Over the course of that wonderful time in year when one season transitions into the next, I picked up John Williams' 'Stoner', a rediscovered masterpiece exploring the life and sadness of the central character across a mundanely painted image of Midwestern America. I longed for Stoner to reach some form of formidable happiness and found myself fully invested in the tale Williams wove. Fast forward two months and I find myself revisiting the same feelings in Garth Greenwell's truly astonishing debut, 'What Belongs to You'.
Set in central Bulgaria, the novel opens, rather abruptly, with the narrator (of which his name is never revealed) visiting a bathroom stall and paying for a "transaction" with Mitko, a young high-spirited rent boy, and then begins a dangerous game of the unnamed narrator chasing his explicit desires repeatedly through more encounters with Mitko while struggling with a silent shame that is deep-rooted from his past. Interestingly, Mitko is the only character who is bestowed a name, every other character is reduced down to a single initial and full-stop, which creates a dichotomy of Mitko having something of worth but also representing the unattainable, the fantasy or illusion of desire. He is purposefully placed outside of the world Greenwell creates, therefore making him a more interesting and well crafted character. It is through the slipperiness of the narrator's desire that truly makes the language shine, even in the more explicit moments. Moments of eroticism are so rich with striking beauty it never feels out of place, evoking a subtle sensuality that is all but told with an underlying, aching repression.
'What Belongs to You' reads as quickly as a novella, over a course of 196 pages, but has the sheer gravitas of a novel, not too dissimilar to Hanya Yanagihara's 'A Little Life'. The sheer speed I read it at only accounts to the prose having a distinct lack of punctuation, but this helps form a free-flowing narrative that could be read as a confession, striking parallels to James Baldwin's 'Giovanni's Room'. Like Baldwin's narrator, Greenwell's struggles with his desires, dedicating the whole middle section of the novel to recollect moments from his childhood, particularly the taboo of his homosexuality and yearning for his best friend only known as 'K.', and the reflective mood acts as a relatively welcome change from the explosive eroticism between himself and Mitko; memory and desire become unanimously linked. Thematically, the repression of homosexuality is brutally ingrained throughout. Passers by glance at the narrator with unease, and later on in the novel he speaks about being diseased, unclean, even Mitko doesn't address sexuality, he is merely the object for desire. It is this that really makes the novel all more moving, Greenwell presents the lonely American teacher in a world that fails to understand him, nor he it and is as such denied a voice (reinforcing the deliberate lack of punctuation).
Alongside the most vivid and striking images Greenwell conjures, there are moments that prolong the narrative, and disrupt the free-flow narrative, but luckily these moments are far and few between to make it a serious, disjointing problem.
As compelling and moving as William Stoner's journey to self-discovery was, Greenwell follows in his footsteps by creating something so rich, so important, so brutally honest that acts as a new landmark in gay literature; accepting your desires, choosing to act on them or not and pushing past the point of repression. A remarkable and raw debut.