of the narrator’s biographical details (which, it’s worth mentioning, bear a striking resemblance to Greenwell’s own life), his narrator, meaningfully nameless, remains capacious. If it would be a stretch to call him a universal character (this reviewer is also a gay poet, after all), it is important to recognize the ways in which the arc of his life epitomizes a certain moment in American culture: he’s a child of upwardly mobile middle-class parents, of divorce (and therefore also of the death of the nuclear family), and of the legacy of domestic violence, caught in a cultural moment of changing mores and moral panic, when the mainstreaming of psychotherapy spelled for a larger reckoning with family secrets, and when being gay was still mostly associated with AIDS and pedophilia.
Though he must recognize the enduring consequences of this legacy, that Greenwell’s narrator succeeds in imagining — and then making — a life in which he is not condemned by his desires is no small change in the history of gay literature. It heartens me to think that in 100 years, a young gay reader may no longer recognize the experience in this book as his own, as I don’t quite recognize mine in Giovanni’s Room. Greenwell’s masterful first novel suggests that in addition to all the pain we inherit, something else might belong to us too: something of our choosing — in another room, another country, another future — at the end of the street, just out of sight.