(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020)
If fiction exposes truth through the imaginary, Garth Greenwell’s novel Cleanness is a reimagining that splays open his characters’ secret selves, denudes them of pretense to tell hard, beautiful, human truths. The author is a holy man from ancient days, fist raised to the the gods, eviscerating bodies, cutting through gut and breath to extract a still beating heart. He shows us our own soul as we bleed.
Cleanness is Greenwell’s second novel, following his award-winning debut book, What Belongs to You. He continues the story of an American teacher, living and working abroad in Sofia, Bulgaria. The work is filled with stunning poetic prose alongside spare, cutting exposition. Though it often reads like a collection of linked stories, Cleanness is a novel that forgoes many of the form’s traditions. There is no clear narrative arc of exposition, rising action, climax, or resolution. Chronology is unclear. Greenwell instead arranges his chapters to mimic the tangle of lives lived and love lost. Characters are unnamed, designated only by first initials. The narrator, never identified, tells his story as he remembers it — disordered events, reaction and reflection — with the unreliability of memory. In bits and disarranged pieces, he shares the after and the before of his love affair, and the wrought disintegration of the self he knew.
The book is organized into Sections I, II, and III, and each section contains three titled chapters. The novel begins with Mentor. The name appears to reference the narrator’s teaching job; over lunch, he counsels a young, male student struggling with heartache and sexual identification. He comforts the youth, assuring him “that the pain he felt now would become a story he told to others.” The young man protests. He doesn’t want to feel less. He doesn’t want to forget. He believes “…that there would be loss in loving another, that the perspective that limited his grief would also limit his love, which, having taken the measure of its bounds, he could never again imagine as boundless.” Our understanding of the chapter title is ultimately reversed; the boy mentors the man.
The narrator considers the young man’s argument. In one of many masterful passages that linger long after reading, he says, “How much smaller I have become…through an erosion necessary to survival perhaps and perhaps still to be regretted, I’ve worn myself down to a bearable size.”
I’ve worn myself down to a bearable size.
Gospodar and Little Saint (the second and eighth chapters) are purposefully provocative, contrasting scenes in which the narrator participates in two brutal sadomasochistic sexual encounters: the first as a submissive partner, the second as the dominant partner. In an interview with Mitzi Angel, Greenwell said, “I felt an increasing dread as I wrote, as the narrator is forced to face the consequences of what he desires, or thought he desires.” Greenwell describes each explicit, often violent action — every pain and pleasure — in exacting language. He wants us to feel. He wants us to remember.
In Gospodar (meaning something like Mr., Sir, or Master in Bulgarian) the narrator consents to his own painful abasement; in Little Saint, he performs a consensual degradation to a younger man. Greenwell does not spare his reader the brutality of these encounters, nor does he spare the reader his characters’ psychological distress, “…and I felt with a new fear how little sense of myself I have, how there was no end to what I could want or to the punishment I would seek.” Yet each man freely chooses to participate, searching for something, though that something appears devastatingly bleak. As the submissive, enduring pain and humiliation, the narrator confesses, “I want to be nothing, I want to be nothing.” As perpetrator, he beats and abuses, only to be cleansed, absolved by his partner who comforts him, head on his chest, a lover satiated. “Do you see? You don’t have to be like that, he said. You can be like this.” One chapter completes the other, the fullness of their human experience explained in the contrast.
Decent People follows Gospodar like a palette cleanser. The chapter serves to animate the book’s setting in southern Europe and give context to the violence simmering just below the youth’s ache for revolution. Decent People has the only female character in the entire book with more than a line or two, Student M., who converses with the male narrator about defying her parents to walk in the street protest. Oddly, or perhaps not, the omnipresence of the name Sofia throughout the book somehow lends the feeling of a fully-contributing feminine character.
The love story fills the heart of the novel, emotionally and by position. Named Loving R., Section II recounts the love affair between the narrator and R. In the chapter Cleanness, he describes their early café date. It is an attraction made purposefully familiar, by way of romantic cliché’, “I was struck again by his beauty, which was offhand and accidental…a beauty stripped of self-regard.” This experience — the overwhelming physical attraction and the uncertainty of reciprocity — is an experience as much physical as emotional. Greenwell writes of his narrator’s vulnerability and the particular angst of new love between two men with much to lose and the whole world to gain. The Bulgaria of the time is not a safe or friendly place for public displays of affection between gay men, though the lovers take risk. R. confesses to feeling guilt at his secret identity, and anger at the narrator for suggesting he be open with his family. The narrator speaks to the shamefulness R. feels , “…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.” Their happiness does not require a sacrificial rite, the joy of their love sanctifies them and all they thought unclean.
Love follows lust in the next chapter, The Frog King. (This chapter originally appeared in The New Yorker as a short story and became the germinating seed of his second novel.) The couple travels to Bologna, Italy where they may be free in their public affections for a weekend. It is no mistake that the author allows them to visit Venice for one short day. They may only visit the city of love, they may not stay.
They return to Bulgaria and find post-vacation gloom waiting. In a love-making moment meant to combat their gray spirits, the narrator realizes, “But I wasn’t sure what I wanted, or what I wanted had changed. I had thought I wanted to make him laugh, that after that I wanted sex, but I didn’t want sex, I realized, or not only sex.” The narrator covers the entirety of his lover’s body with kisses (a task he discovers takes more time and focus than he anticipated). In a gorgeous scene, achingly earnest and sincere, he kisses and whispers I love you, over and over, and the erotic turns to something sweet, pure, not sexual but a worshipful adoration. “And then, when I had laid the last line across his forehead — a garland, I thought, I had garlanded him — You are the most beautiful, I said to him, you are my beautiful boy…”.
Cleanness may be a novel that contains long, graphic descriptions of the sexual encounters between gay men who are strangers, it may share explicit details of the sex lives of gay men who deeply care for one another, and the profound pain of gay men who — like every other human being who has ever existed — cannot help but bludgeon people they love with their own emotional damage. But ultimately, Cleanness is not a novel about sex. Cleanness is a novel about desire. A novel about love. About being human.
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Laura Calaway is an ardent reader, a persistent writer, a lifelong Texan, holds a BA in creative writing from the University of Houston, and an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University in fiction. She writes fiction, tweets, and posts to Instagram, not necessarily in that order, @lauracalaway.