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Bodies in Space: An Interview with Garth Greenwell

January 19, 2016 | by

Photo:  Ricardo Moutinho Ferreira

Photo: Ricardo Moutinho Ferreira

Garth Greenwell’s “Gospodar,” which appeared in our Summer 2014 issue, is a slow-simmering story of unease, humiliation, and eroticism—it concerns a man’s experience with sadomasochistic sex in Sofia, Bulgaria. Greenwell, also a poet, is exacting in the language he uses to describe the encounter; the result is an intimate and intense intermingling of desire and trepidation.    

Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, out today, dilates those same concerns: over three sections, the book’s unnamed narrator plumbs the feelings of exploitation, loneliness, and overwhelming desire that are produced by his complicated, compulsive affair with a bewitching male prostitute named Mitko. The first section is a revised version of a novella, Mitko, which won the Miami University Press Novella Prize in 2011 and marked Greenwell’s first foray into fiction. It follows the young American teacher, new to Bulgaria, as he engages Mitko for sex in the bathrooms under Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. The second section comprises a single unbroken paragraph that reflects back to the narrator’s childhood, and the third returns to his troubled relationship with Mitko.

I met with Greenwell last November after eagerly reading an early copy of the novel. He spoke easily and at length about growing up gay in Kentucky, erotic freedom, and the many faces of desire.

I thought we would start by talking about sex.

Great. That’s my favorite thing.

The novel is concerned with sex and desire, and often we think of those two things as being intertwined, but they’re largely kept separate in this story. Sex and desire are sometimes linked, but they’re also independent entities.

Maybe that’s tied up with the experience of growing up queer in the eighties and early nineties in Kentucky. I remember very clearly thinking about sex all the time when I was twelve or thirteen and feeling an intense desire that I was pretty sure I would never be able to act on. I remember asking myself, Will I ever be able to do any of these things? Will I ever find anyone with whom to do these things? It really did seem possible that the world would never accommodate my desires. And so in that way, desire was separated from sex. And then when I did finally have sex, I found that the world accommodated those desires in these weird marginal spaces, where sex wasn’t exactly analogous with desire—places like cruising bathrooms and parks—and where there can be a circulation of bodies that, if it’s about desire, it’s about a kind of desire that can be detached from specific people.

This is an experience that’s reflected in the novel’s narrator. When he talks about his coming-of-age as a gay person in cruising parks and about his first experiences of sex, the word he uses is indiscriminate. It was a kind of sex that is as bound up with ideas of freedom, and also shame, as it is with anything like sexual desire. It does seem like sex and desire are very easily extricable things for him, and also that the narrator is someone who simply can’t take for granted the idea that his desire carries with it any kind of license or permission. His experience of desire has always been an experience of exclusion, of seeing things he can’t have. And so when he first meets Mitko and the young man makes clear to him that he’s available in a way, it’s an experience of wonder for the narrator. He thinks, I can’t believe I can just reach out and touch this thing. Part of what he finds exhilarating about Mitko is what seems like the promise of an exact alignment of desire and sex—that he can have this thing he overwhelmingly wants.

And then it very quickly becomes more complicated, because, of course, Mitko is a human being. Part of the structure of the novel and the growth of the narrator, to the extent that he grows, is his having to grapple with and acknowledge Mitko’s full personhood. If the promise of prostitution is that sex can be made a commodity, that’s exhilarating for the narrator at first, because it offers a kind of access he feels he’s been denied a lot of his life. But it’s not really like that. Personhood intervenes in that attempted commodification of sex. If there’s anything interesting in the relationship between Mitko and the narrator, I think it’s the way that what at first seems to be a transactional relationship—I’ll give you this if you give me that—becomes something much more complicated and difficult to decipher.

And yet his desire for Mitko never abates, despite Mitko’s drug abuse and disease and the ways they affect his appearance. In fact, the narrator’s desire becomes too great and he tries to distance himself from it, as though he can’t reconcile it with, as you’ve said, personhood.

When he breaks with Mitko, early in the novel, it’s because he feels there’s no relationship he can have with him that is reconcilable with his own sense of, for lack of a better word, morality. Which isn’t about sex at all. I don’t think the narrator feels particularly conflicted about his sexuality or about having sex with men. But he does feel conflicted about questions of agency and choice and the extent to which the sorts of transactions he enters into with Mitko are free or constrained, and also the extent to which Mitko can be available to him as a human being, as someone more than just a kind of commodity.

What’s interesting to me is that everything in their relationship is absolutely affected by—maybe determined by, deformed by—its transactional nature. But I don’t think their relationship is exhausted by that transactional nature. There are moments between them where their relationship exceeds that, where it becomes more than that, moments when Mitko tells his story and the narrator hears it.

This happens in the first part, where they have an encounter that is unlike anything the narrator has experienced before—or certainly he says it’s a kind of encounter that has been incredibly rare in his life. To me, that’s a moment of human intimacy that exceeds transaction, which doesn’t mean they leave transaction behind or have escaped it in any final way—they haven’t—but that they’ve had a moment where it does not exhaust what they feel for each other or what seems possible for them.

In reading your book, I couldn’t help but think of the narcissistic narratives of nineteenth-century French novels—Balzac, Zola, Marcel Schwob—in which a prostitute’s sexuality becomes a tool with which the male narrator or protagonist can consider his own predicament and inner life. But you’ve made the prostitute a full-fledged character. Do you think that has to do with the fact that, as a gay man, you aren’t likely to fall back on stereotypes of masculinity?

I don’t feel that I’m writing in a tradition of straight male writers writing about prostitution. I do feel like I’m writing in a lot of traditions, but it’s not really the tradition of something like Maugham and Of Human Bondage. Outside of fiction, the question of sex work and the experience of sex work is an incredibly complicated and variegated thing. Any statement you can make about it or about the question of agency or exploitation has to be extremely complex. One of the ways this narrator is different from those others is that, in those books, the straight male narrator feels that his desire carries a kind of entitlement or permission, so the object of that desire can just be seized. It’s hard for me to imagine a queer person feeling that, because for queer people I think the experience of desire is, from the start, the experience of exclusion. That’s true at least for a queer writer of my generation, from the place that I’m from.

What traditions are you working in?

Aesthetically, the principal tradition I hope the novel is working in is the novel of consciousness. It is kind of a narcissistic, or maybe solipsistic, narrative in the sense that our only access to the world of the novel is through this narrator. There are choices I made in the writing that accentuate that—there are no quotation marks, and we never hear voices in the book except as filtered through the narrator’s consciousness, often doubly filtered because he’s translating them from the Bulgarian. Even though that’s the case, part of the project of this book is also to try to observe as carefully as possible a reality external to a certain consciousness. The book succeeds or fails to the extent that Mitko is available to the reader’s regard and sympathy as something other than an occasion for the narrator to have thoughts and feelings. I hope he is his own entity and that in some way the consciousness can get out of the way enough for the reader to experience Mitko, for him to be vivid and alive on the page.

How did you work to accomplish that?

The bulk of what I worked on was cutting. I’m drawn to a sort of syntax that is exuberant and extravagant, so a lot of the editing work was simply making sure that metaphor and ornateness and kind of propulsive syntax weren’t getting in the way of seeing a body in space, another human being who’s acting in certain ways and moving in the world in certain ways.

Because the ornateness or the propulsion is too much a characteristic of the narrator?

I think that’s right. For instance, I had thought I was really good at writing sex scenes, but my editor, Mitzi Angel, helped me realize the extent to which, actually, I fell back into metaphor more than I was aware of. In those scenes, her edits would often be questions in the margins saying, What are these bodies actually doing? What’s physically happening here? We have to be able to see that. And that was so helpful.

The reason I like writing about sex is because it seems like a place where the physical and the metaphysical are really close to each other. My experience of sex, in literature and out of it, is this unique occasion where, hopefully, you are as intensely attentive to another human being as possible and also as intensely thrust into your own interiority as possible. It’s almost the experience of poetry to me—a lyric space. One of the things that fascinates me about poetry as speech is that it’s at once public and private, it’s at once outwardly directed and inwardly directed. In a certain way, my experience of sex, and especially of cruising, which also creates these places that are public and private at once, was a training in poetry.

Certainly as a novelist, I feel that the book is constructed out of these lyric moments where something similar is happening. All of that is to say that I want sex scenes to have access to the lyrical, and I want metaphor to be available in them. I want the narrator to be able to extrapolate into the metaphysical from the physical, because that’s a key part of the experience of sex for me. But to do that, the physical has to be present on the page. It’s especially important in this case because you need to be able to see what this other person is doing, in very basic terms of disposition of bodies and movement, in order to have a kind of access to him—to his experience of what’s happening—that isn’t mediated simply by the narrator’s consciousness.


So we’re to understand that the metaphysical portion of it, the metaphor part of it, is only from the narrator’s point of view?

Well, that’s the big question, right? The narrator is haunted throughout by that great solipsistic question of how much of any experience we have is ever shared with another. How can we ever be sure? That’s one thing the narrator explicitly says is true of any relationship between two persons, whether it’s transactional or not, to the extent that any relationship is ever not transactional. We never have access to the experience of another. Anytime we think we’re having a shared experience, there’s always a leap of faith involved in that.

That’s precisely what happens in the middle section, when the narrator thinks he sharing an experience with another boy, and he’s betrayed. And that betrayal engenders a series of betrayals.

I think that’s true. I should say that I wrote this book without realizing I was writing a novel. When I finished the novella, I thought it was a complete thing. I wasn’t intending to write the second section of the novel. I thought I was going to write something very different, maybe some poems. But then I was seized by this voice, and the writing of this section was unlike any other writing experience I’ve ever had. I wrote it on scraps of paper, on receipts. It was like it had to be trash in order for me to write it. It had to be utterly disposable. I usually write in these spiral-bound school notebooks, which is a way of writing something that doesn’t feel permanent, that doesn’t feel important. But even that was too solid for the middle section. And I was just following this voice, and a sort of rage. It was a voice propelled by rage. It was only as I was composing that section that I realized that it was trying to account for some of the oddities of the narrator in the first section.

One of the peculiarities is that he claims he’s telling us everything, and he says at one point something like, I can’t keep a secret, the whole bent of my nature is toward confession. I’m just confessing to you. But actually, he’s withholding. There are all of these ways he’s not letting us see what’s really going on. There are ways he’s protecting himself, ways that he’s not making himself available to the reader, to Mitko, to himself, to anyone in his life.

That middle section, I was realizing, was trying to understand how he became the person he is in the first section. I do think he became that person through, as you say, a series of betrayals, and precisely that kind of betrayal where he thought he was in a shared story with someone and it turned out that he wasn’t. That middle section tells two big stories—the story of his relationship with his father and the story of his relationship with his best friend. They’re both stories of an overwhelming desire that not only is he denied, that he can’t act upon, but that condemns him. It’s a desire that makes him despicable. I think that’s really the most profound sense of himself he has.

Shame and joy coexist surprisingly often for him.

In the third section, when he talks about his first experiences of cruising, they are experiences of joy, of great freedom, and they’re experiences of a real community, in some ways a supportive community. I don’t want to simply present these as spaces of shame, because they’re not. But in this narrator’s experience of them, they’re not places that can be scrubbed of shame. And I do think they’re spaces that protect him from a certain kind of intimacy and from a certain kind of bearing of himself. Partly just in terms of duration, because these moments of intimacy don’t have to be sustained over months and years, which is a different kind of challenge, and he doesn’t have to reveal himself to anyone for longer than the space of a single encounter. So in some sense, he does find these spaces give him access to intimacy, give him access to sex, give him access to other people in a way that’s limited or containable.

The first section ends with this weird epilogue where the narrator goes down to the sea and he looks at the water, and it’s a moment of boundlessness or a feeling of a force that can’t be contained. The narrator is very prone to a kind of desire that feels overwhelming for him, that he experiences as threatening, as potentially annihilating. And the sorts of spaces he inhabits, like these bathrooms at the beginning of the book, are a way of trying to protect himself against that boundlessness.

Physically and emotionally.

I think that’s exactly right. He’s a very fearful narrator. He’s been taught a certain lesson about his own desire, and it’s a lesson that, even if he can challenge it, he can’t ever unlearn. He’s taught to crush desire. He’s taught that it’s something to be utterly resisted. And he’s taught that not just by his father’s disapproval or a larger culture’s disapproval. At one point he says that while growing up in Kentucky in the eighties and early nineties, the only story anyone ever told about a person like him was the story of AIDS. And so his experience of desire is tied up with this overwhelming narrative of consequence. I can say from my own experience of being a gay kid in Kentucky in the late eighties and early nineties that it was very different in relation to the AIDS epidemic and the AIDS crisis than, say, the spaces of queer privilege on the coasts. We had no sex education in schools, and it was illegal for a public schoolteacher to talk about homosexuality in the classroom. Certainly they never did. No one ever talked to me about condoms. No one ever talked to me about how you could have sex in ways that were safer than others. The only lesson I had about sex was that if you were gay and had sex, you got AIDS.

The narrator feels it as a kind of punishment.

And that, too, makes desire something you have to guard against. And then much of the exhilaration of cruising is putting fear aside for a moment. It’s an ecstatic feeling that is followed by greater fear. This is a narrator for whom desire seems to offer the secret key to himself. And also desire is something really terrifying that threatens to annihilate him. Dennis Cooper is writing in a tradition of queer writers that has been important to me, and in Cooper’s work you can see this dual nature of desire—as a source of intense freedom and escape and as a source of intense destruction. It comes out in his work differently than it does in mine, I think. I think of Lidia Yuknavitch participating in a similar tradition, going back through Kathy Acker to people like Bataille, who’s a writer I love and whom in some ways I feel close to, and de Sade, a writer who repulses me. It’s this sense of the body, of the physical, of the experience of desire as the source of all metaphysics. 

The second section is propulsive, enthralling, almost hyperreal.

It was a terrifying section to write. I could barely write it, and then it was the section I worked on longest. When I finished the first draft, which was much longer than the current version, I typed it up and I printed it out and I put it away in a drawer. I couldn’t look at it for a year. If I looked at it, I would feel sort of physically sick. 

Why did you choose to put the second section in a unbroken paragraph?

It wasn’t a conscious choice to write it as a block paragraph until I finished the first draft, and then I had to address the question of whether I was going to break it into paragraphs. I made an attempt, but it was just impossible, because the experience he’s having is one of being overwhelmed by an experience of his past that seems simultaneous. And the block paragraph feels to me like a solution in which there are different layers of density, and it allows the narrator to sink and rise into these different layers. So there’s a present moment where he’s walking around a landscape that’s very particular to Bulgaria or to post-Soviet Eastern Europe, and then he’s falling back into these various layers of memory, which are also various layers of trauma.

There’s a tradition of the block paragraph in the novel of consciousness. The great practitioner is Bernhard, for whom the block paragraph is inextricable from a certain experience of voice. There’s also a queer tradition of the block paragraph. The first block-paragraph work I ever read, which is also a single-sentence work, is Old Rosa by Reinaldo Arenas, the great Cuban queer writer. I find the block paragraph immediately bracing because it’s a kind of declaration that the reader has to give up certain expectations about the experience of reading a text in order to access the material. It immediately throws you off your guard. It’s disorienting.

It’s startling in part because his feelings are so circumscribed in the first section, and then all of a sudden, it’s a complete release. And in the third section, he reins himself in again.

I feel like in Europe the block paragraph tradition is just kind of an obvious thing. It’s not part of the tool kit of standard American realism, and I do think it’s off-putting for some people. But for me, it really wasn’t ever a choice. It was just the only way to give that experience of boundlessness. This is a weird thing to say, but this is a narrator who is very deeply attached to dignity.

Why is that a weird thing to say?

Well, because a public bathroom beneath the National Palace of Culture in Sofia is a weird place to go looking for dignity. I say that, but I think the human lives that inhabit that space are as fully deserving of a measure of human dignity as all others. But the narrator has a deep sense of shame, and as a response to that he’s really attached to dignity. That dignity manifests itself in the shape of the sentences. He’s attached to this high-art tradition of the sentence—Henry James is the great exemplar—and a kind of syntax that in its very extravagance is the expression of mastery. Ultimately, it is an instrument of control, or at least I think that’s what the narrator wants it to be. In that middle section, all that just flies away. The sentences repeatedly betray grammar, they blow through the rules of syntax, language becomes more functional. That is part of this experience of being utterly overwhelmed by his past. It comes upon him as a force that he can’t control or guard against.

This novel came out of an experience in my own life, of having gone to a distant, strange place. As a foreigner in Bulgaria, which is a place that not a lot of foreigners go to, especially to live, you get used to being asked certain questions. One of the questions is, What’s the strangest thing about Bulgaria? My answer was always about how much Bulgaria reminds me of Kentucky. In some ways my whole life has been fleeing my childhood. My first months in Bulgaria I could barely speak the language. I was constantly making social faux pas because I didn’t understand the mores. But when I found, totally by accident, this cruising place, it was like I emerged all of a sudden into absolute fluency. The codes were exactly the same. I could communicate exactly what I wanted. Everything was legible. And when I started meeting gay men in Bulgaria, and talking to gay men in Sofia especially, I found they had exactly the same horizon of possibility as the men I met in the parks in Kentucky. Being in Bulgaria thrust me back into my childhood, when I found that link between the experience of queerness in that place and the experience of queerness where I grew up. I think that’s what made this novel happen. 

Nicole Rudick is the managing editor of The Paris Review.