A Little Death
By Patrick NathanApril 27, 2016
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
driftwood from a spring flood, stockpiled
by Furies. Changes. Pinetop’s boogiewoogie
keys stack against each other like syllables
in tongue-tripped elegies for Lady Day
& Duke. Don’t try to make any sense
out of this; just let it take you
like Pres’s tenor & keep you human.
— Yusef Komunyakaa
Louise Glück remains one of the only writers to capture how men desire. In Glück’s poem “A Myth of Devotion,” Hades, who has “decided” he loves Persephone, abducts her to the underworld. To make her more comfortable, he sets about remodeling: “it would be hard on a young girl / to go so quickly from bright light to utter darkness.” He has long observed Persephone in her meadow, a “smeller” of flowers, a “taster” of fruits. His conclusion is terrifyingly male: “If you have one appetite, he thought, / you have them all […] It never crossed his mind / that there’d be no more smelling here, / certainly no more eating.” In the act of wanting, Hades reduces Persephone from a girl to an obstacle — a task to complete, a thing to overcome. As for the girl, she’s merely the vessel for his wanting. The vessel itself — its longevity, its humanity — does not concern him.
Unrequited love has, of course, been a subject for centuries. In Shakespeare, it’s either tragic or a farce of fairies, masks, and asses. In Jane Austen, it’s a puzzle to be solved. In Proust, it’s an unscratchable itch. With Lolita, the violence often inherent in unrequited love is left undisguised — it’s rape. Our best love stories have always been tangles of questions, suspicions, and layers of instability. Garth Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs to You belongs on this list, exploring just how often love and violence are one and the same.
Greenwell’s narrator is a young, unnamed American poet living in Bulgaria, where he teaches English to the privileged children of Sofia’s upper class. His luxurious apartment is provided by the school while his transatlantic comforts (iPods, a laptop, a little spending money) set him apart from the people struggling around him. Even his sexuality, as he explains, is not an issue in this otherwise homophobic country: “I am an open person, I don’t have these secrets.” Aside from a little loneliness now and again, Greenwell’s narrator is content in his exile — reading and writing, untouched by the pain of a bruised society. And yet, he’s not invulnerable. The novel begins with a visit to the basement of the National Palace of Culture, where he meets Mitko, a young, handsome, and emotionally volatile hustler. Mitko’s indifference, as well as his brute beauty, promise an experience the narrator can’t help but pursue: “[H]e smiled and stepped into a stall and unbuttoned his fly, and my pretense of hesitation fell away as I realized I would pay whatever price he wanted.”
For the ancient poets, love is melting, burning, freezing — an assault on the body that does permanent damage. It’s here, in the bathrooms beneath a museum in a foreign city, that Greenwell’s narrator is put to the same bodily flame. His relationship with Mitko flowers into something neither can describe. Mitko uses the word priyatel, “friend,” which the narrator is “never sure how to interpret, since in addition to its usual meanings Mitko used it to refer to his clients.” After several basement rendezvous, they spend the weekend together in Varna, a beautiful seaside town. Mitko is not as passionate as in earlier encounters, which leads to an argument: “I’ve paid for the room, for our meals, for everything, I came to be with you, to have sex with you.” Mitko doesn’t take this well. He becomes confrontational, eventually violent, and their love affair — commercial and otherwise — is terminated. But their relationship is not. One of Greenwell’s greatest strengths in What Belongs to You is illustrating how relationships do not — cannot — ever truly end.
Two years later, when Mitko returns to the narrator’s apartment, he’s tested positive for syphilis. The narrator learns that he too has been infected, and has infected his new boyfriend (“imam postoyanen priyatel,” he explains to Mitko, “a constant friend”). Mitko needs money for treatment, which the narrator provides, but he continually returns, always with a new request, a new plea. This, I’ll define coldly, is how relationships work: we blend together, we infect, we alter, we take and give; our skin and selves aren’t the boundaries we’re raised to believe. You are what you eat — Is it too easy to believe, also, that you are whom you’ve loved? As the narrator observes at the Venerologiya clinic: “I had never heard of a venereology department, and I wondered whether the word was used in the States. By its Latin roots it should have meant the study of love.” To infect someone indeed is a way of loving, but loving is also a way of infecting. We are constantly, untreatably changing each other’s chemistry.
Etymologically, “unrequited love” isn’t so romantic or comedic. Its Middle English roots suggest an uncompleted transaction — a love that has not been cleared or paid up. During their first full night together, after the two have sex, Mitko chats with other men — his priyateli — online. Greenwell’s narrator feels “something of the jealousy of ownership, even though my ownership was temporary, wasn’t really ownership at all, and I was already bitter at the thought of sending Mitko off the next morning to Plovdiv and this other man.” If love here seems transactional it’s because Mitko has, literally, been paid for: “It was astonishing to me that any number of these soiled bills could make that body available, that after the simplest of exchanges I could reach out for it and find it in my grasp.” Even after their attempt at a relationship is over, when Mitko comes to him for help, he insists on paying in his only currency: “I had wanted to give without taking, but it must have been humiliating for him, not to have anything to bargain with.” In this way, What Belongs to You is one of the most heartbreaking meditations on the imbalance of cost and price I have ever read. Neither buyer nor seller is ever satisfied with his end of the deal. As Jerry Seinfeld once joked, it’s always hard to pay the restaurant bill at the end of the meal: “We’re not hungry now. Why are we buying all this food?” The economics of desire are complicated. When you have what you want, why would you still want it?
The distance inevitably wrought by desire is one of many forms of distance that Greenwell examines in this novel. Another is that of words themselves. No couple is articulate while arguing, but the narrator here feels this most acutely, blaming his abrasiveness on translation: “I had to speak baldly in his language, without any of my usual defenses.” The gap between what these two men want to say and what they’re able to say is palpable and immense. Even when they meet, he tries to explain to Mitko “that my name was more or less unpronounceable in his language.” In fact, it’s during this first meeting that we learn the one word that’s not ambiguous in any language: “He rubbed the first three fingers of his other hand together, making the universal sign for money.” One of the many unstable layers in this brilliant novel is the suspicion that Mitko could be a radically simple person; he might just want money. Desire isn’t hard to understand; it’s only hard to master, and perhaps Mitko has mastered the art of advancing and retreating. During their first sexual encounter, Mitko pulls out of the narrator’s mouth, leaving him sexually unrequited: “I was left alone on my stained knees […] allowing me, with all the freedom of fantasy, to make of him what I would.” Trapped in his own skin and his own language, there is no way for the narrator to know what Mitko truly feels. There is no way to access him.
The desire to express oneself clearly comes from the perception of distance, be it between lovers or strangers. Flaubert, writing of Emma Bovary’s longing, said it best: “[H]uman speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.” In What Belongs to You, translation amplifies and illustrates this distance. Every word uttered between these men is up for interpretation. Every phrase is screened through a culture’s unwritten dictionary of connotations versus denotations. Yet, the linguistic distance here is only an amplification of the difference in their lives at large. Understanding is a virtually impossible request. Even though the narrator is a poet, his apparent skill with language doesn’t save him from the inarticulate violence of a broken heart. Personally, this strikes a chord. Those of us who write for a living should be able to find the right words in a romantic argument. Even for us, love can be like that dream where you want to speak or scream but can only let out a moan, where you want to run but your legs are mired in the mud.
It’s no secret that life and relationships are a series of irreparable changes. Like the orgasm itself, being in love — even just knowing other people — is its own form of petite mort. That’s how we go through life — dying. Maggie Nelson explores this idea in her recent book The Argonauts, a combination of memoir, essay, and gender/lit-theory, not to mention one of the most important books to come out last year. It’s both a catalog of quotations and a love letter to her partner, the artist Harry Dodge, and the family Nelson has made with him. Nelson’s eponymous metaphor comes from Barthes, who once noted how the phrase “I love you” must rekindle its significance with every utterance, must attach itself to new meanings, just like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Part of Nelson’s story is the simultaneous physical transformation of her family: Dodge undertook the transition from female to male during their relationship, while Nelson became pregnant with their first child. Nelson’s book explores the issue of identity when it’s subject to such drastic, seemingly contradictory changes. She recalls:
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wanted to make way for “queer” to hold all kinds of resistances and fracturings and mismatches that have little or nothing to do with sexual orientation […] She wanted the term to be a perpetual excitement, a kind of placeholder — a nominative, like Argo, willing to designate molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while also giving the slip.
The Argonauts is probably one of the queerest books ever published. It’s also the perfect — and universal — treatise on love. Nelson shows how love is not only destruction but also renewal. If love is the “Santa Ana winds […] shredding the bark off the eucalyptus trees,” this is bark we happily shed, molting into a new existence we refuse to rechristen.
If What Belongs to You is queer literature, it’s an epithet earned through Sedgwick’s “sense of the fugitive.” Greenwell’s novel, however, is not, and should never be taken for, what people call “GLBT literature.” Queer literature stays a step ahead of you. GLBT literature, on the other hand, signifies a use — it’s a tool of decryption. It’s a confinement system designed to protect the reading public from stumbling into depictions of gay sex or the anguish of growing up in a culture that refuses to accept your instinctive way of loving. Calling Greenwell’s novel “gay” is to miss everything allusive and subversive about it. That label would undermine the book’s own queerness. One doesn’t select a gay novel to be surprised; one selects a gay novel to be “gay” — to reinforce rather than open oneself up. And literature, at its best, is surprising. It is made of those “molten or shifting parts,” repairing and remaking itself, like the Argo, as it sails through time, as it narrates.
Thankfully, What Belongs to You is one of the most surprising debut novels to come along in years. It refuses to be any one thing, quickly transcending a simple story of one man’s tempestuous relationship with another. Broken into three parts, the novel’s second section has nothing, ostensibly, to do with Mitko at all. In the middle of teaching a class, the narrator receives an urgent note from another professor: “My father had fallen ill, I read, suddenly and gravely; he was in danger, he might be dying, and he had asked that I come to him, despite the fact that we hadn’t spoken in years.” A lesser novelist would pursue this as a plot point. Instead, it is a Sebaldian key that unlocks a labyrinth of memories, all cascading in a 40-page paragraph irresistibly read in a single sitting. While the narrator’s relationship with Mitko is sharp, painful, and intriguing — and the main force behind the novel — this middle section is where Greenwell’s mastery shows most radiantly. Anyone, in my view, should be able to write a good sentence, and most, to be fair, can write their way into a character who feels like a living human being, but few — and these are the novelists we cherish — can show the brain at work. The best writers are those who show the desire behind our species’ urgent need to narrate and to find patterns. Remembering an intimate moment with his father, the narrator admits the instability of memory: “Surely I only imagine now, from this distance, that there was longing in his voice as he spoke […] But I do hear it, the longing I think he felt as he drifted away from me and from the scene we inhabited together.” This father is almost impossible to reconcile with the cruel man who, years later, calls his son a faggot to his face: “If I had known you would never have been born.” One way to read this section is as a record of the narrator’s own Argonautical voyage — his burning and shedding and donning of selves: “I know they’re all I have, these partial selves, true and false at once, that any ideal of wholeness I long for is a sham; but I do long for it.”
When the novel returns, in its third section, to the narrator’s ongoing attempts to extinguish Mitko from his life, there are new layers of instability. Mitko has become a shadow of a person. It’s here that What Belongs to You is at its most nihilistic, though that nihilism doesn’t preclude humanity. Mitko returns time and time again, asking his priyatel for help as his weathered and used body deteriorates. At this point in Greenwell’s book, it’s difficult not to believe, despite all the evidence, that existence is not, as Beckett had it, “only one voice my voice never any other,” but a space where Emma Bovary’s words, for at least one listener, could indeed move the stars, and where love can be the most beautiful thing on earth.
But it’s not that simple, is it? In his essay The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes confesses: “I am interested in language because it wounds or seduces me.” He is thinking about bliss, which in French — jouissance — comes, shall we say, with a double meaning: sexual orgasm. For Barthes, the text of bliss is “the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts […] [that] unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions.” It is both repeatable and singular; every petite mort requires a new context and set of parameters. Much like getting fucked in the ass for the first time, there are those works of art that destroy and renew your perceptions of reality. Reading, watching films, viewing paintings, listening to music — these are all ways in which we seek out our perennial destruction and regeneration. Artists create in kind — to extinguish a self and make room for another.
During a train ride, Greenwell’s narrator observes a charismatic child. The boy is magnetic: “He was used to being adored, I thought a little bitterly, despite responding myself to his loveliness. We all felt it; my mother was immediately won over, and even the man across from us smiled over the top of his book.” As he leaves the train, he becomes aware of the moment’s impact:
I knew I would write a poem about him […] Making poems was a way of loving things, I had always thought, of preserving them, of living moments twice; or more than that, it was a way of living more fully, of bestowing on experience a richer meaning. But that wasn’t what it felt like when I looked back at the boy, wanting a last glimpse of him; it felt like a loss. Whatever I could make of him would diminish him, and I wondered whether I wasn’t really turning my back on things in making them into poems, whether instead of preserving the world I was taking refuge from it.
If an eradication of a piece of our soul is a little death, what Greenwell’s narrator describes as he studies the boy could be, darkly, a little murder. What the narrator has done with Mitko could also be called un petit meurtre. He has transformed this man’s life and suffering into the text before us — into What Belongs to You. In a broad sense, this is what novelists — what artists — do. As Proust’s narrator reflects toward the end of his life: “[T]he cruel law of art is that people die and we ourselves die after exhausting every form of suffering, so that over our heads may grow the grass not of oblivion but of eternal life, the vigorous and luxuriant growth of a true work of art.” Where Mitko is concerned, his loss is inevitable from the beginning; what the reader seeks — what provides our jouissance — is the narrator’s experience of this loss: “As I pressed my face to his neck and breathed him in, his scent sour with sweat and alcohol, it seemed impossible it could dissolve, simply dissolve, this form I had known so intimately with my hands and my mouth, it was unbearable that this body so dear to me should die.” And there is bliss in a moment like that, the bloody, messy, physical dissolution of the body as seen by Greenwell’s narrator. As Barthes says, “[I]t granulates, it crackles, it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes.” Anyone who has seen death, anyone who has been in love — anyone who has lived even a little life — has felt it. In What Belongs to You, we’re reminded of why we make art in the first place. Yes, a “way of loving things” has a lot to do with it. But it’s not preservation a poet achieves, nor even a record of the love that kindled the desire to write. Instead, art transcends that “cracked tin kettle” Flaubert described; it translates love and life into a language that we may not be able to speak but can certainly understand. As Greenwell shows us with this beautiful, fluent novel, art is the voice that eradicates distance. It is the voice of love.
Patrick Nathan’s writing has appeared in Boulevard, dislocate, Music & Literature, Revolver, 3:AM Magazine, and elsewhere. His first novel, Some Hell, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2017.
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