Garth Greenwell’s ‘What Belongs to You’ Finds Success in Extreme Self-Awareness

Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life was the surprise smash of 2015, its stark orgasmic cover unfolding into 700-plus pages of melodramatic gay heartbreak and daydream art-career success. Yanagihara filtered trauma through literary excess and so found a home with urbanites and literati who claimed that trauma and excess as their own, catapulting her book into best-seller status and landing it on many, many awards shortlists. The problem, if you can call it that, came months after the initially flurry of praise, when the book experienced a kind of backlash to that excess. And now that backlash has arrived as a novel, in the form of Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, a book about a gay love so utterly specific and self-aware that it might as well be viewed through an inverted microscope.

Set almost entirely in Sofia, Bulgaria, Greenwell’s relative sliver of a novel plants us in the head of its unnamed American narrator, a gay man who teaches English to kids who in any other country would be called privileged. Through his eyes we see the object of his desire, Mitko B., a “thin but broad-shouldered” hustler with a “jagged tooth” and a smell of “alcohol that emanated not so much from his breath as from his clothes and hair.” This description is spread across one page, each line followed by the narrator’s interpretation of that line, creating a work that is bookended by prolonged sessions of self-restraint that unravels in the in-between.

This restraint/unraveling is delineated cleanly by the book’s three sections, the first of which is titled, simply, “Mitko.” (This section was previously published as a novella.) The second section, an unbroken paragraph that reads as though spewed from the mouth of a man reclined on some therapist’s tufted sofa, is called “A Grave.” The third, which acts as a false summation, and wrings terror from wrongly lit hospital hallways, is ominously titled “Pox.” In each of these sections, our narrator finds himself coming to terms, first with his thirst for Mitko, second with his father’s abandonment and his own wrecked childhood, and third with the syphilitic consequences of his very queerness.

Early in the book the narrator says of himself that he’s “never been good at concealing anything, the whole bent of my nature is toward confession,” but that is a lie on par with the many falsities that come from Mitko’s mouth. Greenwell’s style is both sparse and ornate, focusing on small details but drawing them out endlessly, such as a paragraph-long description of a bus that essentially amounts to, “The bus was old and cold.” This is not to criticize the syntax, but rather to praise the way Greenwell allows his narrator to conceal his own withholding by having him go on at length about what may as well be nothing, a twist on the old practice of focusing on the specifics of a fabrication in order to make the yarn more believable. And there’s plenty of fabrication in this book.

But the lies operate as more than simple untruths: they serve to illuminate humanity, focusing on the way omissions signal character. The first encounter, sexual or otherwise, between the narrator and Mitko concludes with Mitko giving a “poor performance of an orgasm,” so that the relationship that follows — one predicated on the narrator’s desire to know Mitko, both carnally and spiritually — is born from deception. Of course, the fact that any relationship follows at all is thanks to the narrator willfully deceiving himself, too self-aware, really, to believe that Mitko could ever love him. That self-awareness is both the curse and the blessing of being queer, as the very act of queerness is necessitated upon honest self-examination.

Greenwell’s narrator speaks of growing to understand his gayness in relation to AIDS and the crisis that surrounded it, how it “flattened” his life “to a morality tale.” This ties in with Greenwell’s own experience growing up gay in Kentucky, which he described in The Paris Reviewsaying, “I remember very clearly thinking about sex all the time when I was twelve or thirteen and feeling an intense desire that I was pretty sure I would never be able to act on… Will I ever find anyone with whom to do these things?” These are questions that do not enter the minds of the majority of the world that considers itself nothing short of normal.

Even in the relatively tolerant climate of 2016 America, the queer life exists in a tank of self-awareness where questions of a street corner’s safety or a motel clerk’s tolerance control hands, lips, eyes, vocabularies. (The ubiquitous partner is a direct result of this defensive self-policing.) Even when caution is cast aside it’s done mindfully, as when Mitko and the narrator engage in vigorous frottage in the bathroom of a McDonald’s for the risk of it. The fact that Greenwell’s novel is written beautifully, or propped upon its author’s existing literary clout — he was one of A Little Life‘s loudest proponents, and he and Yanagihara are friends — is secondary to the power of his own experience living as a gay man, particularly as an American gay man in a country whose language he doesn’t entirely understand, where nuance and subtext fly overhead, leaving only one’s instincts as guidelines.

It’s in this aspect that Greenwell’s success highlights the failure of A Little Life, in which Yanagihara’s characters’ self-awareness is confused for ego. That the cast of A Little Life winds up, in the end, achieving the fairytale goals of its collective ego — a famous artist! a famous lawyer! a famous actor! a famous architect! — speaks to the novel’s general obliviousness to the world in which it exists, where *SPOILERS* the suicide of a major gay character — Jude, the lawyer — flies in the face of the money-equals-happiness parable, sure, but does nothing to dismantle the popular notion that a queer life is a tortured one, regardless of how full it is. Greenwell’s narrator may not be on the road to fortune, but he’s on the road to self-actualization beyond his queerness, not quite overcoming his demons but managing, at least, to quiet them.