Sunday, January 31, 2016

Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)

What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell’s powerful and heart-rending debut novel, often seems to inhabit an earlier era. Take out the cell phones and laptop Skype sessions, and this story of an American expatriate teacher and his ongoing, tumultuous encounters with a Bulgarian hustler named Mitko would feel like something that Rimbaud and Verlaine might have experienced in their own place and time. While there’s plenty of redemption to be found in the book, it’s also relentlessly and unapologetically austere in stretches, both in its intentionally spare narrative movement and its explorations of the cities and landscapes of Bulgaria.

But overall, What Belongs to You is far more dedicated to exploring the inner lives of its characters, which is to say that it’s a novel about human relationships, about our troubling, visceral connections and inevitable disconnections. So much of the book depends on Mitko’s magnetism — for the novel to succeed, we have to feel as compelled by him as the narrator is — and Greenwell draws him as an enticing and ultimately unforgettable personality. This is not an easy task for any writer to accomplish. The author honed the first of the novel’s three sections from his 2011 novella that focused on the same two characters; from the moment Mitko first appears, cruising alongside the narrator in the basement bathroom of Sofia’s National Palace of Culture, his aura is equally riveting in this longer book.

Greenwell’s prose is long-limbed and ambitious. His paragraphs span two or three pages at times, and the novel’s experimental second section is a single paragraph that unwinds for over forty pages. It’s not only a way of immersing the reader in the narrator’s thoughts and descriptions, but also of leveling down the high-risk subject matter. As long as we’re caught up in the writing itself, then there’s no chance to judge or second-guess the action. We’re implicated in what’s happening as much as the narrator is himself, as the sporadic storms of Mitko’s attention drift (or jolt) in and out of the narrator’s daily world.

Part of what makes Mitko’s mystery lodge in the reader’s mind is how little of his past we’re shown. Early in the novel, when the narrator invites Mitko back to his apartment, Mitko scrolls through photographs of his younger self on a website. Although the pictures were taken only a couple of years earlier, “I was shocked by the difference in their faces, the man in the image and the man beside me,” the narrator thinks; “he looked like a nice kid, a kid I might have had in class at the prestigious school where I teach.” How far Mitko had fallen after turning to a life of drinking, prostitution, and homelessness pulls the narrator closer to his dangerous orbit, deepening the desire to possess and understand him, and creating a divide that will become impossible for Mitko to cross. After tagging along with the narrator and one of his friends for dinner, Mitko says, “I want to live a normal life,” before holding out his hand for money as they part ways.

What exactly makes a normal life? For most people, it’s money and routine work, which Mitko never has and seemed destined not to have. Love is a key ingredient, too, for those who are lucky enough to find it, or have it bestowed upon them by their families. “Normal” might also mean “moral” in this instance. Yet one of the great strengths of Greenwell’s book is its lack of judgment where morality is concerned. In the universe of his novel, it’s more important to document whatever occurs, to show the way the world is, which grants his writing a kind of lapidary realism as well as psychological intensity.

The best and most realistic moments in Greenwell’s novel are those when lives and relationships suddenly pivot and change irreversibly: a violent backhand across the narrator’s face, an innocent boyhood erection deeply unwanted by the person who prompted it, a father’s blunt homophobic rejection of his son. These moments of cruelty arise in the narrative like punches or shocks, fittingly, with a language of precision that re-creates exactly what it feels like to live through such experiences.

Although I’ll avoid giving away any plot details, I will say that the final fifty pages of the book, which I’d saved until I was ready to read them, are pure art, a feat made possible by the careful intricacy of everything that’s come before. I read them straight through to the end. The words were often blurred with tears, and I was grateful to be moved.