The Mirror, Smeared: Garth Greenwell's What Belongs To You

on Saturday, January 30, 2016
With February fast approaching, I was overcome by an uneasy feeling that I was about to fail the Reading Game of Life having not yet read a single book published in 2016. Never mind that I have read twelve other books thus far. If I didn't get my hands on a book from this year stat, I'd not only have to live with the shame but, moreover, the formatting of my reading spreadsheet would be irredeemably skewed, thus messing horribly with my OCD aesthetic sensibilities. There was, of course, an added problem. January is a wasteland when it comes to new releases. Even more so in Australia. A quick scan of the release schedule showed only one book of immediate interest, China Mieville's This Census Taker. I ordered it, hoping it would arrive in mailbox before I nicked off to Tasmania for a week. Well, you know what they say about best laid plans... Sitting at the airport I resigned myself to two very disappointing imminent realities. Firstly, I'd have to buy an e-book. I vomited a little in my mouth - mostly bile - then forced it back down the gullet. It's not like anyone would ever find out. Secondly, I was going to choose a book that I knew absolutely nothing about. The obsessive curating of my reading experience would be thrown to the wind. Bookworm don't play that game. Unless, of course, we reach Literary Defcon 5. Yes, it was that bad!

Scrolling through the Kindle new releases (I reset my location to the USA because there wasn't a single interesting book among the local ones) I happened upon Garth Greenwell's debut (assuming you don't count his small indie press novella) What Belongs To You. I don't know what it is that drew me to it. I toyed with several other contenders but I kept going back until I realised I was wholly captivated by the idea of this book. I hadn't even read the blurb - it just had a mesmerising aura. Odd, I know.

That the book should have had such a mysterious allure turned out to be fitting. What Belongs To You is an intense examination of desire, particularly the way in which we sacrifice what we know to be right, sensible or safe when the sexual tidal wave hits. The novel kicks off with a lesson in uncontrolled lust - the unnamed narrator is visiting the National Museum of Culture in Sofia when he goes to the toilets and meets a young hustler called Mitko. Money is exchanged and they disappear into a cubicle. What might seem tawdry or lascivious is rendered quite the opposite thanks to Greenwell's perfect prose. It is a homoerotic pressure cooker of a scene, even if the sex itself is cheap and nasty. The deed is done and the narrator returns home to his job as an English teacher. Life continues as normal for a short while until he feels the need to see Mitko again. And so he returns to the Museum. The wiry rent boy becomes his drug. Their relationship deepens - it is more than desire, it is desperation - but it masquerades as friendship. Mitko, for his part, abuses the situation. He weasels his way into the narrator's life, turning up at his door, fucking him senseless, knowing he won't be turned away. The addiction is all-consuming even when the narrator watches Mitko set up liaisons with other clients on his computer. And then, like many addictions, it is done. The narrator sees Mitko for what he is - an opportunist and a user - and cuts off the financial flow. The relationship has lasted two months.

I'm guessing that the story up to there is Greenwell's previously published novella, Mitko. Here, it is only Part One of three. Part Two is a claustrophobic, Thomas Bernhard-like, bush bash through the narrator's sexual awakening. There are no paragraph breaks. There is only sparse punctuation. There is little room to breathe. It is the verbal manifestation of young lust. We find ourselves back in the narrator's teen years; he is in love with his neighbour but has to negotiate the watchful sexuality policing of his parents. It all comes to a head one night when the two boys end up in bed together. It doesn't go well. The narrator has learnt the hard way about love. It is intense, it is awkward and it fucking hurts.

Flash forward to Part Three. Happily ensconced in a relationship, the narrator is shocked when Mitko shows up at his door again - two years after their arrangement ended - to announce that he has tested positive for syphilis. He needs money for treatment. The flames of desire explode from the embers in a storm of passion, pity and raw sexual energy. Whatever his boyfriend might offer - stability, love, depth - turns to ash when held up to Mitko's inferno. Greenwell here posits a very perceptive but painfully unkind view of human sexuality - our willingness to knowingly act to our own detriment for an immediate thrill. He is, of course, right. The thrill is crack, it is heroin. Taste it and you can't turn back. It will eventually destroy you.

Despite its rawness, its confronting sex scenes and its uncompromising penetration (pun only semi-intended) of the darker human heart, What Belongs To You is actually quite a tender novel. It is about what stands in place of love for the lonely and dispossessed. Above all else, the narrator wants to be needed in the way he comes to need Mitko. He wants their relationship to be something more than a financial transaction, even if he must give in to delusion to make it so. Greenwell's warm and supple touch strikes a perfect balance in his exploration of the competing facets of his narrator's fractured soul. In so doing, he draws out universals that transcend the easily dismissible context of the action. It is far too easy to pass off the more disturbing elements in the novel as particular to the gay beat scene. You would, of course, be wrong. It would be tantamount to denial. What Belongs To You is a well-polished mirror in which we can all see our deepest sexual selves. That is, if we dare to look.

An extraordinary novel to start the year.


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