What Belongs to You
by Garth Greenwell.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016,
$23.00 cloth, $16.00 paper.
by Viet Dinh.
Little A, 2016,
$24.95 cloth, $14.95 paper.
“A fact: most people underestimate the extent of disaster,” a humanitarian aid worker named Piotr reminds us, and himself, late in Viet Dinh’s new book After Disasters. Piotr is “never surprised to hear victims delude themselves. They interpret ambiguities as optimistic signs.”
Well, here are two debut novels bentand thrillingly soon recovering the full extent from fragmentation, and ambiguity from easy certitude. Both of these books ask you to recognize how the truth might scatter into lies, allowing you to dodge its too-muchness by grasping only a chosen handful of its shiniest snips. Both of these books ask you to recognize how tempting it might also be to dismiss the truth’s essential inadequacy, its unease, lacunae, and failures of proportion, in favor of an illusory cohesion. And yet the truth, thank God, is what both of these books are after.
Garth Greenwell’s brilliant What Belongs to You traces the relationship between an unnamed narrator, an American teacher at an elite school in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a younger man called Mitko. The two meet in a public bathroom: the narrator has come there to cruise, Mitko to hustle. The narrator has never paid for sex before, but when he sees Mitko’s body it’s at once “almost infinitely dear” to him. The narrator first hesitates, but then follows Mitko into a stall, gives him a twenty-leva note, and takes him into his mouththough it quickly becomes clear that Mitko is “drunk past the possibility of desire.” Mitko feigns passion, but even after several minutes he shows “no response at all.” When Mitko leaves the stall without finishing, the narrator protests, “iskam oshte, I want more.” But then:
As I knelt there, still tasting the metallic trace of sinkwater from his skin, I felt my anger lifting as I realized that my pleasure wasn’t lessened by his absence, that what was surely a betrayal (we had our contract, though it had never been signed, never set in words at all) had only refined our encounter, allowing him to become more vividly present to me even as I was left alone on my stained knees, and allowing me, with all the freedom of fantasy, to make of him what I would.
This beautiful, elongated sentence is a typical example of the novel’s prosethough “typical” is, of course, a funny word for writing that manages to unspool itself toward both precision and dreamlike open-endedness.
After several more paid, semi-public encounters with Mitko, the narrator decides to invite him to his apartment. The two men’s complicated, transactional friendship and affair begins in earnest. Mitko’s word for what the narrator is to him, priyatel, turns out to be the same word he uses for a past lover, for friends, for other clients; that instability is the hot core of What Belongs to You. It’s also a two-way street. While the narrator’s desire for Mitko proves bottomless, unstinting, he’s painfully aware of the multiple power imbalances between the two of them. One of the novel’s great pleasures is the narrator’s combination of sophistication and sensibility: it’s immediately clear he’s no naïf. And yet, as ever, his own sexual experience doesn’t save him from ruminating over the fact that here his desire is not straightforwardly returned, that for Mitko it’s a means of manipulation; with Mitko, he’s aroused, humiliated, frightened, detached, pitying, exposed, cynical, and tender, by turns. He’s overwhelmed by moments of unexpected fulfillment, even joy, and also by moments of unexpected suffering.
Over the course of one miserable dinner out, Mitko flirts with the narrator’s friend, touching him repeatedly in way that “would at the slightest sign of permission or desire have taken on a sexual heat.” The narrator retaliates by asking him “whether he liked his life among his priyateli,” why “he chose to live as he did.” Mitko explains that it’s his “fate, the single word serving to dismiss at a stroke all choice and consequence.” No jobs, no opportunities, no way for Mitko to get out of Bulgaria. As they walk home afterward, the narrator thinks:
At one and the same time, I wanted to repair the damage I had done and sensed with relief the possibility of extricating myself from an entanglement that had become more intricate than I could bear. It seemed to me there was no attitude toward Mitko I could take that would let me be at once sufficiently compassionate and sufficiently free, so that I wavered between eagerness and distance, an ambivalence that I knew, though it was especially acute with Mitko, characterized all my relationships, casual and profound.
His relationship with Mitko, then, is simultaneously exceptional and telling, miniature and oceanic, intimate and systemic.
Greenwell’s novel is magnificent at catching the moments and spaces where individual privacy elides into rapture, transgression, and communion. At one point, the narrator recalls his sister’s confession that she’d secretly installed a tracking program on their estranged father’s computer. The program had allowed her to trace his erotic life as it proceeded online through myriad profiles and conversations.
She read these lines with fascination and disgust, she said, watching my father’s fantasies played out before her in skeletal form, the pleading tones, the boasts and commands clear even through the poorly typed lines, the symbols and abbreviations of internet chat that make such language seem so much like a process of decay. As I listened to her, I imagined (imagining myself in her place) that she couldn’t help but provide the missing voice, inventing the invitations and evasions that his own lines responded to or provoked, until it must have felt as if she had become part of those dramas, I imagined, how could she not.
In two voyeuristic sentences, I count four-plus metamorphoses: sister becomes father, sister becomes father’s lovers, brother becomes already-metamorphosed sisterand brother, too, becomes father’s lovers.
Yet another metamorphosis takes place later, on a train. The narrator is struck by a little boy traveling with his grandmother, although he can’t understand why until he sees the boy make “a particular gesture with his hands, curling his fingers slightly and holding them both palm up before him, a pleading gesture.” The narrator realizes it’s “one of Mitko’s gestures,” that the boy “might have been a small copy of the man,” and that watching him is like “watching Mitko as a boy, before he had become what he was now.” First the narrator imagines this boy remaining in Bulgaria, growing up like Mitko, and “there was the lost promise of the bright boy before me.” Next he imagines the boy making “the most of that promise,” leaving Bulgariabut “then there was the thought, unbearable to me, of what Mitko might have been.”
Might-have-beens are the animating force of After Disasters. Dinh’s novel follows a cast of rescue workers into the city of Bhuj, in Gujarat, India, after a catastrophic 2001 earthquake. Two of the four central characters are disaster neophytes: Ted, a former pharmaceutical salesman turned USAID employee, and Andy, a member of the UK Fire Services Search and Rescue Team. Piotr works with Ted, but his USAID experience extends back to Bosniaand where Ted sees an emotional pointillism of individuated horrors, all seemingly mere inches from his face, Piotr sees structures and logistics with the numbed practicality of almost-sufficient distance. Dev is a New Delhi doctor who runs a hospital AIDS clinic; he volunteers with Médecins Sans Frontières because his mentor, Dr. Sengupta, lived and worked in Bhuj, and because he knows that Dr. Sengupta’s hospital has collapsed, and that Dr. Sengupta must be dead.
Dev and Ted turn out to have been past lovers; they’re stunned to cross paths again in the midst of the relief effort. Ted and Andy meet by chance around a campfire, and begin a flirtation. These convergent entanglements might have felt impossibly coincidental in lesser hands, but here Dinh has created a book that feels at once designed and chaotic: as if there were a pattern to everything, a pattern that might even be palpable, if only it hadn’t suddenly broken. As you read, you sense that none of Dinh’s characters can help trying to squint at this imaginary, disastrous pattern. It’s as if it were the sun.
Early on, Dev and his wife Padma (yes, he is gay, but closeted) visit Dr. Sengupta and his wife Sushrita at their home in Bhuj. Dr. Sengupta had encouraged Dev to marry, to root himself in the world, and while Padma and Sushrita are busy in the kitchen he reminds Dev that he saw in him his “own, younger self.” Dev asks him, “And now?” Dr. Sengupta answers, “You will discover, as I once had to, that” But Padma and Sushrita choose that moment to return, and Dev watches as Dr. Sengupta’s thoughts “take on a new form.” He offers comfortable banalities: “nothing is more important in this world than family.” And Dev is left wondering if he might have been “on the cusp of promising another life, an alternative, a secret that he had discovered too late.” If so, now that secret will never be told.
This is a small moment in a novel that’s full of death, full of adrenaline-soaked disembodimentbut Dinh’s novel, like Greenwell’s, feels devoted to preserving the miniature, even when you might expect the colossal to have crushed it irremediably. It’s Andy’s job to squeeze his way into collapsed buildings, seeking out survivors. On his first harrowing trip he finds one, a woman, who’s strong enough to use his hammer to help free herself from the rubble.
Stone grinds against stone, and Andy winces as she strains and tugs, butbut she moves closer, a cascade of pebbles like rain, her skin washed of dust by sweat; she puts her arms up above her head, a surrender, and Andy grabs her wrists and inches backward; her arms pop in their sockets, and she shakes her torso, trying to get free; she looks up at him, the skin tight on her skull, and she nods, and Andy pulls, every muscle tense and straining, and it’s a cork coming out of a bottle: her chest, her waist, her legs, her feet; as soon as she’s loose, she crawls after him with fire in her eyes, and soon, Reg and Phil have his feet, and the world opens up, filled with overhead lights, and it’s so blinding that Andy turns off the torch on his helmet because nothing can compete with that light...
Days later, though, when Andy’s desperate to repeat this miracle,
The light shines on a small figure crumpled on the ground: a dog, lying on its side, its flank moving so imperceptibly that it might be screen flicker. The dog has its eyes open, its mouth open, and it moves its head as if to acknowledge the presence of the light, before it resumes its previous position in the void between worlds.
Andy heard the dog breathing on his headphones; he assumed it was human. He still wants to save it, no matter how insignificant this dog might seem to everyone else, no matter how insignificant it is, he still wants to save it, but he can’t. The others won’t allow him. They think he’s losing his mind.
But how can Andy be expected to stomach a rescue effort where each life is preciousuntil one life isn’t? That is the point toward which Dinh’s whole novel gradually moves: a place where hope must at all costs be cosseted, but only until it is lost.
Mimi Chubb is a former deputy editor of The Threepenny Review.