Garth Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs to You has won praise on both sides of the Atlantic. Edmund White describes ‘American literature [as] richer by one masterpiece’; Damon Galgut praises the beauty of Greenwell’s language, while James Wood writes, ‘In an age of the sentence fetish, Greenwell thinks and writes, as Woolf or Sebald do, in larger units of comprehension.’
Greenwell’s writing celebrates queer spaces and behaviours. His short story ‘Gospodar’, published in The Unprofessionals: New American Writing from the Paris Review, describes a hook-up that turns violent – the threat of violence is ever-present in his work, and so too is shame. The story’s protagonist struggles between a desire for sexual debasement and the requirement that his denigration be consensual. Here, as in the novel, shame and desire are bedfellows.
What Belongs to You was published following the passage of equal marriage legislation in the UK and US. Greenwell has spoken eloquently about the significance of marriage being available as a way of life for all people, regardless of sexual orientation. However, he, like many queer activists, has expressed concern about a creeping homonormativity, and the erasure of different, queer models of living. It remains unclear what the novel’s narrator and Mitko, the Bulgarian hustler at its heart, truly want or need from each other. Their relationship remains transactional. However, there is also a sense that hooks-ups, cruising spots – queer spaces – provide moments of fleeting intimacy unavailable to those confined to the norms of straight society. Just as the novel describes the lasting damage done to queer people by their difference, by the withholding of ‘a measure of the world’s beneficence’ that straight people take for granted, it appeals for tolerance, for grace, for those struggling in the face of systemic rejection. The conflicting demands of a desire to simply be, uninhibited, and for acceptance manifests itself in a desire that is, in some sense, strange and unknown even to its subject. His novel holds these conflicting forces in balance.
Yet the novel remains defiantly queer, with a moral undertone that castigates the failings of those parts of the LGBTQ movement that sees its work as done. Just as Mitko covets the American’s material possessions – his laptop, his iPod, ‘things he coveted and that I neglected and (no doubt he felt) didn’t deserve’ – so too there is a sense that we are too ready to see gay equality as a battle won, neglecting that the root of oppression remains unaddressed and that these victories have been bought with conformity to those norms demanded by the oppressor.
I met with Greenwell at the end of August to discuss the importance of gay identities and an anxiety that they can sometimes efface the subtleties of human desire and lived experience. Ultimately, can the layers of nuance of a novel like What Belongs to You ever be replicated in our politics, or are those on the fringes always mandated to talk about themselves in a manner that is politically expedient, at the sake of their lived reality?