Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, June 17, 2016

Garth Greenwell, _What Belongs to You_

REDUCED TO its briefest description, this novel might almost be Caleb Crain's Necessary Errors. Young American gay man with literary ambitions teaches English in a former Soviet bloc country and develops a relationship with a local man who is basically a hustler. Being inexperienced (strike one), middle class (strike two), and American (strike three), the protagonist never quite sorts out what the relationship is, never quite hits an authentic note, but comes to understand himself and his own upbringing in a way that creates (maybe) hope for his future.

For all that, though, the two novels are deeply different, both excellent, but in  diverging ways. Crain's novel (see LLL for July 8, 2014) has the detail and texture of a 19th century bildungsroman: the careful description, the large cast of supporting characters, the sense of passing time, a narrative arc from callowness to maturity.

What Belongs to You, however, is all pared-down modernist concision and modernist ambiguity. It is set in Bulgaria.  More or less all I knew of Bulgaria as I started the novel is that it produces an unearthly kind of women's choral music and that it somehow managed to protect most its Jews from the worst of the Holocaust, and, having finished the novel, that is still more or less all I know.  The narrator mentions in passing students, fellow teachers, medical officers, but we do not even learn their names; the only character in the novel who actually is named is the hustler, Mitko. (A current lover ["R."] and a friend from adolescence ["K."] get initials.) We are in a landscape swept clean of almost everything but a relationship with a man the narrator can never be confident he understands.

The novel could be described as, on the one hand,  a novella with two main parts, the first beginning the narrator's first encounter with Mitko in a public men's room and ending with a stormily concluded holiday visit to Mitko's seaside home town, the second beginning two years later with Mitko's turning up unexpectedly at the narrator's doorstep with the news that he has syphilis and that the narrator may have it too, and ending with a final plea for a little more food at a little more money at that same doorstep. These sections are what Isherwood's Berlin Stories might have been had he been as candid there as he was in his later autobiographical volumes.

In between the two parts, on the other hand, we have a paragraph of some forty pages that recreates the narrator getting the news that his father back in the United States is dying--a long-breathed Proustian swirl of time, memory, introspection, and slow analytic narrative.

The extraordinary thing is how well these quite different narrative strands braid together. The bonding element we might call abjection--the narrator's sense that his powerful desire for Mitko has enmeshed him with a bit of rough trade who could turn out to be violent, exploitative, or both, the condemnation of his sexuality he felt from his father as though he were the bearer of some unholy pollution, his visits to the clinic for his venereal infection--but I should immediately point out, too, that this is not a matter of gay self-hatred at all, more an understanding of our shared fallen nature, our helplessness before our own appetites, our doubts about our capacity for love, our conflicts, our guilt.

What would it mean to do enough, I wondered, as I had wondered before about 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.

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