What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

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Garth Greenwell’s novel is beautiful, tender, and very lyrical – even though it’s about awful sadness and brutality.

The sadness and brutality of desire, and all the emotions connected to and growing out of it, all the emotions the narrator, an American teacher living in Sofia feels for Mitko, the extremely attractive hustler he picks up in a public toilet.

The nameless narrator has an immediate crush on Mitko. This is at first only about Mitko’s body, but the narrator would also like to learn about Mitko’s soul, if it were at all possible (it’s not), and he soon wants to have Mitko forever by his side, wants to save him, redeem him, spoil him – and so on. But – again – this is impossible, a fact which is clear from the very beginning: that no matter how beautiful it would be for a real relationship to develop between a middle-class university teacher from the US and a penniless Bulgarian hustler, this is not meant to be.

For about a million reasons. For one thing, even if their relationship was based on something other than money and „gifts” changing hands, even if there was equality between them, they still wouldn’t understand each other. And it’s not only because of the lack of common language – it’s also because of their wildly different backgrounds and cultural heritage, and because they both want something else, their feelings are completely different, and they use their relationship for different things.

Just one example to show the difference of worlds Mitko and the narrator inhabit: at one point, Mitko thinks he’ll frighten the narrator when he threatens him with revealing that he’s gay. In Mitko’s hyper-masculine world, saying that someone is gay is still a serious insult, it still means something, but for the narrator, who’s already come out, this doesn’t mean anything serious anymore (not that revealing his sexual preferences had been met with universal acceptance, and not that it had been easy for him to get over all the betrayals of family and friends he had to suffer in consequence). So when Mitko threatens him with destroying his life, for the narrator that’s all just a weightless threat.

This is not something they can discuss, though – and they can’t discuss anything else – at all. This is not love, after all. This isn’t a relationship in which the partners can talk things over. This is a relationship based on buying and selling, a relationship in which the partners are mutually using each other, a relationship that contains lust and erotic pleasure (from the narrator’s side certainly – and we don’t see Mitko’s side of the story), and a relationship the narrator infuses with emotions, which only cause him pain and suffering. And how would they not – there’s no place for emotions here, but of course they just develop on their own sometimes – and they are the basis for the novel’s beauty.

Because the narrator’s feelings are real – it’s real when his heart is breaking if he thinks about leaving Mitko; it’s real when he’s jealous and angry because on their first night together, Mitko spends the time speaking with his friends or clients on Skype; and it’s real when he’s disgusted by Mitko, when he desires his touch, and when he’s afraid of him.

Reciprocity?

This isn’t a relationship where there’s reciprocity.

And the beautiful title of the novel (which was the main reason I wanted to read this) means this to me. What belongs to you, what is yours is what you feel. And what you remember, what you desire, what you are afraid of. The other person, though – the eternal unknown and unknowable – can never belong to you.

Exit, Pursued by Dalton Day

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Dalton Day’s dramatic poem/drama-like literary work is made up of 41 one-act plays. The plays are as one-act as they come – minimalist drama, let’s say. And perhaps here “act” from one-act really means that the plays consist of a single act or action, and sometimes not even that.

All the plays have fascinating and detailed titles – and the titles are just as important as the plays they are followed by, especially because in many cases, nothing happens in the play. (There are some which only contain the description of the scene, and nothing else.)

The recurring characters of the plays are You and Me. This makes me immediately excited because second person literature is one of my long-time obsessions, and Dalton Day even develops it further by using both the second person and the first person, with intriguing results. If there’s a You and there’s a Me in a play, the question immediately arises: which one am I? Which one should I identify with? It’s a difficult and exciting choice, and I sometimes switch positions even during the course of a single play – sometimes I feel closer to Me, and sometimes I feel I’m the You the Me of the plays is talking with.

And sometimes You and Me seem to be the same – there’s a play, for instance, where You and Me appear to read each other’s mind, and they start and finish each other’s sentences. In cases like this, understanding and harmony seem possible. (One-Act Play In Which There Is A Blueprint, & That Blueprint Is Ignored Entirely)

Understanding and harmony are, by the way, rare pleasures here, because the main themes of the plays are the difficulties of (love) relationships, breakups, losses, and the impossibility to understand and know another person. And all this is heart-breakingly sad – this all-permeating feeling that we’re alone – even when we’re with the person we feel the closest to. So – there’s existential angst here, a lot.

And besides that there’s a lot of beauty and tenderness – because it seems we must and will do everything in order not to feel so immensely lonely. In one play, for instance, You is afraid of hands, so Me offers to trade hands. After switching hands, You is still afraid of hands – and now Me is afraid of them, too. Could this be love? Caring? Making strange gestures so that the other is not alone in their fear? Taking on the other person’s fear, sharing it? Perhaps. (One-Act Play In Which Not All Problems Can Be Solved, & Not All Problems Are Problems, But Even So, Some Are)

And there’s also a lot of musings about how love and relationships work – how it’s always the people we love the most (or who love us the most) who bring us down, trap us, hide the wonderful richness of the world from us – but it’s also possible that they don’t trap us, they don’t tie us down – perhaps they are the ones who keep us from falling apart. (One-Act Play In Which The Weather Is Just An Echo Of The Weather Before It)

These feelings aren’t only present in personal relationships – they go out and encompass the whole universe. In one of my favorite plays (One-Act Play In Which Change, Change, Change) You and Me talk about how one of them was deeply shaken when Pluto ceased to be a planet – because we’re already used to it in everyday life that things and emotions change, and that something that was true today will only be a memory by tomorrow – but for the same thing to happen on a planetary, universal scale, that can be much too hard to bear.

I feel this cosmic melancholy, the sadness of the thought that things cannot be expressed, neither here on earth, nor out there in the universe. You, for instance, is on the moon once, and with the last breath, You shouts into the universe, where voice doesn’t carry, the thing that had never been voiced before. (One-Act Play In Which Hands Are Irreplaceable)

And in some plays, even words are missing – there’s only a silent glance towards each other from the two ends of the world, and even if the glance connects you with the other, it’s impossible to know whether you’re even thinking about the other person when you look at him. And it’s equally impossible to know whether the experience is the same, whether it can be the same. In one play, for instance, there’s the question of what happens when someone looks into the sun. Here’s part of the conversation between Me and You:

YOU: Tell me what happens when you look into the sun.
ME: Oh, well, I, I don’t know. I don’t know what happens.
YOU: Then tell me what happens when I look into the sun.

(One-Act Play In Which The Earth Has A Circumference Of 24,902 Miles, For Once)

The immensely intimate, personal and emotional character of the plays is both offset and emphasized by the important role the audience plays here. In many plays, there are descriptions about the reactions of the audience, there’s a play where the audience members are the players, and there’s one where the audience members flee the theater because the smoke alarm goes off, and they don’t see what finally happens between the characters. Which brings us to the eternal epistemological question: did it happen if no one was there to see it? (One-Act Play In Which You Forget To Laugh)

I’m glad I saw this play happen, on paper at least.