After his extraordinary debut novel, What Belongs to You, was published, I eagerly anticipated Garth Greenwell’s second novel. What Belongs to You was set in Sofia, Bulgaria and the main character taught literature at the American school The same setting frames the second novel. In neither is the narrator named and the characters are identified by a single letter.
For example, B, a student who meets the teacher at a restaurant and shares his story of a singular attraction to another male student who has just broken his heart. R is a student from the Azores and the romantic interest of the narrator.
Writing about a country that few of us know anything about is revelatory. Though poor and isolated, Greenwell finds beauty in the characters and their circumstances. The most minor details coalesce into an insightful and readable depiction of this foreign space. It might not make you want to visit Bulgaria but it will enlighten you to a country with seemingly intractable problems and little hope for change.
The difference with the second novel is that he goes beyond frank descriptions of sex into territory that is graphic, violent and probably disturbing to some readers. However you might react to the words, you have to admire his construction and lyricism in making something so pornographic read like literature. You spot the basics of hardcore erotica but he adds slight details that make it even more powerful. This meld of the two forms requires a master’s touch, otherwise, it would fail as either literature or pornography.
The novel is not plot-driven. The characters and setting provide the interest. Attending a protest, going out with friends, taking holiday trips, does not make for suspenseful reading. What does make it interesting are the little details scattered throughout. The Bulgarian words and phrases used belie the fact that it is a dying language. Fewer and fewer people speak it and those native-born Bulgarians are usually on a quest to leave for anyplace with more opportunity. This backdrop adds to the poignancy because the characters are looking for a better life and become intensely connected to people who affirm their desires.
R knows that he will have to leave Sofia after school ends. He has no options other than as a romantic appendage to the narrator. Once R returns to Portugal, the narrator pursues other libidinous adventures. For romance, he wanted “something brutal.” Through online efforts, he finds any possible desire can be satisfied. In a second, explicit, episode the roles are reversed. He becomes the perpetrator of violence instead of the recipient/victim. It makes him think that men live in a fantasy where “what they think they want, they don’t actually want.” Be careful what you wish for.
While this is a work of fiction, I was reminded of Edouard Louis’ nonfiction account of his brutal sexual assault, History of Violence. That was a similarly challenging read but was also written with such skill and talent. Greenwell is one of the best writers of his generation and I will read anything he chooses to publish. This novel will burnish his reputation but may also be criticized for the frank, explicit scenes of violence.
Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, which won the British Book Award for Debut of the Year, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for six other awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, it was named a Best Book of 2016 by over fifty publications in nine countries, and is being translated into a dozen languages. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, A Public Space, and VICE, and he has written criticism for The New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and the New York Times Book Review, among others. He lives in Iowa City.
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
REVIEW: STEPHEN COY
Queerguru Contributor STEPHEN COY has been an avid reader all his (very long) life ? and is finally putting his skills to good use. He lives in Provincetown full time with his husband Jim, having finally given up the bright lights of Boston and now haunts the streets mumbling to himself that no one reads anymore …