The “Machine” in the title of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1982 is a minicomputer, but for anyone reading it now, it might as well be a time machine. The Soul of a New Machine takes the reader back 27 years, but in terms of the technology that is central to the book, it feels like we’re going back eons. Kidder’s book, once a riveting look into a fast-growing and mysterious industry, now reads as history. Kidder’s subject is a team of engineers at a now gone company called Data General (it was bought out in 1999). Under the brash instruction of their leader, Tom West, the engineers set out to design a computer even though the head honchos at Data General have put their support and resources behind another group. West’s Eagle group – made up of young, brilliant engineers – comes out on top. Though this book is quite dated now, I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. Computer technology is so commonplace now that it is a part of our landscape, both essential and taken for granted. It was interesting to look back to a time before we had computers on our desks and in our pockets, when computers were as mysterious and awe inspiring as putting a man on the moon. The book was also compelling as a collection of character studies and a treatise on business theory. Kidder does a good job of putting the reader in the basement of the office building where this computer was born. If you’re interested, an excerpt from the book is available.
The advance praise for What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the debut novel by Garth Greenwell, has been superlative to say the least. The handsome, nearly 200-page hardcover boasts blurbs from Edmund White and Hanya Yanagihara, among others, and early rave reviews have appeared in Interview and Booklist, in addition to starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, which hailed the book as “the first great novel of 2016.”
Greenwell’s elegant, meticulously crafted prose certainly merits such endorsements, and for its probing, unusually candid inquiry into gay desire, his book seems poised to be received not just as the first great novel of 2016, but the next great gay novel — a somewhat fraught designation that Greenwell has himself considered in his review of Yanagihara’s A Little Life for The Atlantic. There, Greenwell defines the category in passing as “a big, ambitious novel about gay life in America today,” and goes on to argue for A Little Life’s qualification. Funnily enough, however, it’s his own novel, spare and set abroad though it may be, that offers us the most exacting and visionary reading in contemporary literature of what it means to be gay in America today.
Of the many favorable comparisons What Belongs to You is sure to invite, none seems quite so apt — or useful in understanding just what it is that makes it a great gay novel — as its parallels to James Baldwin’s 1956 classic Giovanni’s Room. Both books take place in a European city (Sofia, Bulgaria, and Paris, France, respectively) and center on an ill-fated gay love affair between an American expatriate narrator and a titular, foreign man. Both Greenwell’s Mitko (who gives the novel’s first section its name) and Baldwin’s Giovanni exemplify and are othered by a working-class masculinity, in addition to being tragically beautiful. And like their protagonist counterparts, both love objects have also left behind their home cities, though, Mitko, meaningfully, has not escaped his native Bulgaria or the effects of its depressed economy, and, unlike Giovanni, is identified as a sex-worker upon his introduction. (Greenwell is a writer of such subtle clarity, however, he never need name him explicitly or euphemistically as such. Many reviewers, unfortunately, have not been as careful in their treatment of Mitko, a complex and lovingly rendered character whom Greenwell goes to great pains not to reduce to the role of predator.)
In many ways, What Belongs to You inverts the terms of Giovanni’s Room: where in Baldwin, Paris is the only place where the expatriate is able to experience some semblance of sexual freedom, ultimately compromised by the impossibility thereof elsewhere, in Greenwell, Sofia mirrors the recalled Southern city of the narrator’s aspirationally middle-class childhood, a last outpost of a conservative worldview in which gay happiness cannot be imagined.
The action of both books is, for the most part, recalled — though retrospection and introspection might be even more central to What Belongs to You, in which everything that happens is explicitly filtered through the mind and/or memory of our unnamed narrator. The main character, like Greenwell himself, is a thinking writer and a poet, which informs his language and his approach to art-making. During his first encounter with Mitko, in which he pays Mitko for his performance, so to speak, he muses:
But then there’s something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly.
The novel is bursting with such observations, as quotable as they are uncanny in the precision with which they reveal the transactional, often confounding nature of desires — and what determines them. Two sections that chronicle the narrator’s relationship with Mitko bookend a single-paragraph, 42-page second section of astonishing urgency, scope, and skill, in which the narrator, out on a long walk, re-enacts the joys and traumas of his childhood in order to consider his father’s legacy and imminent death.
Its place in the larger narrative of our protagonist, as he’s teaching English at the American College and looking for love in all the ostensibly wrong places, functions much like David’s recollection of his first lover, Joey, from his school days, in Giovanni’s Room — as an origin point. Once again, however, the terms of the two books are inverted: while it is an ashamed David who puts an end to his relationship with Joey, it is Greenwell’s narrator who is essentially abandoned by his best friend and first love K. after they spend an evening in an intimate (but chaste) embrace. Later, the desire between the two boys is triangulated between K.’s first girlfriend, for whom the narrator becomes both watchman and voyeur:
He knew I was watching and he let me watch. It was like a parting gift, I thought as I kept watching his face and the movements it made, it looked almost as if he were in pain. I was in pain too, and almost without thinking I let my hand drop between my legs and gripped myself hard. I’ve sought it ever since, I think, the combination of exclusion and desire I felt in his room, beneath the pain of exclusion the satisfaction of desire; sometimes I think it’s the only thing I’ve sought.
The indefatigable desire realized in K.’s room, and its repetition in the form of Mitko, also recalls David’s description of Giovanni’s: “It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room.”
For the narrator of What Belongs to You, K.’s rejection is also already something of an echo — of an experience with his father when he “must have been nine or ten” in which he unknowingly transgresses the boundaries of filial affection and which signals “the end of care:”
…his look entered me and settled there and has never left, it rooted beneath memory and became my understanding of myself, my understanding and expectation.
There’s nothing particularly revelatory in the idea that our relationships with our parents and early attempts at intimacy shape what we seek in our romantic pursuits as adults — the credit goes to Sigmund Freud there — but the remarkable intervention Greenwell makes in What Belongs to You, as Baldwin did in Giovanni’s Room, is that for gay men, the sociocultural trauma of sexual difference is just as integral an etiological force, and one that informs both our relationships with our parents and our adolescent fumblings. Neither What Belongs to You nor Giovanni’s Room is a coming-of-age novel, quite, but both deal with the consequences of having come-of-age gay in a particular time and place.
That the two novels differ substantially should be obvious on the basis of their differing authors and publication dates alone, but both are great gay novels, and, I think, achieve that success according to a similar mechanism. Just as Giovanni’s Room was the novel that best expressed the precarious and shifting social position of American gay men in the mid-20th century, so What Belongs to You offers us an almost uncomfortably clear articulation of our own time.
Published 60 years prior, in a time when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness and the prospect of same-sex marriage must have seemed laughable, Giovanni’s Room is, accordingly, a sadder book. This isn’t to minimize what a sad book What Belongs to You is, however (if you are, like me, a crier, you’ve been forewarned). Its story and title invite us to consider what does belong to us, whether we share the relative social privilege of its narrator or, like the doomed Mitko (or Giovanni, or even David), are trapped in an environment in which it seems impossible to follow our desires to their fulfillment. What belongs to us, Greenwell opines, is what we inherit — from our lovers, our families, and our cultures. What Belongs to You commits itself to revealing how our desires are forged in our early moments of rejection, frustration, and punishment, how even as we grow up and into lives in which we might be free to pursue our desires in whatever form they take, we are never truly free. We do not shape our desires so much as they shape us.
In a sense, the novel’s first sentence is a synecdoche of the whole, in which Mitko’s betrayal is a stand-in for the much larger betrayal of a world that teaches us to be ashamed of our attractions:
That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should have in turn made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely.
But finally, the response this book offers to the question of what belongs to us, if it is not quite joyful, is hopeful — and key to understanding what makes it the great gay novel of today. Greenwell’s narrator does ultimately find a healthy, reciprocal love in the form of a long distance relationship. And the role that Skype plays in that relationship is not incidental. Though the narrator first meets Mitko in an old-world cruising spot, the new possibilities for gay connection that technology has created are central to this book, as reflected in Mitko’s fascination with electronics he cannot afford, and both his and the narrator’s use of gay chatrooms as a means to mitigate loneliness (and for Mitko, to arrange his appointments).
We live in a time of a great transition, in which, for the fortunate, the experience of being gay does indeed get better. But the very construction of “it gets better” depends on the fact of it once having been worse, and it is this difficult passage between rejection and acceptance (from others and of the self) that characterizes gay identity in What Belongs to You. In his narrator, Greenwell has created a character who, somewhat counterintuitively, functions as an archetype of the gay experience today: moving from shame and secrecy toward liberation, even as liberation remains difficult to realize. Despite the vivid specificity of the narrator’s biographical details (which, it’s worth mentioning, bear a striking resemblance to Greenwell’s own life), his narrator, meaningfully nameless, remains capacious. If it would be a stretch to call him a universal character (this reviewer is also a gay poet, after all), it is important to recognize the ways in which the arc of his life epitomizes a certain moment in American culture: he’s a child of upwardly mobile middle-class parents, of divorce (and therefore also of the death of the nuclear family), and of the legacy of domestic violence, caught in a cultural moment of changing mores and moral panic, when the mainstreaming of psychotherapy spelled for a larger reckoning with family secrets, and when being gay was still mostly associated with AIDS and pedophilia.
Though he must recognize the enduring consequences of this legacy, that Greenwell’s narrator succeeds in imagining — and then making — a life in which he is not condemned by his desires is no small change in the history of gay literature. It heartens me to think that in 100 years, a young gay reader may no longer recognize the experience in this book as his own, as I don’t quite recognize mine in Giovanni’s Room. Greenwell’s masterful first novel suggests that in addition to all the pain we inherit, something else might belong to us too: something of our choosing — in another room, another country, another future — at the end of the street, just out of sight.
As anyone who keeps up with world financial markets surely knows, the People’s Republic of China is booming. After the quashing of the Chinese democracy movement in Tienanmen Square in 1989, Deng Xiaoping did an about-face and introduced capitalism as a panacea for the woes of his country. Echoing the call “to get rich is glorious,” many old-guard communist institutions were abandoned in favor of quasi-free market ventures, and the result was a China on the make, full of hustlers and schemers, anxious to make a buck. Crooked politicians became crooked entrepreneurs, and the pursuit of wealth became not just the means to an end that Deng Xiaoping had envisioned, but an end in itself. The Chinese literary scene caught on quickly, selling out its ideological foundations for the cheap fix of fast money, and a national literature of the explicit was born, with even writers whose writing had once been pillars of the democracy movement turning their efforts to the salacious and titillating, whatever would sell. It was in this milieu that Zhu Wen, whose stories are collected in the recently released anthology I Love Dollars, made his literary debut.Modern China, as captured by Wen, is a Kafkaesque horror. The parallels to Kafka’s work are uncanny: the endless bureaucracy, arbitrary nature of decision making, the crushing closeness of others, ambivalence to – almost reflexive fear of – sex, all coming together to make even the smallest task a trial of epic difficulty. Kafka’s preoccupations seem a perfect fit for China, and Wen manages to capture all of the loathing, and paradoxically – and much to my great relief – all of the bleak humor of Kafka’s best work.The title story, which follows the antics of a father and son as they scour a nameless factory town looking for the narrator’s younger brother, is a send up/satire of the go-go China of the 1990s. Much like Kafka’s The Castle, the story documents the endless circular pursuit of a goal, which, when finally attained, proves meaningless. The unnamed narrator possesses an almost Portnoy-like obsession with sex. (Philip Roth once when asked if he had been influenced by the stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce, replied, no, he had been influenced by a sit-down comedian, Franz Kafka.) He views every interaction from the perspective of getting laid, and his search for his brother is repeatedly waylaid by his sexual proclivities. The humor that arises from this obsession tempers Wen’s insinuation that China has traded the good of the Democracy movement for something vulgar. When the narrator insists that his father abandon their search for the brother to find some girls, his father refuses, leading him to note, “In [my father’s] day libido wasn’t called libido, it was called idealism.” Later, in a discussion of his second favorite topic, money, he declaims, “We’ve all got things we can learn from [Western money]… From its straight-up, honest-to-goodness, absolute value[s].”As the stories unfold, Kafka’s influence becomes increasingly pronounced. The second story, “A Hospital Night,” and the third story “A Boat Crossing” both transform Kafka’s familiar themes into exquisite commentaries on life in modern China. They’re built on an atmosphere of gloom, paranoia and general malaise, so complete and effective it is at times literally chilling. And yet, the bleakness is so absolute, it inevitably becomes ridiculous, as in “A Hospital Night” when the narrator is dragooned into taking care of an elderly man he barely knows and whom despises him. The ensuing power struggle, waged over the elderly man’s indignation at being tended to by a stranger and the narrator’s need to empty his bed pan, could be taken directly from the pages of Amerika, and will surely elicit snorts and belly laughs from anyone with an appreciation for dark humor. “A Boat Crossing,” while also amusing in its way draws a darker picture of life, where a man, escaping from a nameless fear, learns that sometimes the things that seem the least threatening can be the most dangerous.”Wheels” and “Pounds, Ounces, Meat” follow in the same vein. The first details an endless series of confrontations between a man and the pseudo-gangsters who are determined to make him pay their grandfather’s hospital bills, and the latter follows a couple as their attempts to prove they’ve been cheated by a butcher cascade into a series of antic misadventures. “Ah, Xiao Xie” provides an interesting twist on the Kafka story, observing a Kafkaesque protagonist, a man struggling to quit his job at a power plant, from the viewpoint of a rational observer. As with so many of Kafka’s characters, Xiao Xie’s motives are completely inscrutable and defy all conventional logic, boggling the mind of the narrator, much as Kafka’s endless variations on himself confound his readers. Eventually, Xiao Xie’s struggle with the nearly indomitable will of his employers, who refuse to let him resign, undergoes a hilarious reversal. After Xiao Xie ruins his health with one of his schemes, his employers try to fire him, while he desperately clings to his job, terrified of losing his health insurance.It’s difficult to say whether Wen writes from a love of Kafka or a more organic identification with the themes of his work. Although Kafka’s portrait hangs in Wen’s office, many historical accounts of communist rule in China seem readymade for Kafka themselves. Many of Chairman Mao’s initiatives summon forth images worthy of The Trial or The Castle, and the bizarre amalgamation of capitalist freedoms and communist tyranny seems a recipe for the confrontations between the self and the faceless bureaucracies that form the basis of so much of his work. The Chinese legalist tradition, harking back to the sixth century BC, also provides another point of similarity. The legalist’s obsession with honoring the letter of the law over its spirit, reflected in the practice, if not necessarily the philosophy, of Chinese communism (not often noted, but to my mind indisputable), mirrors the unbending rules of the Talmud, with which Kafka expressed a deep fascination. Wen’s work suggests that this combination of Jewish legalism and Germanic bureaucratic organization that Kafka experienced as an antagonistic force during his life in Bohemia has found itself reborn in a bizarro Chinese form. It might be hell to live through, but it makes for a fantastic read.