So much of the greatest literature is made up of characters undone by desire. Most of it romantic and sexual. Desire that remains hidden or is revealed or explodes, that creates enlivening passion and that ultimately takes characters somewhere new or destroys them. Like in life, characters can be suddenly toppled by desire which can seemingly come out of nowhere and leaves them hanging upon a cliff edge. “What Belongs to You” is a love story about a man undone. But, more than that, it’s an ingenious exploration of the way desire causes seismic changes to our ever-evolving sense of identity. It shows how through desire a man is made to confront his past and decide how to carry on in the future. It asks how much of our relationships are based upon an exchange – emotional or monetary. It does all this through the engaging, sympathetic voice of an American expat living and teaching in Bulgaria and a rent boy he meets named Mitko. What on the surface appears like a simple story weaves into avenues of obsession, deep reflection and confrontations with stark reality. It’s an utterly arresting and deeply contemplative novel. It reads like the most intimate confession from a soul who has spent his life in hiding.
The nameless narrator descends into a cruising haunt beneath the National Palace of Culture. Here’s the perfect metaphor: the brazen lust that is concealed beneath the appearance of sophistication. There in the public toilets he meets Mitko who has the cheekiness, youthfulness, confidence and roguish good looks which bewitch this lonesome interloper. The narrator is verging on paunchy. He’s not old but aging. He lives so much in his mind “I felt that the best of me was words” that the tiresome labour needed to present himself like a peacock on the market doesn’t appeal. It’s more convenient to purchase sex. It begins as a standard financial agreement of money for sex attended by a heady mixture of excitement and shame. Greenwell describes the awkward mechanics of this encounter and how it’s in truth like every sexual encounter: “how helpless desire is outside its little theatre of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed, even if that welcome is contrived.” Something about this boy in his early twenties and the connection they share makes this transaction develop into one which shakes the foundations of the narrator’s identity. The pair meet on several other occasions and questions arise about what motivates each of them. Is it lust, friendship or money? The tension reaches an untenable point and the two have a calamitous altercation which separates them.
The narrator is plunged at this stage of his story into the past. Here he describes in heart-aching detail his coming of age: the development which led to his estrangement from his country and family. Greenwell gives the most touching, incisive and searing account of a boy’s expulsion from his father’s affection. What begins with a naturally easy and affectionate physicality between the two is one day suddenly broken. The boy learns to hide his same-sex desire and when it inevitably comes out in the open he receives the condemnation which eviscerates his identity. He states: “As I listened to him say these things it was as though even as I laid claim to myself I found there was nothing to claim, nothing or next to nothing, as though I were dissolving and my tears were the outward sign of that dissolution.” All the characteristics which make up his essential self including his bond with family level out his sense of being and leave him with nothing. Yet, as he finds later when conversing with his half-sister (who is differently but equally damaged) there are unsavoury characteristics of the father which cling to them regardless of their socially broken lineage. “Even these desires, I thought as I listened to my sister, seemed to descend from my father like an inherited disease.” Here are Ibsen’s Ghosts which arise at the most unexpected times to plague the narrator who believes he sufficiently distanced himself from the past of his upbringing, but finds patterns of behaviour and compulsions affecting his present.
There are more echoes of Ibsen in the final part of the book when Mitko unexpectedly returns. The narrator must deal with the consequences of this past relationship. It forces him to question again what he really desires and what we owe to those who we’ve given our heart to: “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.” The part a loved one has played in the formation of the self is inestimable, yet not all relationships were made to continue. Those emotional debts are seldom repaid. The conflict Greenwell creates in this story touches upon all the insecurity, regret and longing we continuously carry for lost love.
“What Belongs to You” is so intriguing for the way it contains a lot of ambiguity, but also manages to pinpoint the centre at which desire both destroys and necessarily transforms us. To encounter another person and make a connection in such an intimate, personal, all-consuming way makes you radically confront your conception of yourself. You must ask who you are and what you want at the most fundamental level. And, if you can’t find an answer, you must live continuously in ruin – until the next object of desire or a deeper self-understanding offers an opportunity to build yourselves back up again. These tensions are played out through the meaningful relationship between the narrator and Mitko. I was very moved by this beautiful, disarming and perceptive novel.
Read an interview between Garth Greenwell and Jonathan Lee about "What Belongs to You" here: https://www.guernicamag.com/daily/accessing-the-ecstatic/