What Belongs to You follows an American English teacher living in Bulgaria as he gets more and more ensnared in the volatile trappings of desire. At the heart of his dilemma is Mitko, a local young man who survives by employing the deadly allure of his physicality.
Greenwell’s prose is an oration that seems to be in a perpetual state of blossom, with its languid stretch of vowels and literary characterizations. But, though beautiful, the language often erects walls around expression and its meaning, much like appearances around “inhibited” deeds.
Long, winding sentences convey the sweeping quality of the protagonist’s reality. Commas invade the domain of full stops, overtaking and squashing the finality of sentiment, or thought.
In between these sounds of both submission and unrest is a piercing, wounding want. It seems to rely entirely on the extreme blend of vulnerability and desperation. It’s that human quality, that unabashed weakness, that manifests as an ache more so than anything else, punctuating the idea that to agonize over something is to exist:
“And then, since he did finally turn to leave with his friend, nodding in goodbye, I called out Chakai chakai chakai, wait wait wait, repeating the word quickly and in the precise inflection I had heard an old woman use at an intersection one afternoon when a stray dog began to wander into traffic.”
In fact, in What Belongs to You, desire seems most potent, and life most unerring, when the body of another becomes “infinitely dear,” outweighing the arbitrary notion of self-preservation.
The theatricality — fantasy, even — of desire is a physical response that can never measure up to the black hole of consuming wants. This is where the novel seems to derive most of its tragic magnetism; a point so acute it lures the bead of blood to its tip.
Enmeshed in a persistent tale of lust is the profound weight of existentialist grief. Futility feeds on the very mass, bodily and ripe, that contradicts it. It’s no surprise, then, that Greenwell establishes a certain wistfulness early on, both in relation to the protagonist and his lover’s past hopes,
“despite their eagerness for each other it was as though they were documenting something they knew could not last.”
And yet, despite the controlled sadness that streams down every page, disturbed every now and then by anxiety and dread, there hides the kind of erotic and sensual abandon that can undo reality; there is nothing but here and now, hands “clasping his hips (…) like the brim of a cup.”
What facilitates our smooth progression through the protagonist’s various brutal states of mind is his sense of self-awareness, which is as disarming as it should be cautionary.
Even when intoxicated by Mitko’s nearness, struggling to separate thoughts from the roar of his impulses, he observes that Mitko’s embrace, harboring him “like his captive or his prey,” is interchangeable with being held like a “beloved” or a “child.” Both bring to mind vulnerability, as well as one’s dependence on another.
This conflict is echoed throughout the narrative’s various planes, but it always comes back to the self, from which the rest stems. As he moves through the murky present, and an even more shrouded past, the protagonist experiences continual “leave-taking,” reflecting on “the loss we seek the rest of our lives to restore” and that enters our bodies the moment we “come into full consciousness of ourselves.”
And so, we’re left with a kind of contemplative woe, a distancing of oneself from the epicenter of despair that always serves as the crux of passion:
“I lay next to him thinking, as I had had cause to think before, of how helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed, even if that welcome is contrived.”
Such ruminations, splitting the notion of one’s own worth, naturally give rise to the idea of identity itself. And though we claim to rearrange the world in relation to our sense of self, the reality is slightly different.
As Greenwell observes, we simply learn to bear both the peril and the horror of the feigned identities that allow us to interact with an everchanging terrain of faces, navigating the bodies and passions that drive us toward both mad joy and violence.
What accompanies this thought is the constant fear of giving yourself to a stranger, one who embodies a quiet annihilation of the desires that make up a person,
“he looked at me with his new face, which was capable, it seemed to me, of any of those things, and I wondered whether it was a face he had just discovered or one he had hidden all along.”
Again, we encounter a certain parallel as we’re faced with the shifting affections and considerations of a parent, the revolting reveal of the body and its hunger,
“and when I looked at his face, which was twisted in disgust, it was as if I saw his true face, his authentic face, not the learned face of fatherhood.”
The note of helplessness that suffuses What Belongs to You is suffocating, which is maybe why it’s so enslaving. It invades every cell of the protagonist’s existence, and yet it helps sustain his understanding of the world he’s come to occupy.
From his broken Bulgarian to his runaway feelings for Mitko and the “dismaying” number of vials needed to rid him of the suspicion of having contracted syphilis, nothing is as it seems. That’s because it is constantly — maddeningly — out of reach.
This helplessness also serves as its own culmination point, the peak of which seems to align with the time period into which one is born:
“I grew up at the heights of the AIDS epidemic, when desire and disease seemed essentially bound together (…). Maybe that’s why, when I finally did have sex, it wasn’t so much pleasure I sought as the exhilaration of setting aside restraint, of pretending not to be afraid, a thrill of release so intense it was almost suicidal.”
Greenwell doesn’t leave us with a sense of helplessness, though, but with bone-deep alienation. The two states may seem synonymous, but What Belongs to You proves that this isn’t always the case.
Separation spills from the self, consuming its homely manifestation. The strength that rises to meet it head on, the very resolve that allows us to go on, is in many ways more debilitating than its mark. To turn away from what you desire in an almost mechanical show of self-preservation is to renounce any hold on the thing triggering the instinct.
And so, the novel is a fairly cataclysmic read. You ache for everyone involved, though their agonies are peculiar enough, even to them, to make estrangement seem like the only — and most natural — way inward.
What Belongs to You was first published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on January 19, 2016. A free version, digitized with funding from the Kahle/Austin Foundation, can be read online (Internet Archive).