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Garth Greenwell: Accessing The Ecstatic

Jonathan Lee interviews Garth Greenwell

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Photo by Max Freeman.

Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You begins in a public bathroom beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. An American teacher has descended in a search for sex. He quickly finds Mitko, a young local man who is willing to provide satisfaction for an appropriate fee, his demeanor “cordial and brash, entirely public in that place of intense privacies.” High above them, as they transact, the surface of the city gleams with picturesque scenes, a plaza “full of light and people,” polite conversations taking shape, grapes hanging ripe from vines. It’s an appropriate opening for a terrific novel about the divide between our public and private selves. What Belongs To You, as it tracks the shifting relations between these two very different men, flits constantly between the world of observable gestures and the realm of subterranean desires.

Greenwell, who has spent time living in Bulgaria and studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, writes in rich, looping sentences reminiscent of the work of Javier Marías. As in novels like A Heart So White and All Souls, or Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line Of Beauty and The Folding Star, the novel follows a protagonist who is an obsessive viewer of other people. He sees every change in body language. He notes every shift in power. Each scene is conjured with such aggressive specificity that the reader can’t help but fall into the role of co-voyeur. What Belongs To You comes to feel, in the end, like a great enactment of an infatuation, exciting and appalling by turns—a brilliantly observed account of an attempt to make another person entirely yours, to subsume them within your story.

To mark the release of What Belongs To You, I asked Greenwell about putting each clause of his sentences under productive pressure, why so few American novels seem to place gay characters center stage, and the inspiration offered by his time teaching in Sofia.

— Jonathan Lee for Guernica

Guernica: The characters in What Belongs To You first appeared in Mitko, a novella released in 2010. What made you want to explore their relationship across a longer work?

Garth Greenwell: I thought the story was finished with Mitko, and I had plans to write an unrelated book about other places and characters. Those plans were interrupted when I was seized by a kind of energy or voice that demanded I follow it, something angry and importunate, and I began writing what would become a forty-page paragraph. It wasn’t until I was half-way through it that I realized it was connected to Mitko, that it was exploring the childhood of the narrator as a way to try to understand certain peculiarities he has, his way of seeming to be open to others while actually holding a great deal of himself back. That passage is now the second section of What Belongs To You.

Guernica: In relation to those contraries of openness and withholding, you write so well about the satisfactions and humiliations of sex and of sexual longing. What was it about desire that you wanted to explore in this novel?

Garth Greenwell: I guess I think that sex and desire and humiliation are central to my experience of consciousness—to my experience of humanness—and I wanted to explore the ways that they circle around and approach and fail to add up to love, or the ways that those three terms—sex, desire, love—can in some lights seem synonymous and in others like elements entirely alien to one another.

I wanted to begin this novel with an encounter that seems like a straightforward exchange—I give you money, you give me sex–but that very quickly becomes embroiled in all the messy negotiations of human interaction.

“Permit me to restore what belongs to you,” he says, and the phrase seems redolent with so many possible meanings, with all the longings—not just for youth, but for beauty, love, a different life.

Guernica: Does the title of the book bear some relation to those “messy negotiations”—the idea of sexual ownership?

Garth Greenwell: The title actually comes from one of my favorite scenes in Death in Venice, when the barber convinces Aschenbach to try cosmetics and hair dye as a way of recapturing his youth. “Permit me to restore what belongs to you,” he says, and the phrase seems redolent with so many possible meanings, with all the longings—not just for youth, but for beauty, love, a different life—Aschenbach suffers. I hope that the relationship of the title to the novel gets more complex with each section of the book: that maybe it begins by resonating with the question of prostitution—to what extent can a body be commodified, what exactly are you renting or purchasing when you pay for sex—and deepens over the course of the book to address larger questions of ownership and belonging. One question the narrator asks himself, implicitly and explicitly, is whether in fact he can belong to anyone or to any place. I also like that the title doesn’t have to be read as interrogative, that maybe there is some kind of assertion the narrator makes, some claim he tries to stake on his own existence.

Guernica: There’s an interesting moment when the narrator experiences dismay when one of his half-sisters confides in him about her sexual recklessness when she was fourteen years old. Her childhood experiences of sex mirror his own—if anything, they’re a more muted version—so why does it trouble and awaken him so much, this idea of desire as—in the narrator’s words—a kind of “family affliction”?

Garth Greenwell: I think when the narrator listens to his sister talk about her early sexual experiences, he’s troubled by how vulnerable she seems to him, how reckless in her choices, and this becomes a way for him to understand his own earlier actions and choices in a different way. In the book’s third section he reflects on his sexual beginnings—anonymous, unsafe sex in parks and bathrooms—and thinks there was something at once joyful and suicidal in it. And he’s troubled too because his sister’s stories come in revelations about their father’s sexual history, and the narrator—who has been estranged from his father for a very long time—is forced to recognize a bond between them he can’t disown. Both the narrator and his sister worry over the intractable question of how much of what they desire—in sex and more broadly—is their own and how much is a kind of programming they’re acting out, or maybe a fate that claims them. Here too there’s a question of what belongs to us.

Guernica: Is there, an absence of good contemporary literature about the lives of gay men and women?

Garth Greenwell: I don’t think there have been many large-scale, ambitious, social portraits of gay lives in recent years. It’s hard to think of young novelists who are following in the footsteps of Edmund White and Andrew Holleran and Alan Hollinghurst in chronicling the social worlds of queer people today in ways that are intellectually and aesthetically ambitious. There are lots of big books that have gay characters—or, more commonly, a gay character—in secondary roles, but seldom are their lives, and especially their sexual lives, on center stage.

It does seem like between the groundbreaking writing of Edmund White’s generation and the work of younger gay writers in their twenties and thirties there is a kind of gap. One very obvious explanation for this, of course, is AIDS. But it’s also true that the writers we might have expected to continue that work instead wrote about other things. (Two exceptions that leap to mind are the excellent novelists Stacey D’Erasmo and Carol Anshaw.) Sometimes those writers had early books with primarily queer subject matter and then found greater success with other subjects. The fact remains that books that really put gay people in the center, and especially books that do so in a way that is sexually explicit, tend not to get a great deal of mainstream attention: they don’t tend to sell well, and they don’t tend to win major awards. This makes the occasional exception, like Alan Hollinghurst, all the more remarkable.

Guernica: In a much-quoted and challenged piece for The Atlantic you called Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life “a novel fundamentally about gay lives … the most ambitious chronicle of the social and emotional lives of gay men to have emerged for many years.”

Garth Greenwell: Some people have argued that it’s inaccurate to consider Yanagihara’s book a “gay novel,” and I think one way she reflects queer life today is by rendering the label “gay” extremely complex. But the fact remains that it is a book about four men whose primary affective, romantic, and, for three of them, sexual relationships, are with men. In my view, the relationship between Willem and Jude is a great love story, and if the words “partnership” or “marriage” have any meaning they are appropriate to their bond.

Wherever one locates the central relationships explored in the book on the homosocial— homosexual spectrum, the fact that Yanagihara’s book has received so much attention seems noteworthy to me.

I write from my experience as a queer man, and I write for queer readers. I also write out of my sense of the literary tradition, broadly conceived, and I write into and for that tradition.

Guernica: “Gay writer,” “gay novel”—are these genuinely helpful labels, or signs that publishing houses and the literary press still have a very narrow idea of what’s mainstream?

Garth Greenwell: I feel an intense debt to the queer writers who made my life—my life as a writer, my life full stop—possible, and I hope very much that I’m continuing a tradition of queer writing. I also absolutely reject any suggestion that by writing specifically queer stories and in aesthetic traditions or modes that have been coded as queer I am sacrificing any of the universal relevance or impact literature can lay claim to. I write from my experience as a queer man, and I write for queer readers. I also write out of my sense of the literary tradition, broadly conceived, and I write into and for that tradition. I am a gay writer, absolutely. And in no way does that fact limit the reach or importance of what I write.

Guernica: In an article for The New Yorker website about Michael Nava’s novels, you wrote that “there’s a comfort in the whodunit, with its familiar landmarks: a body, clues, a group of suspects, a tidy ending. It’s a rationalist’s form …” What kind of form did you want What Belongs To You to take? I felt at times that I was caught up in who-is-it, trying to peel back the layers of who exactly Mitko was—a who-is-it that is more comfortable offering questions than answers. The book feels at times like a rejection of rationalism.

Garth Greenwell: That’s a lovely way to characterize the book, and I hope it’s true. I think the narrator wants desperately to understand this person who stands at a great distance from him—across differences of language, nationality, class, all those things that shift our horizons of possibility. In the process, the narrator realizes how little he understands himself, how inscrutable—how irrational—his own desires and ambitions and ambivalences are. He would like an ordered existence, I think, but finds everywhere desire opposed to order.

Guernica: Is there happiness in that—in putting to bed the search for order? Asking for a friend.

Garth Greenwell: Ha! I don’t think I’m qualified to answer questions about happiness. But I guess I’d say that I don’t think you ever get to put to bed something like a search for order, or any other element of your sensibility, however much you’d like to.

Guernica: The structure of the novel is subtle and intriguing—it’s largely staged as a series of two-handers, isn’t it?

Garth Greenwell: Especially in the first section, I wanted the book to be very narrowly focused on intense, intimate encounters between the two men, to put their interactions under something like a microscope. Even when the canvas gets a bit broader in the second and especially the third sections, I’m still primarily interested in observing as closely as possible the shifting weather between these people. I think the master of this sort of thing, and a writer who has meant a great deal to me, is Henry James: there’s a magical way that he has of turning the slightest gesture into a whole world of drama and feeling. This is something that happens in his sentences, as well, which are so fastidious and self-correcting and yet can open out, by means of a simile, say, into such extraordinary panoramas of thought and feeling. And his most powerful scenes are almost always intimate encounters between two people.

I really did write this novel without realizing what I was doing. Even when I understood that the second section was connected to the first, even when I realized that the character of Mitko was going to demand his story continue in the third part, I still wasn’t sure the book would cohere as a novel. It was really reading Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room that gave me the confidence to trust in the gravity I felt between the parts. That novel, which is absolutely brilliant, is in three novella-length sections that aren’t stitched together by any neat narrative continuity. But there’s no question to me that it is a novel, that there are structural parallels and thematic and imagistic—and emotional—echoes that make the book as a whole greater than its parts. I hope very much that’s the case with What Belongs to You.

Guernica: How do you go about creating a character like Mitko, or indeed any of your characters — do they tend to develop from people you’ve met, or dreamt of, or encountered in other books?

Garth Greenwell: All of those things, I think. For Mitko I did want to capture a particular Bulgarian type, a kind of performative masculinity that at once seemed very specific to that place and also reminded me of the American South of my childhood. This was true of many things in Bulgaria, that they seemed at once entirely foreign and somehow familiar. Trying to understand that was the spark of the book, I think.

Sofia was the start of everything. I fell in love with Sofia and with Bulgaria, and I wanted to write a novel that tried to process the experience of being there—always through the lens of foreignness, but a foreignness that isn’t static, that shifts over time. I also fell in love with the language, and I wanted to put as much of it onto the page as I could—both for the music of it, and also because I find that liminal space between languages, or inhabiting multiple languages at once, so fascinating. I wanted to explore a narrator who is at once hyper-articulate in his own language and also, especially at the beginning of the book, stripped of all eloquence in another.

Guernica: There’s this idea you explore in your work of who, in life, holds the authorial power—the ability to tell and shape a given story.

Garth Greenwell: This was something I became intensely aware of in my time in Bulgaria. My status as an American gave me all sorts of protections and privileges there that other queer people didn’t enjoy. In the school where I taught, for instance, more than one colleague told me that they feared coming out would lead to their being fired, something that my status as a foreigner protected me from. I could speak out about LGBT issues publicly almost without fear of professional reprisals.

As I finished the book, I also became more aware of the fact that I was writing about gay lives in a culture where those lives have never been represented in literature—or never as anything other than caricatures. This is only slightly an overstatement: I only know of two openly gay literary writers in Bulgarian, the poet Nikolay Atanasov, who writes in Bulgarian but lives in America, and the poet and novelist Nikolai Boykov. My narrator speaks from a constant awareness of his own foreignness, and in no way does my book attempt to represent queer experience in Bulgaria in any sufficient or authoritative way. But here, too, I think I’m able to tell this story because of my status as a foreigner. The fate of books in Bulgaria is similar to the fate of books everywhere else: almost all go entirely unnoticed. If my novel gets any attention in Bulgaria, it will be as a scandal: a book about a teacher at a famous school and his relationship with a prostitute. I doubt very much it will be evaluated on its merits as literature. If Bulgarian were the book’s only language, that would be painful and limiting to me as a writer. Since my book also exists in English—where it isn’t scandalous at all—I feel comfortable with the possibility of scandal. I welcome it, even, and my greatest hope for the book is that it might make it easier for queer writers in Bulgaria to tell their stories and have them received as literature.

Guernica: I’ve come to think that the beauty of your sentences comes about in part through a sort of relentless particularity—an addition to noticing tiny details and bringing out the strange, hidden life lying within seemingly ordinary things. Is this a conscious thing? What do you seek to find and exclude from your sentences as you revise them?

Garth Greenwell: My mantra when working through the first draft was to resist the urge to revise: I wanted to give full rein to the sentences and let them take any shape they wanted. I kept telling myself to be indulgent, to let myself follow any squiggle of ratiocination or digression. Which meant that the main work of revision was cutting. I’m not sure I can articulate any principles behind the decisions about what to cut and what to keep. I tried to put each clause under as much pressure as possible, to insist that it be clear, that it be interesting, that it have emotional charge. My brilliant editor, Mitzi Angel, was unrelenting in forcing me to do this work. I couldn’t be more grateful.

Guernica: I think we’re both admirers of Javier Marías. Does he serve as a model to you in terms of keeping each clause under as much pressure as possible?

Garth Greenwell: Absolutely. I love that in Marías there is real narrative urgency—his books often start with a gesture that’s like the lighting of a fuse, and they build up almost unbearable tension—combined with a kind of spaciousness that allows for endless digression and exploration of consciousness. A Heart So White is simply one of the best novels I know. I’m also thrilled by his sentences, by how elegant they are while also being so permissive in relation to the niceties of grammar and so open to the prospect of surprise. He’s a genius. The other two members of my stylistic holy trinity are Thomas Bernhard and W.G. Sebald, writers who in different ways use the most intense interiority as a way of accessing the largest questions about history and social life.

None of us sees history fully; none of us is adequately aware of how the arrangements of the present moment foreclose the possibilities of others to fully live their only lives.

Guernica: Why is that intense interiority important—in your work, in theirs—as a way of accessing larger questions about history and social life? There are plenty of novels in which a deep exploration of the personal never leads a reader into the public—into the wider patterns of history or society.

Garth Greenwell: I think it’s harder to avoid reflection on those larger patterns of history or society when they so insistently call into question your right to exist. I think history is only ever invisible when it abets your sense of self, your desires, your ambitions, when it carries your life along in a kind of frictionless way. History is never invisible, finally, though some people seem to work very hard to be willfully blind. That’s too harsh, or too self-righteous: none of us sees history fully; none of us is adequately aware of how the arrangements of the present moment foreclose the possibilities of others to fully live their only lives.

I do think that the sense of being opposed to the present moment, that sense of the rub of history, invigorates the writing I find most exciting, and maybe precisely in being equally allegiant to an inward fineness of sensibility and an outward-facing rigor of protest or critique. There’s a queer tradition extending from Proust to Henry James to Thomas Mann to Virginia Woolf to James Baldwin to Jean Genet to Pedro Lemebel and the other Latin American writers of the queer baroque that I find endlessly inspiring for its combination of intellectual rigor and access to the ecstatic. Those books are a constant challenge and guide for me. They remind me what the stakes of art should be.

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he holds graduate degrees from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and A Public Space. What Belongs to You is his first novel.

Jonathan Lee’s new novel, High Dive, will be published by Knopf in March.

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