I’ve been looking for a way to describe the superabundance of sex in Garth Greenwell’s work, and I think it would be hard (impossible) to improve on what Elizabeth Hardwick once wrote about Philip Roth: ‘And sex, anywhere in every manner, a penitential workout on the page with no thought of backaches, chafings, or phallic fatigue. Indeed the novels are prickled like a sea urchin with the spines and fuzz of many indecencies.’
In Greenwell’s case, I would add: little fatigue of tongue, fingers or the blood throbbing always in our narrator’s groin and vast heart. His mouths do not kiss or meet, but tend to greedily suck at each other, tasting themselves. Windpipes are taut, anuses are silky, flesh is relentlessly sniffed, and pages are heavy with sweat.
Cleanness is Greenwell’s second novel — or ‘lieder cycle’, as he’s called it — after What Belongs to You, his celebrated debut from 2016. The nameless narrator from the first book has returned: he is still in Sofia, Bulgaria, and remains a teacher at a prestigious American school, but he can no longer bear the rote work of teaching and his world has become much more sharply Manichean. The bathrooms under the National Palace of Culture from the first book — where he goes to cruise and eventually meets the hustler Mitko, whom he adores and dotes on — appear in the second as an infernal temptation, drawing him back. (‘Draw’ is a keyword in Greenwell’s universe; as in to be ‘drawn out of’, ‘toward’ — the lure of something dark moving characters with a force that is not will or choice.) But outside the subterranean bathrooms stand salvation and R: a Portuguese boyfriend who brings the promise, or taunting impossibility, of a health-giving wholesome love.
The nine chapters in Cleanness never coalesce into a conventional plot. Instead, each is a story sketched from a different coordinate inside a citywide memory theatre. The narrator meets with students, attends a protest, loves and has sex, and periodically reminds you that this is what he is remembering, and that his recollection might be flawed. (Less a signal of authorial mediation than an avowal of sincerity.) There is a brief excursion to Bologna and Venice, but Sofia is the armature of the book. It is a hurting, ragged space through which the narrator moves.
There are a few temporal cues that bind the stories — for instance, an early chapter mentioning the end of the relationship with R. before we’ve met him — but the impression is that all of the novel’s events happen separately and simultaneously to the narrator. Each story can be pressed like a stand-alone note or engaged with others in a chord. There is a subtle genius to the structure. It shows how inessential linear plots are to creating rich but recognisable arcs, tensions, and moods across a novel-length work.
In ‘Cleanness’, the title chapter, the narrator waits for R. at a bustling restaurant in the neighbourhood of Mladost. Outside the large windows is the pervading gray of Sofia, with its ‘concrete desolation’, ramshackle construction, tainted air, and fierce wind. The wind is rumoured to have blown in from Africa, and it is described, variably, as ‘malevolent’, a supernatural ‘intelligence’, a force of ‘disorder’.
The three characters are the narrator, R., and this wind. We have seen weather exhausted in fiction — often a stilted trope that contrasts with personalities and plot, or intensifies a scene, stymies or echoes. Greenwell’s wind is more uncertain. Its function changes so that sometimes it is an aggressive agent, moving objects and people, or laying siege; sometimes it is a metaphor for desire: fickle, changing, legible only through what it moves; and sometimes an ‘accompaniment’: coursing through the air as the narrator drives his hips into R.
R. is twenty-one, from Portugal, and studying physical therapy in Sofia on a European exchange programme. The narrator first meets him online. While he waits for R. at a restaurant, the first time they meet, we learn that R. is always late, in part because he has strained to hide their relationship. He tells the narrator about growing up in Azores, where his father’s friend, an ‘uncle’, had sex with him in a field near an American military base. R. has never told the story before, and it is not fear that has kept him in hiding, but a reticence to accept what was done to him. ‘[H]ow can I know what I wanted then, before he did it, how can I know what’s me and what’s what he did to me?’
The instability of desire, the uncertainty of who we are — these are Greenwell’s major themes. ‘[W]e can never be sure of what we want,’ the narrator says, echoing R., ‘I mean of the authenticity of it, of its purity in relation to ourselves.’ This is not just a concept — the rattling and opaque machinery of desire — but a formal condition. Commas and semicolons conspire to form breathless strings of clauses that fold back on themselves, and a total absence of quotation marks in dialogue often leaves the reader groping: Who is speaking? What do they really want? Can we ever understand?
The narrator is enthralled with R., his crooked teeth and the ‘joyful absorption’ with which he eats. He looks at him with a kind of extraterrestrial ‘hunger’, and is drawn to his decency. But something is always tugging at the narrator. ‘I wanted to go back to what R. had lifted me out of’ — the brutal sex, the self-loathing. With R., the sex is different; it is not ‘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.’
When he is not with R., or at least buoyed by the purifying hope of R., the narrator is corroded by shame. He only finds solace in a relentless kind of giving. He gives himself, his ears, his body, to others—lovers, students, strangers. They talk over and through him, they rarely listen when he speaks, and they employ his body, again and again, to service themselves. It recalls the ‘wretched self’ in Henry James’s The Ambassadors:
What I hate is myself—when I think that one has to take so much, to be happy, out of the lives of others, and that one isn’t happy even then . . . What it comes to is that it’s not, that it’s never, a happiness, any happiness at all, to take. The only safe thing is to give.
Some readers will find this tendency toward self-sacrifice repellent. Others will be sympathetic to Greenwell’s over-giving narrator. He is not so much a martyr as a symptom of a depressingly accurate worldview: one in which individuals live with such rigorous self-concern that they often experience humans as vague, orbiting objects—sensory inputs of pleasure and annoyance.
Even when Greenwell’s narrator stands up for himself, he’s chained to a greater desire to be wretched, debased and mastered. This is illustrated in two unforgettable stories, a pendant pair: ‘Gospodar’ and ‘Little Saint’. In ‘Gospodar’ — the Bulgarian word for master or lord, a variation of what the narrator’s students call him — the narrator arrives at the apartment of an unattractive man for a pre-arranged encounter. ‘I want to be nothing, I want to be nothing,’ the narrator repeats, as the man spits on him, puts a sharp-toothed chain around his neck and chest, beats him with a whip, gags him, pisses in his mouth, strangles his testicles, and bites his skin until it bleeds. When the narrator breaks his ‘role’, refusing the attempt at unprotected sex, the man kicks him between the legs and tries to rape him. The narrator barely escapes and wounds himself falling down the stairs outside the apartment.
In ‘Little Saint’, there is a reversal. The narrator meets a man for another pre-arranged encounter, but this time the narrator agrees to the dominating role. He spits on the man and gags him but constantly frets over his own willingness to master. ‘It was important to seem like I didn’t care about his pleasure but I did care about it, very much.’ He wants to break their ‘contract’, to express his surging affection, but cannot. As the sex progresses, it becomes clear that it is the dominated man who is leading, expertly driving the narrator toward his own desired blend of pain and strangled pleasure.
One of the most searing moments in the book is when the ‘little saint’ hands the narrator his belt, and the narrator begins to beat him: ‘I had never whipped anyone before but that was how my father had done it, taking the strap to us.’ The narrator calls him ‘faggot’, ‘whore’, re-enacting the learned abuse, and allows a surge of ‘acid grief’ both to rip him apart and inform his pleasure. The encounter ends with the narrator crying, and the man tenderly embracing him.
In these stories, Greenwell does not really analyse or anatomise desire; he narrates its unfolding: the play-by-play shifts of power and lust; the coiling of memory, suffering, and pleasure. It amounts to one of the more stunning accounts of sex in literature. Not pornographically speaking, but in the way that he freezes feelings that are otherwise imperceptible and fluid in the course of a single encounter. When I mention to a friend that I think Greenwell writes, above all, about feeling — novels of feeling, translations of feeling, dossiers of feeling, plots of feeling — they reply, ‘Have you seen his Twitter?’ Greenwell, at 10:18am on July 1 2019: ‘In my ideal novel the entirety of the action consists of highly sensitive people having feelings.’
But this narrator drips with feeling, overflows with tenderness, bursts knowingly with passion. We have many words to describe this — cheesy, maudlin, mawkish, cloying, oversweet — and our narrator is familiar with them all. ‘I would cover him in kisses, that was what I wanted to do, and I would do it even though I could feel R.’s impatience, even as he said again Skupi [‘dear’ or ‘of great price’, their pet name], and then, don’t be cheesy, which was his warning against too much affection, against my surfeit of feeling.’
We should be grateful for the narrator’s surfeit. There is already enough coolness and restraint in contemporary fiction. Many writers want to affect or feel on the page, stroking themselves; Cleanness does the alternative job of arguing for sweet excess. Greenwell doesn’t indulge in sap but makes a claim for it: the baroque prose, the long switchback Jamesian sentences, the indiscriminate tenderness toward all things — humans, dogs, ruins. It’s an instructive potency. One puts the book down, and the light feels a bit hotter and the heart stings more sharply.