Writing in The Atlantic last year, Garth Greenwell hailed Hanya Yanagihara’s Man Booker shortlisted A Little Life as the great gay novel we’ve been waiting for. Regular Bookanista readers might recall my own obsession with Yanagihara’s novel last year. Like Greenwell I found radical potential in the models of adult life it portrayed. Nearly a year on, and having now read Greenwell’s own astonishingly assured and moving debut, What Belongs to You, it’s like finding the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Although ostensibly different in terms of span, plot and style, the two novels address the same broader topic, and it’s no coincidence that Greenwell’s work has met with exactly the same acclaim he heaped on Yanagihara’s: in just one of the many rave reviews, writing in the New Republic, Jeffrey Zuckerman called it “the Great Gay Novel for our times.”
“It feels bewildering,” Greenwell explains when I ask him about the comparison. “To me it’s crazy to set my little book next to A Little Life. I think Yanagihara’s book has a kind of scope and ambition, and my book is a narrowing in on two lives [that of his narrator and his lover] in a very micro way.”
As self-deprecating as this sounds, he’s not wrong. Most books look trim compared to Yanagihara’s doorstop, but What Belongs to You is slimmer than most. I’d be almost tempted to describe it as a novella if it wasn’t for the fact that the first section – it’s split into three parts: ‘Mitko’, ‘A Grave’ and ‘Pox’ – is actually a tightened, slightly rewritten version of his earlier prize-winning novella of the same name.
The novella and the novel’s first section take their name from the object of the narrator’s desire, a young Bulgarian hustler whom the narrator – an American teaching high school English in Sofia; Greenwell’s own situation while writing the novel – meets while cruising for anonymous sex in the public bathrooms underneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. The encounter, which turns into a kind of relationship between the two – transactional, of course, and one that exists predominantly in liminal spaces – provides the material for the book’s first act. The second section is then a step back in time, a stream-of-consciousness recounting of the narrator’s memories of his adolescence back in Kentucky, and the traumatic disintegration of his relationships with both his father and his best friend, each a casualty of their inability to deal with the narrator’s sexuality. The third section then returns to the present, in which, as its title suggests, the narrator finds himself infected with syphilis as a result of his encounters with Mitko.
Writing the book was intensely private… I was writing in a notebook in my apartment in Sofia in the early morning hours before I taught high school, not imagining a reader at all.”
It might seem strange that a novel that contains such a visceral description of an oozing, syphilitic penis is also one of the most beautiful pieces of fiction I’ve come across in recent years. In its tender and truthful depiction of gay lives – cruising in particular, a topic that Greenwell thinks isn’t given the attention it deserves – it’s easy to understand the novel’s immediate acceptance into a hall of fame populated by queer literary heavyweights like Alan Hollinghurst and Edmund White. Not that this was something Greenwell was aware would happen.
“Writing the book was intensely private. I had never written fiction before, and I was writing in a notebook in my apartment in Sofia in the early morning hours before I taught high school, not imagining a reader at all. I’d been publishing poems for years and years and I’d had a lot of training and education in poetry, but writing fiction was like writing into a complete silence. This was so exhilarating about writing prose. I would go for more than a year at a time without showing anything I’d written to even my inner circle of three or four readers.
“But it’s very true that there’s a tradition of queer writing that has absolutely formed me as a writer and a reader and that was crucial to me as a poet. It’s what my writerly cabinet is stocked with and so I certainly hope that the book acknowledges the debt it has to those writers.”
The novel was published in the US back in January, so reviews from across the pond prepared UK readers and critics for something special. Although when we meet the book hasn’t actually hit the shelves over here, Greenwell’s early press visit has seen him met by admiring fans everywhere he goes. We’re chatting over coffee in Bloomsbury café, at the beginning of a day packed with interviews and book signings, a routine he’s more than familiar with by now as he’s been on book tour in the US for the past two months. It’s an experience he describes as “often wonderful” but also feeling “like a sort of slow drowning”, though little of the latter is apparent as we talk. His manner is consistently gracious and his answers to my questions always thoughtful.
“I thought that the fate of this book would be the fate of pretty much every book published in the US, that it would disappear without trace. I think it was a surprise to everyone that it seemed to strike a nerve and spark a conversation around gay lives: how they’re represented, the kinds of narratives that are acceptable and unacceptable, and the kinds of narratives that have been folded into political programmes and those that resist. It’s been wonderful for me to have great gay writers whom I admire like Damon Galgut, Bruce Benderson and Edmund White talk and think about this book in a public way. It’s like entering a conversation I’ve been listening to for decades.”
Greenwell, it seems, has a pitch perfect ear. Interestingly, he arrived at writing fiction later in the day than some. After an MFA in poetry in St Louis he then spent three years working on a PhD in lyric poetry at Harvard, “not as a writer,” he confirms, “but as a scholar.” The only downside of which, he’s since come to realise, was that all this training and knowledge meant that his head was “really crowded” when he sat down to write his own poems.
“I’ve always read novels voraciously, but when I started the novel I’d never taken a fiction workshop or studied fiction as a scholar. When I wrote poems, every choice I made, I could think of a poem that had made that choice, every line break had a lineage.”
In 2006, after three years of the PhD, he took a sabbatical and began teaching high school instead – initially in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“I went from being a graduate student where the most important relationships I had were with books and the most intense experiences in my life were my thoughts, to being a high school teacher and being intensely invested in the lives of seventy or eighty adolescents.”
“Having only ever lived in America, I didn’t know what it meant to be American and the kind of privilege we in the West take for granted.”
After three years he realised that he wasn’t going to return to Harvard, but he did want a change. Having always wanted to live in Europe he applied for teaching jobs abroad. Two options presented themselves: the first was a position at a private school in Switzerland; the second was at the American College of Sofia. He decided to accept the latter, liking the sound of the school – an institution founded in 1875 with a mission to educate the most talented kids in Bulgaria regardless of their backgrounds – compared to the more privileged Swiss counterpart, deciding that although the American College didn’t pay as well, the experience was sure to be the more interesting of the two.
“Being in Bulgaria absolutely changed my life,” he confirms. “Having only ever lived in America, I didn’t know what it meant to be American and the kind of privilege we in the West take for granted, the kind of mobility we take for granted. I saw the humiliating process my students had to go through to get visas to go to college in the United States. Americans are born with this sense that what happens in our country is important and the rest of the world cares about us. Suddenly I was in a place where you can’t take for granted that the world cares for you.”
This abandonment and lack comes into focus in the third section of the novel when the narrator is confronted with Bulgaria’s unexplained dearth of the penicillin injections he needs to treat his syphilis: “How is that possible, not to have such a basic thing?” the bemused expat asks the doctor who diagnoses him.
As some reviewers have observed, Greenwell’s writing exists in that particular tradition of Americans in Europe most closely associated with the work of Henry James, the cultural contrasts between their home- and adopted lands underlying the structure of the narratives. The broader themes of Greenwell’s novel – lust, desire, obsession, guilt, shame, betrayal, even the machinations of memory that are in play in relation to these emotions, experiences and traumas – are undoubtedly universal, but the specificity of the setting, and the different national identities of his lovers makes for a distinct prism of experience.
Greenwell stayed in Sofia for four years. He fell in love with both the country and the language, relationships that he’s sure were strengthened because of the particular work he was doing there.
“To be in a place like Bulgaria, to be teaching young people, it invested me emotionally in the place in a way that I don’t think another kind of work would have done.”
Despite this incredibly strong attachment, he couldn’t help but gradually grow exhausted by the juggling act involved in teaching and writing. By this point he had a fully drafted version of What Belongs to You, but he knew that in order to pursue the work further, something had to change.
“I turned thirty-five, and for whatever reason that caused some sort of crisis, I was like, What have I done with my life? I have this tiny novella, but if I keep teaching high school, I’m never going to know what I can do as a writer.”
Realising that he had to at least try to centre his life on writing, two potential routes opened up to him. The first, to apply for an MFA programme for fiction, was something of a default option for someone who’d spent much of his life as a student. But he also considered a final two years of teaching, after which he would have spent enough time in Bulgaria to qualify for a long-term visa, with which he could retire to the shores of the Black Sea and devote his time to writing away from the daily grind. As romantic and enticing as this sounds, his choice was made for him when he won a place on the prestigious Iowa programme. If, when he returned to the US, he had any niggling doubts about whether he’d made the right decision, these quickly vanished. He spent the first semester workshopping the novel and then he sold it in the second semester.
The apparent ease and effortlessness of this later stage of the writing process actually belies the complex gestation that preceded it. After he’d written the novella Mitko, he’d initially believed that he was finished with it. But then, after it had won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize but before he’d signed the contract with them that would see it published, he realised that it was actually part of something bigger.
This revelation didn’t so much creep up on him, but rather he describes being suddenly ‘assaulted’ by the voice of the second section. The narrator remains the same throughout the novel, but both his tone and the structure of the prose itself change drastically in the middle section, a 41-page unbroken paragraph of memories that tumble unanticipated, and clearly for the most part unwanted, from the narrator’s mind. It sounds dramatic, but Greenwell clearly recalls the exact moment of what sounds like some kind of literary or linguistic possession.
“I was walking around Sofia one day and I was seized by this voice, a very angry voice, and also by that feeling of anger, so I went into a café and I started to try to scratch out what I was hearing, to try to follow that energy. I was writing on the back of receipts and napkins – what I could find at that moment – but then I continued to write like that.”
That middle section explores the geography of my childhood and it does cut very close to the bone. I think much of my adult life has been about running away from that landscape.”
It’s not as if he’d written Mitko on a computer, he usually wrote in cheap notebooks, the kind kids use at school. “I need to feel like I’m not writing anything important,” he explains, “like I’m writing something with no sense of permanence, like I can tear up the page, but even that was too formal, too permanent for the voice of the second section. It was like I had to write it on trash, and sometimes if I ran out of receipts or whatever I had in my pocket, I’d have to rip a sheet of paper into smaller bits in order to keep writing. It was very strange.
“I think I was really terrified by that section,” he continues. “The book is a novel, but that middle section explores the geography of my childhood and it does cut very close to the bone, and I think much of my adult life has been about running away from that landscape. I left Kentucky when I was sixteen, and I’ve hardly ever gone back. So to return to that was really frightening. I wrote that section with a kind of sense of danger. It was hard to think through those things, and it wasn’t until I was about halfway through – although I didn’t know that then – that I realised that it was something to which Mitko was connected.
“What I think that second section is doing is trying to make sense of the kind of person the narrator is in the first section, because he’s in some way really quite a strange person. And especially strange in the kind of way he’s unavailable and available all at once. I think that second section was trying to work out how someone becomes the kind of person who’s able to have this extravagant, exuberant confession and but also this great inhibition and desire to be separate.”
Without doubt, it’s this marriage of seemingly contradictory facets that makes the narrator such an intriguing character. On the one hand he tells his story with such an engaging openness, but on the other he’s clearly unreliable. Not in a self-deluding Humbert Humbert way, but in terms of the fundamental unreliability of the story he’s telling about his relationship with Mitko. One of the key issues the novel struggles with seems to be the problems of being in someone else’s narrative, that question of whether your and the other person’s narratives of the same events, the same relationship, match up. The narrative voice is confined to that of the narrator, yet Mitko remains absolutely integral and central to the story being told, and this imbalance between them is hugely important. Something, of course, that is magnified by the structural set-up of their relationship: Mitko as sex worker, and the narrator as his client.
This is something that Greenwell thought long and hard about when he was revising the text.
“For me, the sort of question that determined whether the book failed or succeeded was precisely the extent to which Mitko is available to the reader as a sort of object of empathy and not merely as an occasion for the narrator to have thoughts and feelings. The question was how, even in so interior a narration, could I try to give some access to a world that was independent of that narration.
“There was never the question of having Mitko narrate a section, especially as I think his mysteriousness is crucial to the book. The narrator’s perspective was the only perspective I could have. But I hope that the book is intense enough on exterior description and gesture and the ways that bodies interact in space, in order that the reader might use these to make different interpretations to those of the narrator. In describing how Mitko physically responds to something, that at least opens the possibility for the reader to open some space between the narrator and the world, because as you say, I do think the narrator is peculiarly unreliable within his own particular set of neuroses, but I also think any narration is unreliable because it’s a singular interpretation of the world. So even if the narrator – and I don’t think this is true – but even if the narrator is really trying to confess everything as honestly as possible, it’s still never going to be the full story. So physicality and the language of gesture does seem to me one way of trying to suggest the reality of this other person and his experience.”
This notion of communication beyond language comes into play in many significant ways in the novel, most notably perhaps in terms of cruising. This non-verbal communication involved transcending linguistic and cultural differences, as Greenwell himself discovered when he moved to Sofia. One afternoon shortly after he arrived in the city, he found himself in the same public bathrooms where the novel opens. Although barely able to speak Bulgarian, down beneath the city streets, “I was suddenly an expert, each man I saw communicating by non-verbal codes that were far easier for me to read than the Cyrillic of Bulgarian street signs,” he explains in a piece he recently wrote for BuzzFeed. “I read them without any effort at all; I’d been using them my entire adult life. As I returned to those bathrooms over the next weeks, the next months and years, I communicated by means of the codes I first learned in the parks and bathrooms of Louisville, Kentucky.”
Throughout the course of the novel the physical and the verbal exist in parallel, sometimes at odds with one another, sometimes in sync, the gulf between the narrator and Mitko’s potentially differing experiences of what’s ostensibly the same reality thus magnified by the simple fact that they don’t speak the same language. It’s inevitable that some meaning and nuance is lost in translation.
This is a narrator who’s really overinvested in dignity. But there’s also a way in which having only this other language is a resource; it frees him from something. It makes him available in a way he hasn’t been before.”
“There’s also the fact that this is a narrator who’s really attached to a particular type of language, a particular use of language,” Greenwell adds. “He’s a poet, and I think he sees language as a kind of antidote to shame, and he’s attached to structures of language that he associates with dignity and a mastery of language, and in Bulgarian he’s utterly stripped of all of that. Language is sort of his huge defence, and in the relationship with Mitko he doesn’t have access to it, and that’s one reason why he’s profoundly destabilised and changed by this relationship.
“It’s very hard to be dignified when you speak like a child – when the narrator arrives he barely speaks Bulgarian at all – and this is a narrator who’s really overinvested in dignity. But there’s also a way in which having only this other language is a resource; it frees him from something. It makes him available in a way he hasn’t been before.”
It’s abundantly clear that Greenwell fed much of his own first-hand experience into the novel. It’s not a memoir, but it is “playing in that sort of fuzzy territory between autobiography and fiction,” he explains. He favours the term ‘autofiction’, that terrain occupied by Sebald, Bernhard and Marías – authors he calls his “Holy Trinity of prose writers.”
“Obviously the book is inviting that kind of reading, and for me, when I read that kind of book that invitation is part of the pleasure. But I guess, however invented a book is, if you don’t feel like the writer has some skin in the game, if you don’t feel the writer is implicated, for me it’s very hard to care about the book. I don’t think it’s strictly a question of autobiography, but I do think it’s a question of the extent to which the writer and the book makes him- or herself vulnerable and open to these kinds of questions, these kinds of issues.
“I mean, certainly in my own life, questions of shame and dignity, desire, availability to other people, of deep wounds inflicted early in life and the extent to which they are susceptible to healing have all been absolutely central.”
He tells me about a recent trip back to Louisville as part of his book tour, and describes a reading where various family members and teachers from his past sat in the audience, seeing his photo imposed on the cover of the book on the front of the features section of the newspaper his family read while he was growing up. “When I saw that I just sort of stared at it with shock. I was staying with my sister and she said, ‘Garth, it seems like you care more about The Courier-Journal than The New York Times, what is that about?’ I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and then I burst into tears.” He also appeared on a local radio show, hosted by two black queer Kentuckians, to discuss queerness in Kentucky – “a sign of just how much Louisville has changed in 20-odd years. I got to have a conversation with this man who was my own age and grew up in Kentucky the same time I did. It felt amazing to have that conversation and amazing to know that conversation is happening in Kentucky and just how much that place has changed.”
Such progress is heartening, but it doesn’t discount Greenwell’s own experiences. Trauma would perhaps be too strong a term to use, but the novel explores the inescapability of one’s past, particularly in terms of negative formative experience. In his current sexually liberated state the narrator is still a product of certain homophobia that shaped his past, something that can also be said of Greenwell himself.
“I think it’s a really interesting moment right now for queer people in places of privilege in the West where the narrative of queer rights has triumphed. For someone like my narrator, and this is also true for someone like myself, I no longer accept the legitimacy of the lessons I was taught about my life as a young person in Kentucky. I know that those lessons are false. But I also will never get to be a person who wasn’t taught those lessons.
“There’s a way in which this triumphant narrative of queerness has erased a lot of the queer experience. I think it’s really expunged or tried to push aside spaces like cruising bathrooms and experiences like sex work. In terms of its fluidity, the latter, in a gay male context, differs very much from sex work in the heterosexual context. Many gay men have experienced both sides of that transaction. But it’s very hard to talk about this in the context of marriage equality, and it’s very hard to talk about shame.
“If there is something that is different about the novel, I hope that it does not accept that particular shame. It refuses to be ashamed about that. This is a novel of shame, but it’s not that shame.”
He’s clearly troubled by the blanket imposition of heteronormative models on queer lives.
“I support marriage equality. I think marriage equality is crucial. I think it’s so important that we fought and won that battle, but it’s tragic that the battle came at such a cost, at a cost of the necessary disavowal of so much of queerness. What the marriage equality battle had to do was package queer lives, to translate them into a kind of value that can be appreciated by people who are disgusted by queer lives. Maybe that’s politically necessary packaging for any minority rights movement, but really if you care about liberation it’s about multiplying models not about shutting them down. Collapsing minority lives into a majority narrative is a false vision of diversity.”
Garth Greenwell’s short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, A Public Space, Story Quarterly, and VICE. He lives in Iowa City, where he holds the Richard E. Guthrie Memorial Fellowship at the University of Iowa. What Belongs to You is published by Picador in hardback and eBook. Read more.
Author portrait © Max Freeman
Lucy Scholes is a contributing editor to Bookanista and a literary critic and book reviewer for publications including the Daily Beast, the Independent, the Observer, BBC Culture and the TLS. She also teaches courses at Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the BFI and Waterstones Piccadilly.