No contemporary writer I know of conveys desire better than Garth Greenwell. His second book of fiction, Cleanness, is an audacious wonder, whose nine stories of intensely textured personal interactions form an unusually hard to define novelistic whole. The book is an argument against convention, both structurally and on the character level—the melding of forms makes Cleanness feel both unique and familiar as it explores the boundaries of longing and the turbulence of love.
“Loving R.,” the molten core of the book, is devoted to a doomed romance. The surrounding six non-chronological stories are symmetrically arranged in pairs—each duo featuring a sort of inversion, flipping power dynamics between the lead and supporting characters. Even though these are ostensibly distinct narratives, the book’s larger plot gradually assembles in the reader’s mind. We learn that the unnamed American lead has been teaching high-school students in Bulgaria for seven years, that he will leave at the end of the semester, and that he is no longer with R., the man he loved.
“Decent People” and “Harbor,” the third and seventh stories, are the most chaste. (And I should mention up top how good Cleanness’s sex scenes are. Shatteringly hot. I was never sure if I should hide the book from people next to me on the subway or lend it to them). “Decent People” provides an outsider’s view of the political protests that sprung up in Bulgaria in 2013. It reminded me—though this story has become quite dated—of Updike’s “Marching Through Boston.” Updike’s Maples stories are an analogue for Cleanness, because our accumulating knowledge over a long stretch of “real time” allows us to believe in the human inconsistency of characters. “Harbor,” which takes place at a writer’s convention, establishes the lead’s outsider status in his professional life. He experiences the pain of exclusion, but also the strange voyeuristic pleasure of it, a theme throughout Cleanness.
“Little Saint” and “Gospodar,” stories two and eight, are extended BDSM sex sequences with the power dynamics and bodily positions chiasmatically swapped. “Gospodar” is an increasingly disturbing interaction with a dominant older man; “Little Saint” an increasingly uplifting encounter with a submissive younger one. When Greenwell writes of the interactions, he is being intensely political, which makes some early criticism that Cleanness is apolitical confounding to me:
There were things I could say in his language, because I spoke it poorly, without self-consciousness or shame, as if there were something in me unreachable in my own language, something I could reach only with that blunter instrument by which I too was made a blunter instrument, and I found myself at last at the end of my strange litany saying again and again I want to be nothing.
The dynamics and desires of the sexual sphere are always framed by political context. Cleanness touches on the cruising culture in Bulgaria, the outsider status of gay men (everywhere is the fear of being watched—the lead escapes the dominant old man by breaking a window to draw attention), and the power structures and gender conflations inherent to sex. His use of politics is a constant element in his vivid erotic sequences.
“Mentor” and “An Evening Out,” stories one and nine, are about teaching. The former introduces an ethical framework that will later be challenged: a student comes out to the lead, who is careful not to touch him comfortingly, then wonders if he should have. In “An Evening Out,” the lead prepares to leave Bulgaria, goes clubbing with two former students, and briefly oversteps a crucial boundary. “Gospodine,” the two students call him, disturbingly calling back “Gospodar.” And he is sorely tempted, as he looks at one of them. “I was so much more foolish, without his beauty or youth,” he thinks, “I was an old man in this place.” It is an echo of Cleanness’s most uncanny moment of slippage, when the lead is in Venice, and: “look, there, I could almost convince myself of it, Aschenbach stepping from uncertain water to stone.” To invoke Mann’s doomed, hapless, amoral protagonist—though one with such paradoxical beauty—is to understand the ambition of Cleanness. Few of us are Aschenbachs, but his experience of “passion as confusion and degradation” is a near-universal experience.
Greenwell used a similar sandwich structure, and the same setting and characters, in his debut novel, What Belongs to You. Cleanness isn’t a sequel, exactly, but a fraternal twin, and a major intensification of the project. In What Belongs to You, a healthy middle slab of expository protein (a single, long, bravura paragraph, detailing the lead’s American childhood, his burgeoning queerness, his struggles with his dying father) was surrounded by linked pieces about the lead’s interactions with Mitko, a doomed, charismatic hustler. The lead’s separate romantic relationship with a character named R. was almost totally withheld from the reader in What Belongs To You, glancing briefly off of the third movement (“I wanted to keep my relationship with R. to myself,” the lead thinks when Mitko asks about him.) At first, Cleanness frustratingly continues this withholding, quickly letting us know that the relationship with R. will end. But when “Loving R.” begins, and R. finally sweeps in, he comes like the wind.
Greenwell wields the word “beautiful” sparingly, reserving it for special moments of recognition, and we feel the encompassing beauty of life in “Loving R.” Certain images in the sequence—a burning statue of a frog prince, a dealer’s basement stuffed with unsold paintings, a lurid lightshow projected on an ancient building—are indelible. They speak to the paradoxical relationship between art and ruin that Greenwell is preoccupied with.
The crucial moment in “Loving R.” has this linkage of transformative joy and impending destruction at play, as the lead and R. switch their usual sexual dynamic (the lead tops) and R. asks him not to use a condom. This act has extra meaning: we know from What Belongs to You that the lead has contracted syphilis from Mitko, and that he will pass it to R. And yet that knowledge is made temporarily irrelevant as the narrator comes to his key realization, two books in the making:
I wanted to root into him, even as the wind said all rootedness was a sham, there were only passing arrangements, makeshift shelters and poor harbors, I love you, I thought suddenly in that rush that makes so much seem possible, I love you, anything I am you have use for is yours.
And yet the euphoria is tainted: we already know the relationship is doomed. “Sex had never been joyful for me before, or almost never,” the lead thinks, “it had always been fraught with shame and anxiety and fear, all of which vanished at the sight of his smile, simply vanished, it poured a kind of cleanness over everything we did.” But it can’t last. The narrator isn’t able to find a job in another country, “in a clean place,” and that failing dooms the relationship. The lead will soon confess to the reader that, after R. leaves, not only has he returned to the dirty bathrooms where he met Mitko, but he “had never stopped thinking of them.”
At an event in New York this January, Greenwell spoke about his envisioning of Cleanness as a leider cycle, about his idiosyncratic usage of comma splices, and, movingly, about how failure is baked into every new project a writer attempts. I was most drawn to his discussion of “Gospodar.” Greenwell mentioned that a possible reaction to such an explicit sequence would be: “keep it to yourself.” But “people have said, ‘ew, shut up’ to me all my life.” Now, things had changed. “We don’t go to them,” Greenwell said. “They come to us, to hear a gay sex love song.” Cleanness most brilliantly captures the way that love can sometimes cause us to cherish even oblivion. Because desire obliterates reason—and in so doing it can alter our self-perception, our long-established limits. This process of undoing is one of literature’s fundamental elements, and it’s what gives Greenwell’s highly specific work an underpinning that is consciously, cannily, canonical:
“We hung fire, that’s what it felt like, that phrase from nineteenth century novels I had never quite understood, I understood it now. Whatever happened I would be swept along with it, whether I wanted to be or not, what I wanted was irrelevant.”