When I first read Garth Greenwell’s novel-in-stories Cleanness, I did not know that I was about to endure three months without human contact. Our interview took place over the phone, as nearly all my conversations do now. Even at a distance, Greenwell was fully present. He tends to speak in paragraphs. In my conversations with friends and loved ones, I try to emulate his resonance.
It’s difficult to define precisely what I mean by “resonance”—maybe conviction in the power of langugage. Consider this sex scene, in which Greenwell’s narrator observes his capacity to render language “real”: “I kissed it, too, as I had kissed the rest of him, and said again the words that somehow became more real with repetition.” At the end of the scene, the narrator kisses his lover across the forehead, declaring, “I had garlanded him.” I think of the name of the virus, its mock regality, and thank Greenwell for this tender vision. May the future bring safety and justice and garlanding galore.
— Liv Lansdale for Guernica
Guernica: At one point your narrator says, “I felt with a new fear how little a sense of myself I have.” What are the challenges of writing from the perspective of someone with an unstable sense of self?
Garth Greenwell: I think it’s an assumption on my part about human beings: that we don’t know ourselves, that we are much more mysteries to ourselves than we are clear, and that someone who feels they are not a mystery to themselves is deluded. It always seems to me that there’s a great deal of ourselves we don’t know, and that we don’t want to know. One of the things that interests me about narrative, and about having the same narrator over two books, is the possibility that presents of repeatedly putting this person in situations where he undergoes a process of coming into self-knowledge and is forced to look at things he’d prefer not to look at and to discover things that maybe he would prefer not to know, or things that frighten him. In that same piece, “Gospodar,” there’s a moment where he says it’s better not to look into why we should desire certain things, and yet I think that whole story, especially the climax, forces him to do precisely that. That’s a dynamic that excites me. It’s not that I chose to engineer a character who’d be ignorant of himself in certain ways; I think any human, looked at rightly, is going to be in a state of ignorance about him or herself.
Guernica: That the narrator works in Bulgaria as a teacher feels significant to me. Did writing from the POV of an “intellectual” open any doors for you imaginatively?
Greenwell: It’s important that the narrator is interested in understanding. I don’t think he’s someone who just wants to shut off his intellect at the end of the day; he’s someone who actively desires to understand his life better. That sets up an inherent pathos, I think. He’s so firmly aware, and it’s my own prejudice as well, that we are limited in the amount we can know about ourselves, in the extent to which we can understand ourselves. One of the things that interests me in the narrator is that he’s limited in all sorts of ways, but he fundamentally does want to tell the truth. He’s not actively lying to himself or to us even if he may not be able to see the truth, or see it as clearly as maybe the reader can see it. Being an educator gives him all sorts of resources, puts him in a situation that is pregnant with irony, and also a situation that’s pregnant with pathos. He is so aware of the likelihood of failure in this endeavor that nevertheless means a great deal to him, the endeavor to understand himself.
Guernica: For me much of the suspense in these stories is derived from a sense that the narrator is at constant risk. Maybe just by being overpowered, though it’s hard to say by what. A person? A revelation? In “A Valediction,” he’s noticing history and sign markers of certain historical periods and then he starts to consider the landscape as a palimpsest with no original text; then he gets all dizzy and, one could say, “overpowered.”
Greenwell: I think he is always at risk of being overpowered, by lots of things. Another one of my prejudices about human life is that not only are we capable of not knowing a great many things, not only do we actively desire not to know a great many things, but also our fundamental ability to function in the world depends on our ability to shut down certain kinds of knowledge. If one believes, as I do, that what it means to stand in ethical relationship to another human being is to recognize that the value of that human being’s life is exactly equal to the value of my own life and therefore lays exactly the same claims upon the world, and if one feels as I do that that’s not just a recognition but an obligation, that to live in an ethically responsive relationship to other human beings means recognizing the validity of an obligation that that lays upon one—that’s actually a devastating way to live one’s life and probably an impossible way. If we believe that and also make ourselves vulnerable to the suffering of the world and the abyss of history, we are annihilated by that.
That weird scene of artifice in “A Valediction,” where the narrator is among these kitsch-ified, preserved ruins, watching this nineteenth-century opera, which is itself a fantasy of empire and orientalism, and thinking about the actual history, the actual blood that must still be somewhere in the soil of what was once a battlefield, to sort of live in the fullness of that knowledge—of history, of suffering—would be impossible. It does seem to me that one of the reasons we have a concept of something like “sainthood” is because to be a saint is to be someone who lives in the fullness of that knowledge, but that capacity is beyond the rest of us of us, it is crushing. If the answer to the question, “How does one bear what is unbearable in human suffering, in history,” is “We can’t, the only way we can is to push it out of our consciousness,” then the next question becomes, “How can we make bearable our acceptance of the inadequacy of ourselves as moral beings,” and that, I think, is genuinely an abyss of a question.
I am an artist because it seems to me art is the tool for thinking about that in a meaningful way. If you put a frame around something, then you’ve opened up a space in which you can crack open that awareness, and allow yourself to be cognizant of things you have to shut out just to be able to get through the day and teach your classes and pay your bills and walk down the street of any city, which is always flooded with unbearable suffering. The only way to do any of that is to shut down that awareness. In art, you can put a frame around a space and step into it and open up that awareness. It’s one of the things that I think makes art dangerous. Art is about plunging oneself into the abyss, and any time you plunge yourself into the abyss there can be no certainty that you will return. One of the things I admire in the art I admire is what feels like the evidence of that risk. Someone has gone into the abyss and are now reporting back on what they found there. That feels like something art can do, and something for which I feel immensely grateful.
Guernica: What you said about the abyss calls to mind some of your lines describing the aftermath of an assault: “There was no lowest place, I thought, I would strike ground only to feel it give way gaping beneath me.” I wonder how many of these stories can themselves be considered allegories about art-making.
Greenwell: I think making art, and the kind of experience the narrator seeks out in that story, “Gospodar,” both have the potential to court annihilation. We’ve become so allergic to Romantic myths about the artist, and mostly I think that’s a salutary thing. But I also think there’s something falsifying in the professionalized, bureaucratic artist that I feel is sometimes suggested by the academicization of art or the professionalization of the artist. I don’t mean to slam AWP, but to have a conference center full of artists wearing name badges that the following week will be full of salespeople, I feel like this vision of the artist is just as falsifying as the old Romantic vision of the artistic genius.
This is a tension I always feel when I teach workshop. Sometimes when I teach workshop and I read a story and I feel that the author is flinching away from something they’re desperate not to look at—and pretty often when a story is failing, it’s failing for reasons along those lines—if I feel like the art demands that this person plunge into the abyss, that’s very much in conflict with what I feel as an educator, what I feel especially intensely because I worked with young people as a high school teacher for seven years, which is that the first commandment is “do no harm,” and that we have a responsibility to do what is best for a student’s wellbeing. What’s lost from the current story we tell about art and artists is that sense of risk and danger that are real components of art. I think it’s true that when you are doing the real work of making the kind of art that I care about, you are going to scary and dangerous places. You are going to those places without any guarantee of safety or of return. If you look at art and artists, that history is full of people who have not returned. And that’s never something I ever feel like I can say to a student. So I understand this more sanitized vision of the artist that we present, but it does seem to me to be false.
Guernica: There are so many levels of risk in these stories—immediate, physical dangers but also risks that are harder to define, like the risk that comes with being an authority figure working with young people. And then there’s the big existential danger, the question of whether the narrator will lose his sense of self, which he feels would happen if his partner, R., left him.
Greenwell: Risk is at play everywhere in the book, sometimes in obvious ways, as with the sexual experiences he seeks out. The narrator puts himself at risk of violence, or has relationships with people who put themselves in situations where there’s a risk of disease, and I’m interested in the dynamics involved in that kind of risk, what it means to be drawn to it and seek it out. And then yes, there’s the risk of losing certain ideas he has about himself or a certain vision.
In a story like “An Evening Out,” where lines he has drawn between his erotic life and his role as a teacher become unclear, I don’t think he’s in any professional or legal risk (he’s interacting with former students back from college), but he’s very much at risk of losing this sense of himself. He’s someone who as a teacher has always been extremely careful about his interactions with students. Throughout the stories that have students in them, one of the features is how conscious he is of how his body is interacting with the bodies of students. He’s very conscious of how he touches them and how he doesn’t touch them. In the first story, there’s a moment when he has an entirely unerotic, sympathetic impulse to touch a student’s hand as a way to comfort him, but he restrains himself because he’s so careful about any kind of physical contact. In the story “Decent People,” he hugs a female student in a way that I think is not at all problematic, but it’s a breach of propriety that he’s aware of. The vocation and role of teacher is important to him. In a story like “Mentor,” he has a sense of the kind of power to do harm he has, and I think he very much wants not to do harm.
What he violates in “An Evening Out” is a generous and positive impulse, which was to have fun with these former students, to have a friendship with them that is not bounded by the teacher/student relationship, to look at them without all that structure of authority. These are people who genuinely like each other, who are genuinely delighted by each other’s company, and that impulse gets mixed with a less easily or simply positive impulse, desire, and that causes him to act in a way that he very much worries has done harm. I think that’s devastating for him, not because of any real-world consequence there might be, but because of a kind of violation of a code that he has set for himself.
Guernica: When I read “Mentor” in A Public Space I was struck by how seriously the narrator takes the young artist’s pain.
Greenwell: Well, I’m not sure the student in that chapter sees himself as an artist; he’s just written some poems for an assignment and the narrator sees talent in them. But the student does think of himself as a lover, and his sense of his own identity is built around a sense of purity and singleness of devotion for this person that he loves. And like the Romantic myth of the artist, we snicker at the Romantic myth of the lover. One of the things that motivated writing that chapter was a conversation that I had with another teacher in which she was very dismissive of a young person’s heartbreak. I remember something in me rebelling against that dismissiveness. We have this adult perspective in which we know that, almost always, adolescent heartbreak is something you get over, and once you’re over it, it looks different from how it looks when you’re in it. But it seems to me so morally inadequate a response, to dismiss what for all of us is a character-setting, constitutive experience of devotion and pain. And it seems to me that that snickering and that dismissiveness are actually to a great extent about protecting ourselves from the truth of that experience.
The risk for the narrator in that story—and the narrator is not truly the protagonist; I think G. the student is, since he’s the one whose experience is more foregrounded—but the danger for the narrator is that G’s story does what narrative does: it engulfs the narrator. And he finds that his position of mastery, of knowing the proper scale of things, is threatened by this narrative, and he finds himself being returned to his own originating experience of love, which is recounted in the second section of What Belongs to You, and which was absolutely devastating to the narrator, and to return to that is to return to the state of risk. Because you don’t know you’re going to survive that experience until you’ve survived it.
And to go back to that abyss, the abyss of losing one’s first love, having no emotional landmarks by which to orient oneself, that’s a profound experience. What upset me, I think, in my colleague’s response to that student’s heartbreak, was that it was dismissive of the profundity of that experience. And I do think one of the ways we protect ourselves from the fullness of knowledge, of engagement, with our own griefs and the griefs of others, is through this distancing dismissiveness. And again, one of the things art can do is take these things seriously and perceive what it would be like, as the narrator to a limited degree discovers in “Mentor,” what it would be like to take fully seriously the feelings of other people.
Guernica: These stories are extraordinarily conscious of history, which in my experience is less common among my generation’s writers, or some would say my generation as a whole. Have you always had this awareness or is it something you sought to cultivate? Are any contemporary writers engaging with history in ways you find particularly compelling?
Greenwell: Americans love to erase history, to make everything seem new. Living in Sofia was an education, for me, in the visibility of history. You really can see the palimpsest of empire there: Roman ruins, medieval Christian churches, Ottoman mosques, the nineteenth-century architectural assertion of national identity, Soviet-style apartment blocks, EU-funded modern infrastructure. Nothing has been quite expunged; everything has left traces. Working with high school students in Sofia, it was difficult not to be aware of the different ways our national pasts formed a kind of buttress for the self. W.G. Sebald, for me, is the great inspiration when it comes to writing that explores the inter-penetration of history and consciousness; one has the sense, reading him, that he is always engaged in a kind of psycho-archaeology. I’m drawn to literature that engages deeply with place; history—visible or invisible, cherished or erased—always has to be part of that engagement.
Guernica: Such a chasm between making everything new and making everything “seem” new. On the subject of novelty, which story changed the most over the course of your revisions? Did any take you by surprise?
Greenwell: Surprise is pretty important to my writing process—it’s one sign that I might be writing well, and its absence almost always means I’m writing badly. Maybe the most dramatic surprise in writing Cleanness came in the scene the book ends with. For weeks I thought that chapter was finished before what now makes up its final movement, the last three or four pages. But somehow I couldn’t feel that it was finished. Then a new character appeared, and redirected the story’s emotional trajectory in a dramatic way. It was like a necessary shift in harmony. And once I found the story’s real ending, I knew it was also the ending of the book.
Guernica: On a panel at the Tin House Summer Writer’s workshop, you observed that being in a “remarkably domestic relationship” has “slightly notched up [your] sense of contentment,” and that the effect has been not only profound, but “a place where literature lives.” Your “Loving R.” section serves as the collection’s centerpiece, and I wonder if you could talk to me about love? How do you conceive of that place “where literature lives”?
Greenwell: It’s my conviction that literature lives everywhere—that literature isn’t particular to any place or experience, but inheres in a way of looking, a kind of openness or amplitude of attention toward the world. But temperament disposes us to find certain places or experiences more available to art than others. It is a source of constant surprise to me to find myself in the kind of life I occupy now, in the house I share with my partner. It is not the kind of life my imagination has often drawn me to. On that panel at Tin House I meant that I want to challenge myself to see, as an artist, what I believe to be true: that literature lives in the ordinary, unremarkable, profound texture of any everyday life.