On the cover of Greenwell’s first novel is a quote from author Claire Messud that simply says “Here is the real thing” and this book really is. Firstly, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had this pang of regret, but as I was reading the book (a library copy), I was sad that it wasn’t my own as I knew this would be a book I would have for the rest of my life, that I would return to and re-read more than once, in which I would highlight and underline passages. Even now, having stayed up until after two last night to finish it, I’m looking forward to buying my own copy and reading it again.
So, what makes this book so special?
On the surface, the plot is simplistic. The unnamed American narrator living in Bulgaria meets a young hustler called Mitko in a public toilet and largely it is the story of their relationship, fraught as it is. Split into three sections, the book recounts the narrator’s overwhelming attraction for Mitko, their contractual relationship, the narrator’s life – including his familial relationships and his first love that cast a shadow over everything – up until now and his elliptical meetings with Mitko, but this book is so much more than that. Why? The writing. This relatively slender book (under 200 pages) is filled with some of the most beautiful writing I have read in a very long time. The story is sparse, tight and every scene entirely essential, pared back with a poet’s eye (a fact felt throughout the book since the narrator, an English teacher by trade, is a poet himself), and the prose is deft, sparse, haunting and entirely present, insistent and elegiac, with not a duff word or a malformed line. More than that, Greenwell and his narrator write profound sentences that literally litter the book and struck me deeply at times, such as this paragraph, when discussing the multiplicity of chatting to people online:
“… it’s one of the things I crave in the sites I use, that I can carry on these multiple conversations, each its own window so that sometimes my screen is filled with them; and in each I have the sense of being entirely false and entirely true, like a self in a story, I suppose, or the self I inhabit when I teach, the self of authority and example. I know they’re all I have, these partial selves, true and false at once, that any ideal of wholeness I long for is a sham; but I do long for it, I think I glimpse it sometimes, I even imagine I’ve felt it.” (p. 70)
This is a writer who has clearly read the work of the gay writers who came before him; Edmund White and Tony Kushner were two who came to mind during my reading, however, they are not influences that he works from – Greenwell manages to come across as entirely original, as something utterly new. More than anything, I think why I responded so strongly to this book was that I recognised in the character; a gay man living abroad in a strange country, a poet seeking to document, to make sense of the world.
And that desire to document led to one of Greenwell’s most (to me, at least) devastatingly true assertions, which could be a talisman for the whole novel. Towards the end, on a train journey with his mother, the narrator watches at length a small child at play and towards the end says:
“I looked once more at the little boy, whom I felt I would never forget, though maybe it wasn’t exactly him I would remember, I thought, but the use I would make of him. I had my notes, I knew I would write a poem about him, and then it would be the poem I remembered, which would be both true and false at once, the image I made replacing the real image. Making poems was a way of loving things, I had always thought, of preserving them, of living moments twice; or more than that, it was a way of living more fully, of bestowing on experience a richer meaning.” (pp. 170-171)
And that’s exactly what this book is; a crystallization of a man’s at times lonely, desperate, alien, and haunted life as he moves through the unfamiliar country – the city he lives in, the way he looks at life, the extent of his connections with people – and his relationship with arrogant, beautiful, petulant Mitko who, as Edmund White says on the back cover, is like a myth. And like a myth, he can never quite be fully grapsed, nor explained.
You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.