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.

The Dignity of Dependence: The Door by Magda Szabó

on Saturday, January 16, 2016
As I trawled my way through the multitude of Best of 2015 lists, one book stood out above all others as a strange, if not totally misplaced, inclusion. Not that I knew anything substantive about Magda Szabó's classic novel The Door. It's just that, for a book that was just named one of the five best novels of the year by The New York Times, it was kind of old. First published in her native Hungary in 1987, it came out in English translation back in 1995. A decade later it came out again in England with a new translation. It is this latter version that has recently resurfaced, with a new jacket, and from a new publisher, New York Review of Books as part of their Classics series. All very odd. It smelt to me of nepotism; a peculiar tilt from one august publication to what, in many ways, is its sister. Then word began to leak, nay burst, out of the book's true magnificence. Suffice to say I was intrigued. I bought the book. Three pages in and I was completely converted.

In what is a brilliant framing device, Szabó instantly wrong foots the reader. We are told at the outset the narrator has killed her maid. There is a slight, dare I say it, Stephen King sense of foreboding, a creepy Misery vibe that made me expect a book akin to The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or Single White Female. I was ready for that kind of book. After the confronting prelude, Szabó steps off the accelerator and we are introduced to the struggling writer, Magda, who has just been politically rehabilitated in post-War Hungary. Living with her husband, the two of them busy with work, she has recently moved into a new apartment and needs help with its upkeep. She asks around until a friend recommends a particular lady in the neighbourhood, the mysterious but extremely hard working Emerence. So begins a unique and intense relationship, one that hinges on interdependence, perhaps even love (of the plutonic kind), but is damned to end in tragedy.

Emerence is one of the great enigmas of European literature. She is brash, uncouth, anti-religious and aggressive. She speaks her mind and takes control of the apartment like it is hers to rule. She is also intensely private - there is a clear demarcation between her work and personal lives. In Magda's house, everything is Emerence's business. She is mortally offended when secrets are kept from her. Infinitely greater, however, is the offence she takes when Magda asks about her life. Rumours abound in the neighbourhood but it is hard to know what to believe. Whatever the truth, those on the street rely on her - she sweeps everyone's snow and keeps the sidewalks clean. She silently takes it upon herself to do the kind of things most people feel are beneath them. Along with two of her elderly friends, each part crone, part saviour (the three of them locked in some sort of struggle for dominance), she has established herself as a crucial cog in the machine of neighbourhood life.

The relationship between Emerence and Magda comes to a head when Magda's husband falls gravely ill. Emerence, it transpires, is her lifeline, helping her through the emotional strain but also picking up the physical slack. As he recovers, Emerence encourages Magda to get a dog which she does. The dog cares little for Magda and bonds with Emerence who ignores the name the couple have given him in favour of, quite humorously, Viola. The dog becomes a kind of glue between them and they become what you might call friends. Indeed, the trust increases to the point of Emerence allowing Magda into her home, a privilege never before afforded to anyone else. Inside we catch a glimpse of the real Magda, a woman of so many contrasting colours that it is hard to know what to make of her. Her house is filled with the stolen belongings of a wealthy Jewish family that was shipped off to concentration camp and killed. But we also know that she has saved a baby girl from the Nazis. Then she hid various people - victims, perpetrators, communists and such. She is a storm of moral ambiguity. When Magda leaves, the door is closed on our understanding of her friend and their relationship is left to track along at a slow, if steady, pace while the creeping dread of a fate foreshadowed continues to build. If only I could work out what would bring me there.

It is the greatest strength of the book that I had completely misread it. When the tide turns it opens into the most profound examination of dignity that I can remember reading. Emerence stops turning up for work. She won't answer her door. Speaking through the crack she is clearly sick. Her voice is hoarse and her breath choked with phlegm. Magda tricks her in to opening up whereupon she is grabbed by the public health officials and taken to hospital. Stepping inside for the second time, Magda finds the place turned to a rubbish tip filled with rot and mould and excrement. It is condemned. Visiting her sick friend in hospital, she is forced to lie - to say the house is just as Emerence left it. It is the start of a complete, tragic unravelling that you must read to truly appreciate.

The Door is a novel of exceptional beauty, with a depth of human understanding usually reserved for only the greatest of writers. Having only read one of her books, I am led to suspect that Magda Szabó was one of them. That she is little known outside Hungary speaks volumes of the intellectual poverty of the English speaking literary world. I am told there will be another of her novels published this year. I, for one, cannot wait. Indeed, I suspect that I have found the final member of a Hungarian Holy Trinity that otherwise consists of László Krasznahorkai and Ágota Kristóff. Yes, she is that good.

The Other "That Time of Year Again": Salutations, Aspirations and Pachyderm-Related Conflagrations

on Friday, January 8, 2016
A daytime long haul flight in the most uncomfortable plane the devil could have devised - thanks a bunch Jetstar - while stuck next to a slumbering businessman with the sinuses of an asthmatic hippopotamus provided me with a good few hours to ponder life, literature and everything else that's important (which, now I think about it, isn't much). In many ways 2015 was a terrible one for me - I hardly did any writing, I read a paltry 122 books and I was pretty slack on this whole blogging caper. Thankfully, I had a great reset in Hawaii (yeah, yeah first world solutions to first world problems) so I've leapt in to 2016 with a side table stacked with excellent looking books and an eagerness to foist my opinion about them down your throats. I also bought some new notebooks and refilled the ink cartridge in my pen, but that's neither here nor there. I probably have the greatest collection of notebooks with only one page of writing that the world has ever seen.

Anyhoo... The last day of my trip was spent running from bookstore to bookstore (of which there are, sadly, not very many in Honolulu) hoping to snap up anything that had escaped my attention on the 4000 other visits I'd made while I was there and also offloading the stack of paperbacks I'd read and didn't want to schlep back. Bookoff agreed to buy all but one (something about water damage, apparently) so I did the only thing I could think to do: scribbled the blog address on the title page and left it on a bench outside Barnes & Noble. Here's hoping someone picked it up and followed the link.

If it was you, please let me know.

So, onto, 2016. I'm not going to list many aspirations. I'm happy to read a little less (apparently it's not a competition), write a bit more and just generally enjoy the year. That said, a few things I'd like to achieve:

1. One brick a month. That's any book longer than 400 pages.
2. Read outside my comfort zone: More genre novels, graphic fiction and, gasp, some non-fiction. I'm happy to take suggestions here.
3. At least one blog post a week.
4. Write the kids' book that's been doing backflips in my mind for the past few weeks.
5. Finish a draft of the book I've been working on for longer than I care to admit and which I am well over deadline to deliver.
6. And, yeah, I can buy the odd book online again...

Well, that ought to do me. Eight days and eight books in to the year, I'd say I'm off to a good start. Time to go brick hunting.

The One That Got Away: In The Beginning Was The Sea by Tomás González

on Saturday, January 2, 2016
Well this is unusual. I tend to be one for clean breaks - once my lists are done the year is dead to me. I've never really had cause to question what I'd included because in those three or four days between the final compilation and the dropping of the shimmering apple I've never before read a book quite so astonishing as Tomás González's In The Beginning Was The Sea. Had I read it in time, it no doubt would have made my Shooting Stars and Other Satellites as one of the best books not published in 2015. Released in its native Colombia back in 1983, though only translated into English in 2014, it has to be one of saddest, creepiest, yet most exhilarating books I've read in a long time. Joseph Conrad meets Cormac McCarthy meets Robert Louis Stevenson with a dash or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it is both documentary and horror story, testament and morality tale.

J. and Elana are dreamers. Without much backstory, we know only that this young Colombian couple have decided to pack up their comfortable city lives and move out to a small Caribbean Island. There they buy a run down estate and start anew; no urban pressures, no materialism, no fake high society nonsense. At first it seems their dreams have come true. They lose themselves in renovations, plan for their future, get to know the locals. It doesn't take long, however, for things to begin to unravel. Elana, in particular, struggles to adjust. J. might be lost in his dreams but she is more practical and can't stand the squalor for which they seem to have settles. Business plans fail, money is stolen, the workers on their estate grow restless and the bank threatens to foreclose on their loan. Reading the decline has an added element of dread. We know from the outset that some great crime has been committed. We know that police are called to the estate afterwards to investigate. We know that either J., Elana or both have died. Or perhaps they are the criminals, that they have been driven mad to the point of murder. There is a tense battle of wits raging between the various characters and anyone could be victim or perpetrator. I don't want to spoil anything but, suffice to say, how it actually pans out is as horrific as it is banal. Chances are you'll see it coming, too, which makes it all the more ghastly.

Ultimately, In The Beginning Was The Sea is a heady warning against the arrogance of absolute idealism. Warning signs pepper the narrative; you will want to slap J. across the face and, in crass English pantomime style, scream "Watch Out!" There is an angry energy to the storytelling. González is on a mission. He wants to understand but he also wants to condemn. It is little surprise to learn that the story is based on the tragic fate of the author's brother. In that way, it is also a eulogy. There is love behind the rage; a sad shaking of the head at what didn't have to be.