1 February, 2016Issue 30.1Fiction

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A Great Novel, Not A Great Gay Novel

Bryan St. Amand

Cover of Garth Greenwell What Belongs to You
What Belongs To You
Garth Greenwell
Picador, 7 April 2016
204 pp
ISBN 9781447280514






Garth Greenwell’s new novel has been met with a showering of peremptory praise—The New Republic, drawing on a thread of commentary that has evolved over the past few years, hailed it as “the great gay novel for our times.” This seems a strange designation to bestow on a book in which the protagonist—an aging American man in a foreign country, beset with deep-seated feelings of shame over his sexuality—meets a homeless young man in an underground bathroom, pays him for repeated sexual favors, and spends the rest of the novel bemoaning the emotional impact this “affair” (if it can be called such) has had on him. A great novel, perhaps; indeed, it stands in the great bildungsroman tradition of young male bohemians “finding themselves” in the arms of prostitutes—who they desire, renounce, and denounce at their leisure—with scant concern for the human dignity of the person on the other end of this process. But “the great gay novel for our times”? What times? Have we made no progress?

This is not to say that the novel lacks merit. On the contrary, there are passages of beautiful prose (justifying the numerous critical comparisons to Henry James, and then some) and there is an exquisite symmetry to the way the novel is structured. A primary concern of the text is physical intimacy and its valences. In one scene, the narrator (who goes unnamed by the text) observes a girl of three or four in a park, playing by a small pond while her father keeps her from falling with his arm. Comparing this embrace to his encounters with Mitko, the male prostitute, the narrator muses,

“Perhaps here, I thought, was a wholly untheatrical embrace…I could see others watching them, too, smiling and wistful, maybe a little melancholy, as I was, with the sense both of my own exclusion and of how quickly those embraces would pass. They would take on different meanings as the child grew older, they would become impermissible … And so it is, I thought then, as the man and the child released each other … so it is that at the very moment we come into full consciousness of ourselves what we experience is leave-taking a loss we seek the rest of our lives to restore.”

This moment rebounds through the text: in the embraces of the narrator and Mitko; in an encounter from the narrator’s childhood, in which his father rejects his embrace (a scene heavily overlaid with Freudian connotations); and, in another scene, in the lack of intimacy the narrator feels sitting next to his mother on a bus, while they watch a young boy being tickled by his grandmother. This is a primary strength of What Belongs To You: the manner in which the past, the present, and the possible future are all present at once. Greenwell captures and portrays this sensation seamlessly: in the narrator’s thoughts, Mitko is never not present, the narrator’s childhood is never not present, and the narrator’s fear of being shut out of an intimacy—of suffering from a breach he cannot repair—is never not present, as it permeates his past and haunts his thoughts of the future.

The novel takes its title from a moment in Death in Venice—as Greenwell states in an interview with Guernica, “the title actually comes from one of my favorite scenes in Death in Venice, when the barber convinces Aschenbach to try cosmetics and hair dye as a way of recapturing his youth. ‘Permit me to restore what belongs to you,’ he says, and the phrase seems redolent with so many possible meanings, with all the longings—not just for youth, but for beauty, love, a different life—Aschenbach suffers.” And yet, there is an obvious subtext that Greenwell does not discuss in this moment from Death in Venice—that youth does not belong to Aschenbach; Aschenbach has fallen prey to a self-deception so profound that others can sense and exploit it in him. Greenwell’s narrator falls prey to this same level of unwitting self-absorption—and, as in Death in Venice, this self-absorption blinds him to the fact he has completely abdicated any moral responsibility vis-à-vis his lust and its repercussions.

Capturing this sensation—of a tortured man caught between his lust and his shame, between a rock and a hard place (as it were) in his every waking moment—is a triumph. Nonetheless, in the age of gay marriage and informed consent, in which nonprofit organizations are striving to address the plight of homeless LGBT youth (who are often forced to turn to prostitution in order to house or feed themselves), it is extremely hard to empathize with Greenwell’s narrator, who displays a shocking lack of self-awareness about the predatory nature of his behavior. Greenwell’s narrator repeatedly notes that as an American expatriate in Bulgaria, he enjoys the luxury of being openly gay at his workplace, a luxury that is denied to ordinary gay men in Bulgaria, who must go to lengths to conceal their sexuality. And yet the narrative never slows to consider how the narrator’s privileged position impacts his sexual relations with Bulgarian men. Death in Venice succeeds in making Aschenbach an empathetic character by framing his lust for a fifteen-year-old boy as a great man’s fall from grace—Aschenbach’s refined morality is presented in the opening chapters, and the normative voice of the narrator interpolates that refined morality into Aschenbach’s increasingly flimsy justifications for his pursuit of Tadzio. This dimension—any consideration of a moral theme—simply does not exist in Greenwell’s novel.

In Lolita we also have a tale told from the perspective of a sexual predator—and yet, Nabokov imbued his narrator with a diabolical charm and placed him in a repentant crouch. Greenwell’s unnamed narrator lacks Humbert Humbert’s charm and Aschenbach’s refined morality. The novel fails to acknowledge that there is something problematic in the premise of an American expatriate paying a homeless young man for sex. The narrator even goes so far as to suggest, repeatedly, that they are somehow made equals in their relationship, that it may be Mitko preying on the narrator’s needs.

Like Humbert Humbert, Greenwell’s narrator views the object of his desire as a body to be possessed—not as a person, worthy of respect—and he reacts petulantly when he is denied what he wants. Nabokov maneuvers his reader into sympathy with Humbert Humbert through his passionately-felt meditations on love, lust, and loss. These emotions are universal, and part of the terror of reading Lolita is experiencing their universality through the depiction of a monstrous act (namely, the abduction and sexual abuse of a young girl). Greenwell similarly achieves powerful, beautifully-wrought moments of universality in the telling of his tale.

But the narrator’s lack of sympathy for the object of his desire—and the novel’s concordant failure to (at least) address what is wrong in his behavior—sours the experience. In one scene, Mitko comes to the narrator’s apartment and confesses that he may be dying of an unnamed disease. After making this confession, Mitko stands to go, and the narrator thinks, “Now that I knew or thought I knew I would finally be rid of him I didn’t want him to go.” It is extremely hard to feel sympathy towards such a narrator—and his lack of self-awareness, combined with the lack of any consideration of a moral perspective on his sexual predation, undermines the novel.

There is something wrong with what Greenwell’s narrator has done—and the title strikes on it. What Belongs To You: does nothing belong to Mitko, is nothing owed to him, by this unnamed narrator who not only buys his body and youth, but who also coopts his tale, his narrative, his life, and puts it all to the service of a highly aestheticized musing on his own childhood and experience? Obviously a reader need not like or identify with the protagonist of a tale for it to have merit, and this novel does have merit in abundance. Every writer ought to feel envy at the immediacy, the urgency with which Greenwell imbues his narrator’s lust and his sexual encounters with Mitko—as well as the quieter moments of the tale, such as the scene in the park where he observes the young girl with her father.

But the question of morality feels like the elephant in the room; it lingers like a bad smell. Greenwell’s narrator dwells at length (the novel is divided into three sections, and the second section focuses at length on the narrator’s childhood in Kentucky and his relationship with his father) on the sexual shame he carries from his upbringing. It feels as though the narrator offers this shame up by way of an explanation for his behavior—but in this, the age of corporate-sponsored Gay Pride parades, it feels oddly retrograde to be reading a novel in which exploitative behavior is seemingly justified by the shame one carries at being gay. As gay men, we ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard now, and the novel fails (on this one dimension) by not at least addressing the question.

Make no mistake, this is a great novel—it strikes the eternal, it mines the mundane for the exuberant—but do not let the fact that the protagonists are gay fool you. This is a profound meditation on lust and loss, on aesthetics and desire—but it is not “the great gay novel for our times.” It succeeds on many levels, but its treatment of gay themes is far behind the times.

Bryan St. Amand is doing a Masters in Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Oxford.