On an unseasonably warm autumn day, an American teacher enters a public bathroom beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. There he meets Mitko, a charismatic young hustler, and pays him for sex. He returns to Mitko again and again over the next few months, drawn by hunger and loneliness and risk, and finds himself ensnared in a relationship in which lust leads to mutual predation, and tenderness can transform into violence. As he struggles to reconcile his longing with the anguish it creates, he’s forced to grapple with his own fraught history, the world of his southern childhood where to be queer was to be a pariah. There are unnerving similarities between his past and the foreign country he finds himself in, a country whose geography and griefs he discovers as he learns more of Mitko’s own narrative, his private history of illness, exploitation, and want.
It’s always interesting to me to see what kinds of queer fiction catches the attention of the mainstream. They seem to fall into a few different categories, the most popular of which is the classic gay tragedy. A Little Life is a prime example of this. People love a good tragedy, and queer people have the dubious honor of having one built right into their existence. Then there are the innovative or experimental books, like Fun Home or The Argonauts, which participate in the tradition of queer stories being told in queer ways. I usually enjoy these, but I sometimes wonder if the mainstream thinks there’s some queer ‘secret sauce’ that makes these books better than other experimental texts rather than them just being good books in their own right. The last common category that I see is what I’ve come to think of as the voyeur novel. What Belongs to You would fall under this label. These books offer outside readers a glimpse into a mysterious queer world, just a peek behind the moral curtain that obscures such deviant cultural practices as cruising or prostitution. They’re like tourist attractions: slum it with the Other before retreating back to the safety and cleanliness of ‘the real world,’ or at least that’s how my bitter ass interprets it.
I don’t really know why I’m coming down so hard on What Belongs To You. It’s very well written, sleek and polished MFA prose, and it was nominated for a number of major awards, the full list of which you’ll find blaring out of any shop listing despite the fact that it didn’t actually win any of them. I think what rubs me the wrong way about the book is that it seems so carefully crafted to appeal to the heterosexual mainstream and was so successful at it. The Bulgarian setting adds this layer of foreignness that helps buffer the homosexuality for a straight reader, and for a book about loving a prostitute, Greenwell is pretty circumspect about what exactly they get up to, preferring instead to give us an Aciman-esque poetic meditation on desire and loneliness. And the plot of a lonely gay man lusting after rough trade is as old as gay literature. Queer, Our Lady of the Flowers, and The Thief’s Journal all follow that same pattern, and that’s just a few books already on this blog. But of course there’s nothing wrong with remixing classic plots for a present moment. And anyways, shouldn’t I be happy that a book featuring predominantly gay subject matter is getting so much attention? Probably, but I’m not. I think I’m turning into one of those ornery, anti-assimilationist critics. Anyway, I decided to include What Belongs To You in the blog despite those complaints because 1. I’m interested in what other people are interested in, 2. I recognize it as a quality book even if it frustrates me, and 3. Y’all should be able to decide for yourselves whether my opinions are justified or not. Oh, and it’s got a phenomenal cover.