Wednesday, 30 August 2017
What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell
It is not a great thing, however, when what strikes me most about prose is "wow, this guy uses a lot of semicolons." Not "his descriptions are beautiful." Not "this plot is really tense." Not "these characters are great!" Nope, instead we get "really? Another semicolon?" It was disruptive when I noticed it, and I noticed it a lot. I mean, it's great that the author knew how to use them - goodness knows the semicolon is a dying art. But this reads so much like someone trying to show off just exactly how awesome they were at constructing semicolon sentences, and that definitely got in the way of me sinking into the story.
It doesn't help that there's not a lot of there, there. This is a book that is definitely all about the prose rather than the story, in that way that just screams being very young, without a ton of life experience, and possibly with a newly minted MFA. (I am not knocking MFAs in general, just that there's a clear stream of young people with that under their belt, and not a lot of story to tell quite yet.) It also doesn't help that the areas of the story I was most interested in were the areas that the author gave short shrift, sometimes in ways that then made me wonder why those bits were even there.
I am making this sound like it was terrible. It was not terrible. But neither was it the lauded stunning new literary voice, which is pretty much the description that accompanied most of the the Top 10 lists from last year that included it. It's, you know, fine. For definitions of fine that include an abundance of semicolons.
It's the story of a young gay man who is in Bulgaria teaching, has an affair with a Bulgarian man that involves power imbalances of various sorts, goes home when his father dies, comes back, falls in love with someone else, the old lover shows up with a venereal disease, everyone gets treated, his mother comes to visit, we get to the end of the affair.
I know that what I just did was unfair. I know that one of the best ways to reduce a book to nothing (often unfairly) is to reduce it to bare bones. This isn't fair because what is important is not what a book is about. It is how it is about it.
Fine. Then I didn't like how it was about it. Every glimpse we got of the Bulgarian man's life as a hustler/grifter/prostitute was fascinating, and I was way more interested in that than the American guy teaching in Bulgaria, but the story stayed firmly with the main character. (It's one of those books that feels deeply autobiographical, even if it has no relationship to real life. What I mean by that is that it is so firmly rooted in that one person who is the stand-in for the author that there is little room for anything else. At its best, this can be fascinating. I didn't find it fascinating here.) It's an expat story, with Bulgarians there as a taste of the culture, but I was far more interested in what would have happened if that had been the meat of the book.
The same thing came with the main character's relationship with his parents. Going home as his father is dying is built up strongly, with stories of his childhood, and then...the book skips forward a year or so before the narrator even goes home, and it's really not mentioned again. Goodness knows, not every book by a gay author needs to be a coming out story and how difficult negotiating a relationship with parents is, but if you bring it up, you need to explore it? At least give your readers something rather than dangling this as a theme, then backing away as fast and as hard as you possibly can. (This happens again with the visit from the mother. Both incidents feel shoehorned in to a story that is not really about that. Short as this book is, trying to bring half a theme in to flesh it out is not really the way to go.)
So, in the end, there is some okay here. Some that is interesting. But there are threads that are left dangling, what feels like an intense lack of interest in the characters outside the main character (even the one the main character is obsessed with), and themes that are raised and dropped. And dear lord, so many semicolons.