Garth Greenwell’s Mitko
A reader of contemporary prose finds herself at a strange crossroads. On one side, we have beautiful literary novels written by academics that are dazzling in their language and yet incredibly boring in their story-lines. On the other side, we have much of contemporary block-buster size fiction which aims at intricate plot lines but exhibits a poverty of skill with the English language.
What, then would be one’s idea of a perfect literary novel? 1) A story that is interesting and humanly compelling. 2) A story that is written in a language that compels us to turn the page not just because we are interested in its characters, but also its sentences.
A simple recipe, one would think. And, yet, how few recent books seem to follow it. Still, once in a while, one discovers a novel that does just that, and such novels, as we say, rock our world.
For me, Garth Greenwell’s Mitko, the winner of Miami University Press’s 2011 book prize, did precisely this: it rocked my world.
How, exactly, does this happen on the page? Here is the first sentence of the book:
“That my first encounter with Mitko B. involved betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not eradicated it completely.”
What we see here is the very combination of the two elements above: “That my first encounter with Mitko B involved betrayal” raises the reader’s interest in the plot line. The rest of the sentence complicates it psychologically, and musically, so its syntax is also a mirror for its narrator’s meditative mind—we see the English language at work.
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But first, the basics—what is happening in this book? Place: Sofia, Bulgaria. Time: aftermath of the “Fall of the Iron Curtain.” Main characters and set up: an American expatriate pays a Bulgarian man for sex.
What titles come to mind when one encounters such a plot line? Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, of course. And, perhaps, The Lover, by Margurite Duras. In a way, these two books have defined the genre of the novella in the beginning and at the end of the 20th century. So, for a new writer to take on such a project in the early 21st century—and get away with it—takes quite a bit of ambition, a lot of guts, and the prose writing skills of a literary master.
This is exactly what Garth Greenwell has, and Mitko is a book of amazing literary skill. Jamesian syntax is used not just to show off the writer’s ability at sparkling linguistic fireworks, but to deepen the emotional range and to ask hard questions about loss, sexual desire, and loneliness.
One must begin with loneliness, that American disease, which the narrator takes with him when he arrives on the foreign shore. Greenwell understands, as Marianne Moore did, that the best cure for loneliness is solitude, and it is really startling to watch his narrator negotiate between the two, and moreover, to watch how desire enters and expands our understanding of what it means to live alone.
“He receded down the hall naked, returning to the computer as I drew back on my clothes. I heard the sound of more gin being poured, then pressing of keys, then the distinctive inflating chime of Skype opening. I returned to the room, fully clothed, and watched as Mitko began what would be a long series of conversations over the internet, voice and video chats with a number of other younger men. I sat in a chair some distance behind him, where I could see the screen without myself falling within the frame. These men seemed all to be speaking from darkened room, in voices that were hushed.”
The complex portrayal of human loneliness is stunning here—the narrator’s loneliness is given to us not by depiction of him, but by depiction of what he sees, and what he sees, in turn, depicts a larger communal isolation. In our lives, we must look at others as we learn of ourselves, and yet what we see even in the mirror of daily reality, is immeasurably distant.
There is something very timeless about Mitko—this no doubt has to do with Greenwell’s ability to write prose that is both absorbing and clear, while still surprising us with each sentence, each paragraph, each phrase. The urgency of lust is mirrored beautifully with his syntax, the long sentences which weave into the unexpected:
“Over the next few days I received a number of emails from him, each canceling the last as he visited hotels, reporting on prices and conveniences and their nearness to the sea. It was the sea, as the days passed in mounted anticipation, that I longed for almost as much as I longed for Mitko.”
But there is more than just the ability to write beautiful, lyrical prose at work here. What we have here is lesson about that old literary term, the genius of a place. The American expatriate encounters the landscape and people who are unlike his own in every possible way, and so his desire, and even his loneliness, are changed as we watch him enter the pathos of the other nation, other culture, other ways of not just speaking, but being. Hell is other people, yes, we are already aware of that fact. But in Greenwell’s Bulgaria, this hell is endlessly compelling, ambivalent, needing, and in that way, beautiful. Even when there are no humans in the landscape, the genius of the place itself is unmistakable, in its magnetism, in its effect on the mind:
“While I could hear a radio playing faintly from within one of the restaurants, there was no sign of human presence, no voices or movements save for the cats that had improvised some habitation on the rooftops, where they watched me, disinterested and alert….Most of the storefronts, as I say, were boarded up, huge wooden planks stripping the glass fronts of their views, but there was one restaurant that didn’t suffer or enjoy this protection, I don’t know why…it was a place for children, a kind of combination restaurant and playground.”
This is the country whose animals are “disinterested and alert” and whose restaurants “don’t suffer or enjoy protection”—there is a strange liberation in this seemingly indifferent boundary, and a man who enters the unfamiliar country also finds out how very unknown, (and unknowable) he is to himself. Is this story tragic? Yes, perhaps; but much like Robert Frost’s early poetry, it is also terrifying as we learn not just that darkness exists, but how we live in it (Greenwell’s text quote above reminds one of Frost “asquinted with the night,” when “time is neither wrong right”). And terror is a very different business from tragedy, especially if coupled with eros. Still, much like Frost’s early work, it is strangely beautiful in its empathy, its very use of English’s properties, which is consoling, and saving, and achieves enormous grace.
-- Ilya Kaminsky