A Debt Beyond All Counting

Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You

Picador, 204pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781447280514

reviewed by Thomas Storey

‘The whole bent of my nature is toward confession,’ admits the unnamed narrator of Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You. It is this tendency towards confession that gives this hugely accomplished debut its poignancy and its emotional incisiveness. Greenwell’s novel is an attempt to confess both desire and shame in order to better unravel the interwoven, psychologically destructive force of these conjoined emotions. It is a tale of unrequited love that seeks to document the potentially corrosive effects of desire, not only in terms of emotional alienation but also in more literal terms – for example, physical infection. In doing so, it questions and subverts the tropes that haunt representations of the sex lives of homosexual men, offering a powerful portrayal of the way in which desire is transformed in the spaces homosexual sex and love have been compelled to occupy. Ultimately, it tells a story about the overabundant confusion of desire, both sexual and emotional, a confusion that Greenwell himself struggles to unravel.

What Belongs to You documents the relationship between a young, vibrant Bulgarian hustler called Mitko and the aforementioned narrator, an American teacher at an exclusive school in Sofia, who, as autobiographical details reveal and the confessional first person emphasises, is a loose stand-in for Greenwell himself. The narrator meets Mitko in a toilet frequented by men looking for sex beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture, a space laden with trepidation, where ‘warning,’ as the narrator states, ‘is like some element coterminous with the air, ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there.’

This is the first instance of Greenwell’s invocation of the ambivalence of his desire, which is underpinned by threat and fear, and which is all the more potent because of its latent suggestion of danger. The narrator is immediately drawn to Mitko, whose brash confidence and easygoing manner seem at odds with their location – ‘entirely public in that place of intense privacies’ – and the way in which he embodies the squalor of that setting but, in his ingenuousness, transcends it.

Greenwell’s narrator enters into a transaction with Mitko, and it is this decisive act (done, characteristically, with a performance of indecision) that defines their relationship and establishes the thematic framework of Greenwell’s novel. Mitko’s failure to carry the sexual liaison as far as the narrator desires is as much a financial betrayal as an emotional one, and sparks the novel’s meditation on debt and ownership. The narrator’s growing affection and desire for Mitko stems from this initial betrayal and, as becomes evident, is often framed in the language of financial obligations, suggesting not only the ways in which sex work distorts desire but also how even in a relationship based on those terms the emotional content is not exhausted. Out of this confusion of desire the blend of shame and affection that Mitko evokes for Greenwell’s narrator begins, both forming and deforming their nascent relationship until it is not clear for the narrator or the reader whether reciprocated affection or physical possession is the primary aim.

Thus Greenwell documents the way in which desire is mutated by debt, and how profit and loss take on emotional as well as financial connotations. As the narrator states of Mitko at their first meeting, ‘there was nothing in his manner of seduction, no show of desire at all; what he offered was a transaction.’ These are the terms the narrator himself needs, and he will willingly offer far more than Mitko demands: ‘… his body seemed almost infinitely dear. It was astonishing to me that any number of these soiled bills could make that body available, that after the simplest of exchanges I could reach out for it and find it in my grasp.’ The commodification of Mitko’s body is not an additional distraction or hindrance to the desire the narrator feels for him, but is at the very root of that desire. Later, when the narrator invites Mitko into his home and finds him more interested in his laptop than sex, he says, ‘I wanted to assert something, to set the terms of the evening, to claim, finally, the goods for which I had been contracted, to put it as brutally as that; it was something brutal that I wanted.’ Love / money, sex / work, affection / ownership – Greenwell navigates these dualities, offering an intensely moving portrayal of the complexity of desire when it arises in such constraints.

The initial desire of the narrator for Mitko develops into an infatuation, and as their relationship becomes closer, and less driven by sexual encounters, the narrator struggles to square his increasing affection with jealousy – the ‘jealousy of ownership’ – of Mitko’s other clients, who he sees ‘face to face’ when Mitko calls them on Skype from his apartment. The narrator breaks off the relationship as he becomes overwhelmed by the impossibility of transcending the client-customer framework they find themselves trapped in: 'I don’t want to be one of your clients, I said. He turned to me in surprise, saying But you aren’t a client, you’re a friend, but I waved this objection away. I like you too much, I said, clumsily but with candor, it isn’t good for me to like you so much.’ They reconcile and meet in Varna, Mitko’s hometown, where the contradiction at the heart of their relationship erupts into violence as the narrator again finds that he cannot command Mitko’s attention or affection to the degree he wants, and despairingly he brutally sums up their relationship in the most unvarnished terms: ‘We aren’t friends like that… We both get something from it, I went on, and the bluntness of the language was now the tool I wanted: I get sex, I said and you get money, that’s all.’ Their attempt to transcend the squalor of those initial encounters and to move desire away from the indices of profit and ownership ends abruptly, in fear and dejection.

All of this occurs in the novel’s first section, which is simply entitled ‘Mitko’ and was initially published on its own as a novella. It’s a precise and powerful depiction of a mind adrift, caught in the ambivalent contradictions of its own desire, and its concision contributes to its emotive force. The section that follows contextualises that desire in the longer, less tautly woven narrative of the narrator’s sexual awakening as a gay man in an extremely conservative society. In its meditation on a young man’s sexual journey, and the reaction it prompts in his father, it clarifies the ambiguity of that initial section, which framed desire as an ineluctable and ineffable urge. It thus deepens the experience of self-confession expressed by the novel – the experience of a consciousness attempting to come to terms with itself, knowing all the while that that is an impossible task. ‘…I have the sense of being entirely false and entirely true… 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, I think I glimpse it sometimes, I even imagine I’ve felt it.’ Whereas the first section saw the narrator overwhelmed by the contradictions of his desire and its inextricable link to his shame, the second delves into his past to understand that desire and his own atomised sense of self.

Entitled ‘A Grave’, the second section begins with the narrator learning that his father, who had broken relations with him many years ago after learning of his sexuality, is on his deathbed and wishes to reconcile. This prompts a series of painful memories – of realising his sexuality as a young man, the awkwardness and fear of early sexual encounters, his father’s revulsion and his own confusion. The primal scenes mount up, and as he remembers being forced to watch a friend with whom he had a solitary moment of sexual intimacy have sex with a girlfriend, he comes to a realisation that this is where the ambivalence of his desire arose, and where its complex tapestry of yearning and denial, pleasure and shame first found its form. ‘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.’ For the narrator, the shame of his own desire is never-ending, and the impossibility of gaining redemption for his own yearning has become a part of his character.

The final section, ‘Pox’, returns to Budapest and to Mitko, who is now suffering from syphilis and in a desperate condition, which stimulates both fear of infection on the part of the narrator and an abiding need to take care of the ailing Mitko. It also recalls some of the homophobic stereotypes that still surround gay sex, stereotypes Greenwell does not flinch from approaching head on. ‘Disease was the only story anyone ever told about men like me where I was from, and it flattened my life to a morality tale, in which I could be either chaste or condemned.’ In Mitko’s suffering, and the narrator’s guilt and attempt to shelter him, we are returned to the earlier evocations of ownership, payment and debt, although now the positions are in some ways reversed, and the question of who holds the debt is confused. Greenwell ponders: ‘What would it mean to do enough, I wondered, as I had wondered before about that obligation to others that sometimes seems so clear and sometimes disappears altogether, so that now we owe nothing, anything we give is too much, and now our debt is beyond all counting.’

Here the various strands of the novel come together, as Mitko is no longer able to transcend the squalor and danger of his habitat, and the narrator is forced to come to terms with the wider import of his desire to take possession of Mitko. He is left pondering the unassailable distance between them, the impossibility of ever clearing the emotional deficit that binds him to Mitko, or repenting the shame he feels at first loving him, wanted to claim ownership of him and then abandoning him. What Belongs to You leaves the narrator, and its readers, to ponder the twisted trajectories that desire can take, and to unravel the confusion of love and shame that become entwined in the desperate and unforgettable figure of Mitko.