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‘An insight into the dreams and erotic longings of a young gay man – with a taste for big cock’

Peter Wells expands on his recent, pathetically small Listener review of What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell to say exactly why he thinks it’s a masterpiece.

Once upon a time, and comparatively recently, gay fiction provided a window not only into how gay men lived, but also a portal into the eroticism and interior of our lives – our thoughts, dreams, intuitions, yearnings. It was how we helped make sense of our lives. But the digital world shattered that. Gay men could now access each other 24/7 and exist in a sort of eternal ever-present (as well as access a never-before-known amount of explicit pornography). Suddenly being gay no longer seemed to be important as the world swelled with “men having sex with men” without any tiresome worrying about identity, or any need to commit to a sense of a broader community. HIV-Aids had ceased to be “a death sentence”. It was just easier to fuck and forget all about the rest.

Beside this feverish proliferation of activity, the very slowness of thought necessary to producing fiction seemed a limitation. Yet recently there have been signs that gay fiction (always a problematic term) is having a renaissance. Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs to You has been heralded as both a masterpiece by Edmund White and “an instant classic” by no less an authority than the New York Times Book Review. These are serious salutes. None of them incidentally talks about ‘gay fiction’, a term that might have outlived its use. Yet What Belongs to You is definitely, from its very first page onwards, a novel which provides an insight into the thoughts, dreams and erotic longings of an intelligent, questioning young gay man – with a taste for big cock.

The novel is set in the immediate past in Sofia, Bulgaria. It’s the world we all live in now, neo-liberal dysfunctional, with a lot of poverty and people in need. In the toilets below a superannuated “palace of culture” from the Soviet days, the narrator (never named) comes across Mitko, who is the object of desire round which the entire ‘novel’ revolves. I’ve put the term “novel” in quotations marks, as this book is what Greenwell himself calls ‘faction’. That is, a mixture of fact and autobiography recast into the powerful theatre of fiction. (Another term for this is autofiction – a mixture of autobiography and fiction.) It’s a form Karl Ove Knausgaard has mastered, making traditional fiction seem somehow limited and out of touch. “The real point of writing,” Knausgaard has said, “is not to do with making things up, but with drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows…Not what happens, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself.”

Knausgaard went out of his way to use ordinary language, trying to write so fast he outstripped his literary sensibilities. Greenwell is the exact opposite. He uses the high literary style of Henry James to dissect his narrator’s dilemma. (Greenwell started out as a poet – his language has a poet’s careful ear to phrase and nuance.) The narrator falls hard for Mitko who is a hustler in pretty desperate circumstances. Most often he’s homeless, with no fixed job. He’s always hungry and more often than not, out of it. We’ve all known the dangerous attraction of people like this. He’s great sex (although the sex is never very clearly described.) But the whole novel runs along in tandem to the narrator’s questioning about exactly what he himself is doing, what is he thinking, what does he think he’s doing – how can he get out of what is clearly a dead-end “relationship” which he yet finds erotically exciting and fulfilling on many deeply questionable levels. It is this questing sensibility, as well as the crystalline language, that make this novel a knockout.

I occasionally asked myself if the great critical success of this novel is partly predicated on the fact that, while the subject matter is basic and, to a degree. “sordid”, Greenwell’s incredibly assured literary style lifts it away, with almost glittering verbal forceps, to “a higher plane”. This is not to diss the novel, which I began with a degree of resistance but which I soon found a compulsive read. This is made even more remarkable by the fact the novel has almost no break out dialogue. If you flick through its rather slim 191 pages it appears discouragingly like a textbook of yore, with wall-to-wall text. It’s virtually a wallpaper of words without end. But such is Greenwell’s skill he manages to lure the reader ever onwards – partly to find out what happens to the gruesomely ghastly but charismatic shit that is Mitko – but also to find out exactly what kind of sense the writer is making of his own life, his inadequacies, his fucked-up past and present.

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GARTH GREENWELL

The narrator grew up at the time of Aids and after a period of terrified abstinence exploded out into “sex in parks and bathrooms, dangerous and indiscriminate sex”. Somehow he manages not to become HIV positive. The narrator sees his constant sexual hunger as “my own gnawing affliction”. He is drawn into “ever more intense experiences” by his never sated appetite, “that has always, even in my moments of apparent pride, run alongside my life like a snapping dog”. This is one of the virtues of fiction. It can talk lucidly and honestly about the larger meaning of things we all do, feelings we all experience (to a greater or lesser extent.)

The great value of this novel is found in Greenwell’s self-musings about the meaning of his life, even the meaninglessness of his life, whether in a venereal clinic or stumbling round a Soviet-era park in crumbling decay, littered by old condoms that look like, he sees, someone has bitten them open in great haste.

A central question in the novel is whether the narrator will go back and see his peculiarly cold and homophobic father when he is dying. But rather than this being the heart of the novel, the question of whether the narrator will go back and pat dear old dying Dad on the head is swiftly dispatched. Instead it returns to its main terrain – that ever present “snapping dog” of desire.

It’s a stunning debut, partly for the full-on way the author goes into a relationship that some people would define as shameful and degrading. The novel or “faction” presents the relationship completely clearly, without sentiment but with a lot of the angst and uncertainties clarified. “The whole bent of my nature is towards confession” the narrator writes at one point. “I understood the desire to be naked before the world.”

It’s easy to see why Edmund White thought this novel a masterpiece. It’s the kind of book he wrote quite a few decades ago when he almost singlehandedly created the genre of “gay fiction”. Yet the fact was gay fiction was as much a publisher’s marketing category as a reality.

What do I mean by that? Gay fiction arose in tandem with the expectations and increasingly assertive presence of people identifying as LGBT from the 1970s onwards. A market developed for LGBT stories. But it was clear, by the 1980s, at the time of the Aids crisis, homosexual men and women were not actually considered “ordinary people” even as the life-and-death crisis changed gay fiction into a questing, powerful force producing novels like Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library. Yet on the whole gay fiction was always treated as a subgenre in the “serious” literary world, something you had to acknowledge but not something you had to actually read.

But once the internet started drenching society in sexual information talking about sex and gender, thinking about sex and gender has become part of everyday life. The fascination with transgender at the moment is an expression of the increasing fragility of gender rules, identities and norms. It’s like the whole world – or at least the non-Isis part of the world – is in transition.

It’s really only with the greater acceptance that LGBT people are part of the human race, with every expectation of being treated with real equality, that the genre definition of “gay fiction”, “lesbian fiction” has faded. After all, Greenwell in What Belongs to You is talking about emotional realities that are not confined peculiarly to young American teachers in Sofia Bulgaria on the look out for monster schlong. His territory is really the classic one: how do you know yourself? How do you account for your own thinking – how do you handle the anarchy that is desire? How do you come to terms with what your family handed down to you? What is love? Is love even necessary?

Greenwell is a brilliant new writer, one of an increasing number of voices coming through who write tough books – tough in the sense they grapple with issues we all live with daily, having left the husk of identity behind. We’re all on a level now.

Possibly a further sign of this change is a woman’s confidence in taking on a novel about the lives of gay men. I’m speaking, of course, of Hanya Yanagihara’s devastating doorstep weepie, “A Little Life”.

This book looks at the lives of four men, three of whom turn out to be gay/bi men. Her confidence in handling this story comes through a shrewd concentration on their non-sexual dynamics. Her lead character is so badly fucked-up by childhood molestation that sex – the pleasures of sex which feature so prominently in gay men’s sensibilities – is completely absent. The one moment of “love making” in the novel is a little queasy as the lead character remembers his childhood sexual performances for groups of men in dreary motel units. Yanagihara’s novel is a hard act to criticise and maybe the larger assertion is this: “gay” subject matter is now considered an ordinary part of human experience. It doesn’t need a separate shelf. Possession of an iphone opens up a whole universe of material that was once hidden away. Anal sex, the thing that was so dramatically stigmatised the identity of gay men (sodomists) is no longer a taboo activity. (Midwestern conservative American girls use it as a means to present themselves as virgins on their wedding nights.)

Things change. Homosexual men and women now get married before families who weep – not with shame or anger – but with high flown whanau sentiment. Perhaps it isn’t so strange then that the category ‘ gay fiction’ fades into the background while into the foreground enter writers like Garth Greenwell whose subject is both unflinchingly about gay experience but also the core of all novel-writing: how to make sense of being human.


What Belongs to You (Picador, $27.99) by Garth Greenwell is available at Unity Books.

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