Amidst the furor and fanfare surrounding the passage of same-sex marriage legislation in the UK and elsewhere, there has been a growing unease within some corners of the queer community about what it means for queer identity. Some activists complain that same-sex marriage is an act of assimilation within a patriarchal structure that has long rejected queer people. The price of acceptance, so the argument goes, is too high, demanding a rejection of queer behaviors regarded as seedy by conservative, mainstream society.
The moral nuance, sometimes verging on ambivalence, of Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, brilliantly encapsulates the tensions between a desire to assimilate and a resistance to the loss of diverse, queer lives. (Greenwell specifically refers to queer, rather than gay, identities and sensibilities in interviews and essays). The novel follows the relationship between an unnamed, American protagonist and a young, Bulgarian hustler named Mitko, who meet at a popular Sofia cruising spot.
This is not the louche world of Alan Hollinghurst. Greenwell’s work carefully balances the narrator’s desire with his clear-eyed shame at cruising and the transactional, even exploitative, nature of his relationship with the Bulgarian. Both he and Mitko are using each other: there is not a single description of their sexual encounters in which Mitko is not distracted, disinterested or makes it clear he has already been with someone that day. He is simply fulfilling his obligations as per their agreement, “bound by our phantom contract.” Yet cruising spots are portrayed as morally ambiguous places, providing a sense of belonging to those cast aside, and fleeting moments of intimacy for those left in the shadows, even while the threat of violence is ever present.
Probably homeless, often drunk, seldom washed and virtually illiterate, Mitko is beautiful and fearless, but inhabits the periphery of Bulgarian society. He gets by through a combination of manual labor and selling his body to older men, who liaise with him online. Our narrator’s longing for him is coupled with unease, as the relationship breaches the boundaries of their monetary exchange. Quite what either wants from the other is never fully clear and, as Mitko challenges at one point, maybe the narrator himself does not know.
The novel’s title is derived from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, in which the barber promises to restore to Aschenbach “what belongs to you,” namely the youth and vitality the older man has lost. Greenwell’s novel is full of graphic depictions of social and bodily decay, but the title’s most profound resonance is with an ease and generosity afforded to the young, but denied to the gay child. On their first meeting, the narrator says of Mitko, “He had about him a sense simply of accepting his right to a measure of the world’s beneficence, even as so clearly it had been withheld him.”
Later, in the book’s middle section, the narrator recalls the moment in his teens when his father casts him out for being a “faggot,” with the bitter irony that “in the world I came from, children weren’t simply turned out.” The Edenic overtones are clear, as this scene is foreshadowed by a prelapsarian tenderness observed between a father and daughter, playing by a waterfall; while she is “certain…of a home among the things of the world,” this beneficence is forever denied to Mitko and his kind.
Part of the nature of exclusion is the greater appreciation of the things others possess that you lack. So, just as Mitko plays with the narrator’s laptop and iPod, “things he coveted and that I neglected and (no doubt he felt) didn’t deserve,” so we are reminded of the many ways that queer lives are excluded, from a norm often taken for granted.
This is most acute in the scene where the narrator is rejected by his teenage friend K., who gets him to stand guard at his bedroom door so he can be “alone” with his girlfriend. The narrator suddenly realizes that he is there “not as guard, but as audience.” An audience’s role is to observe, not participate, and this sense of the queer subject as held at a distance from life’s events, observer rather than agent, is powerfully evoked.
Yet, while we have a sense of the universal alienation of queer people, there is a sense of reprimand to those who have benefitted from rights and freedoms won here, but denied elsewhere. When Mitko threatens to expose the protagonist to his employer and colleagues at the American College, he is stunned to learn that the narrator’s sexuality is not a secret. In this instance, our narrator cannot be shamed. There is an echo of Mitko’s earlier fascination with the electronic devices that he cannot afford and feels the narrator may not deserve.
Mitko’s tragedy is that, while repeatedly denied, he retains a child’s hope and innocence. His simple wish to take the narrator to visit his family home, to meet his mother, will never take place. Yet, his repeated refusal to confirm the worst suspicions of the narrator and the society, which rejects him, mark him out as an innocent.
At one stage, as the narrator tries to make amends for a blunt attempt to extricate himself from the hustler, Mitko suddenly says “I want to live a normal life.” For those who argue that the legalization of same-sex marriage removes the final barrier to acceptance for queer people, here is the response: living a life with a background chorus of low and high-level disgust does not simply get under the skin, it carves into the bone. Greenwell’s skill is, at one and the same time, celebrating uniquely queer spaces and behaviors, acknowledging their limitations and reasons for being, while also accepting the desire for normality and ordinariness that queer people are forever denied by their difference.
What Belongs to You is a profoundly important novel that is too complex and generous to side between a desire for social acceptance and a celebration of queer difference. So while the narrator’s life has a freedom utterly strange to Mitko, the origins of their shame are the same. The often conflicting emotions and desires describe the universal damage done by a withholding of a beneficence afforded to others, and the tragic inevitability of this being replicated amongst queer people themselves.