JANUARY 23, 2020
THE MOST HOTLY ANTICIPATED queer title of the new decade (though it is only January, dear), Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness offers a familiarly impressive follow-up to his widely acclaimed 2016 debut novel, What Belongs to You. In that first novel, Greenwell explored the dense complexity of power, shame, and desire in the relationship between an American expat teaching in Sofia, Bulgaria, and the street tough to whom he becomes increasingly, inconveniently attached after their first meet in the bathrooms beneath the National Palace of Culture in the capital city. What Belongs to You is a fine novel, imbued with Greenwell’s rare gift for matching languorous, perceptive prose — or, rather, prose that captures the minutiae of perception and the fault lines of our knowledge of self and others — with a story that remains engaging from start to finish. In Cleanness, Greenwell accomplishes much the same feat, but with important differences that reveal both that he has much more he wants to tell us and his striking savviness as an author navigating the art trade of contemporary publishing.
It is not surprising in our sequel-saturated moment to see an author return to prior material that so powerfully (and, of course, profitably) resonated with readers and critics. So much is often left out of the lengthy production that becomes an author’s first novel that it provides at least some place to find one’s footing in the rush toward the next. What is surprising is to see it done so well, and so thoughtfully. To take a recent and dramatic counterexample, consider the baggy and indulgent mess of André Aciman’s Find Me, the follow-up to the wildly popular Call Me by Your Name. While the all-but-certain adaptation of this second installment in the lives of Elio and Oliver will likely do well in theaters — who of us may resist the rakish-yet-beatific vision of Timothée Chalamet, those crimsoned lips and dark, lustrous curls? — Find Me was a critical flop, following its author’s narrowing interests down a self-parodic lane few wished to follow. The novel seemed to be a work the author felt he had to write, rather than one he necessarily wanted to write (the way audiences wanted it, anyway), and, as I wrote at the time, the work was clearly the worse for it.
This is the grim fate Greenwell avoids in Cleanness. Though carrying over characters, some plot points, and many of the same themes from What Belongs to You, Greenwell’s new book is a short story collection, a wise choice that has enabled him to explore a variety of different ethical, affective, and cultural quandaries without the albatross of a plot, linear or otherwise. Free to move in and out of scenes and moods, to play with motifs across stories that focalize intensely on a singular sexual encounter, relationship, or set of ethical questions (often in combination), Greenwell’s movement into short fiction — a reversal of the short-stories-to-novel arc that is the career trajectory of most early career writers — has provided him the space to write what he wants and, for the most part, to give his readers what they want.
This is not, in any way, to say that Cleanness feels like a sketchbook of deleted scenes from the earlier novel. In What Belongs to You, the narrator moved from an alienating attachment to trade toward a more sustaining and comparatively egalitarian love with “R.” In Cleanness, we see this movement in reverse, as the narrator’s relationship with R. blossoms and falls away, and he returns to more risk-laden scenes of sexual abjection and emotional weariness. There is, of course, more sex in the second book, and the apparent pressure of its inclusion both elevates and, in moments, wears out the new collection. (Several friends railed against What Belongs to You at the moment of its literary ascendance, alleging that, for a novel about cruising street trade, it contained rather little actual sex. Likewise, they claimed the book was merely a late 1980s/early 1990s AIDS novel recast with TB in the starring role. They are, like all good friends, both right and wrong.) There seems to be some tension, on the part of the author and his publisher, as to how this new collection might be received with its “cocks” unsheathed and bandied about in scenes of S/M roleplay, fleeting ecstasy, and eddying sadness. This tension reveals itself in both the sometimes-overwhelming ponderousness of the extended sex scenes, and the inclusion of an interview between Greenwell and his editor, Mitzi Angel, on this specific subject in the press materials. In that eager, strategic document, Greenwell offers that he “felt an increasing dread as [he] wrote” some of the more sexually explicit stories, and that he aimed to write “a scene that was, at once, one hundred percent pornographic and one hundred percent high art.” This line appears twice within two paragraphs, evidence either of the sort of typo produced by multiple drafts or of the publisher and author’s eagerness to sell that line (and several reviewers have obliged) as a way of addressing some concern that Greenwell not be accused of writing sex scenes sanitized by aestheticization, nor accused of merely writing “dirty” ones either.
Sexual representation and its endless, self-narrated analysis are the focus of “Gospodar” and “The Little Saint,” which form a dyad in the narrator’s exploration of sexual desire, alienation, the toxic and intractable construction of normative masculinity, and the ethics of our relation to others on either side of orgasm. In “Gospodar,” the narrator goes in for a hard scene with a gruff older man he’s met in internet chatrooms. Instructed to take off his clothes and be, by turns, a good little “girl” or “bitch,” the man intimately humiliates the narrator, using all the props and stagey pageantry of a Kink.com film: a leather harness, spitting, CBT, verbal shaming, feminization, piss play, and whipping. The story ends as the narrator flees the dom’s attempted bareback rape, the denouement a moment of self-actualization that bleeds into self-shaming, reminding the narrator (and the reader) that, however much he may wish to not be in control, he always retains some agency. During this extended scene, the narrator’s reflections interrogate, in the careful gravity of Greenwell’s language, desires familiar to most gay men and much fetishized in gay porn, especially the pleasure of being nothing, of being used:
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, I want to be nothing.
[T]here was for me […] the pleasure of service, I’ve sometimes thought, or more darkly the pleasure of being used, the exhilaration of being made an object that had been lacking in sex with R., though that had its own pleasures, pleasures I longed for but that had in no way compensated for the lack of this. I want to be nothing, I had said to him, and it was a way of being nothing, or next to nothing, a convenience, a tool.
In these Jamesian sentences that are Greenwell’s hallmark, one finds condensed whole volumes of thought from queer studies and fiction of the 1990s and early 2000s about sexual desire, self-shattering, and the pleasures of self-annihilating risk. Sex with a committed, more-or-less equal partner pales in comparison to the pleasures of being dominated, to the pleasures of seeing the possibility of oneself shattered into a million pieces, of realizing the high romance of non-identity. The narrator questions why he feels such compulsion toward sex that feels simultaneously so debasing and enlivening — it resolves as something of a mix between daddy trauma regarding failed masculinity (a carryover from What Belongs to You) and the narrator’s general wellspring of unmitigated sadness — but Greenwell smartly refuses (here, anyway) didactic synthesis. Desire and identity, here and elsewhere in Cleanness, are reflections in a fogged mirror.
In “The Little Saint,” the tables are turned and the narrator plays the dom role for a local boy whose “only demand was to be fucked bare,” to have rough sex and take “as many loads as he could get.” In this scenario, one in which his normative masculinity might be restored through butch-dom performance, the narrator seems the most uncomfortable, the most ethically conflicted, and ultimately, the most unhappy. The narrator pretends not to notice the sub’s erection; pretends, indeed, not to care:
It was important to seem like I didn’t care about his pleasure but I did care about it, very much, I wanted him to be hard. […] I wanted to kiss him, to be in a different kind of scene with him, but of course I couldn’t change the scene, it would have been a breach of our contract.
As the scene progresses, the narrator observes his “Little Saint” as the boy rubs his face into the narrator’s crotch, and recognizes a shared “kind of animal instinct, the pleasure not of marking one’s territory but of being marked […] the pleasure of belonging to someone, I suppose, the pleasure of knowing one’s place.” But has the narrator found his own place? Even as he assumes some sort of performed, traditional masculine agency as a top and finds some unexpected pleasure there, that pleasure soon resolves in an outburst of mournful tears after he repeatedly calls the sub a “faggot” while fucking him until they both cum. Amid the pained internal monologue the narrator sustains throughout this sex scene (and all the others) emerges a clarion call for a kind of presence that may be the central, frustrated desire of both What Belongs to You and Cleanness: “I felt again that he was acting something out,” the narrator complains of his sub, “that he had slipped into a fantasy that had very little, had possibly nothing, to do with me.” What I continue to find so funny about this line is the narrator’s deeply ironic inability to recognize the same in himself – for what presence can be proffered by someone always and everywhere running a play-by-play analysis of the deep meaning of every coo, every grunt, every upwelling of emotion, every inflation or deflation of erections that never (to me, at least) feel that hard. In the aftermath of a crying climax, Cleanness experiences a moment of ambiguous epiphany, as the sub, drying the narrator’s tears, appears to remind him that the ways in which the hateful language of the outside world (faggot, whore, cocksucker, et cetera) is repurposed in dom/sub sex does not have to be self-destructive, doesn’t have to mean anything more than the opportunity for pleasure that it is. “You don’t have to be like that, he said. You can be like this.” It’s one of the most perfect lines in the collection, and one hopes the narrator really hears it.
That last line bears the affiliative promise after which much of Cleanness and What Belongs to You strains. It is hard to think of another contemporary gay writer who so assiduously searches out the (im)possibility of belonging somewhere, of belonging to someone or something, to a couple or community that might heal the deep rifts of loneliness and alienation. In Bulgaria, Greenwell’s narrator seeks to make his life and himself anew far from home in a foreign land, in a foreign tongue he delights in lovingly translating (or not) for the reader, and with foreign men. The country, as represented in his work, appears as a well-researched expat romance of estrangement in the other’s elsewhere, an estrangement that mirrors his alienation from the United States and his family. In “Decent People,” amid conversations around a political protest in which the narrator glimpses at once an alluring performance of national unity and the exclusion of the queer subject from that unity, he plays at being part of the culture he’s adopted and in which he remains ever an outsider. “Even I joined in, utre pak, I wanted to see what it was like to chant with the others,” the narrator explains, “but soon I felt foolish and stopped.” That alienation, an effect of the verboten nature of homosexuality in the narrator’s vision of Bulgaria — a place where all the men are closeted, the sex is often rough and fleeting, and a sustainable romance is hard to find — resonates with his own sense of isolation and shame.
For a writer who wishes to explore shame and abjection but also fantasies of belonging and transformation, nothing seems perhaps more compelling than the Bulgaria Greenwell paints with his words. In this way, What Belongs to You and Cleanness recall Edward Prime-Stevenson’s Imre: A Memorandum, a little-known early 20th-century novel (and perhaps the first to have a “happy” ending) about a British expat who takes flight to Hungary, where he meets and falls in love with a strapping young soldier who, wouldn’t you know, also happens to be gay. Distanced from his homeland by miles and shame, Oswald fetishizes Imre’s country, reveling in the “Oriental quality” of a language, culture, and people he takes as his own, at least in his erotic imaginary. This is the same sort of tension that appears in Greenwell’s work, a kind of affection that wobbles toward fetishization (the narrator comments on his lovers’ “dark” or “olive” skin, and provides Bulgarian-to-English translations of various terms as a mark of his status as a member of a global cognoscenti). Yet, Greenwell is a much more careful and thoughtful writer than Stevenson — perhaps the passage of more than a hundred years between them has made him so — and his work rejects any such easy transmutations of community, origin, and identity. What Greenwell leaves us with is a powerful desire for belonging that is always and everywhere frustrated, the perennial plight of the transnational queer or, a bit larger, a statement about how the realization of our desires to belong to others (and to have others belong to us) must always be deferred, incomplete, impossible.
Keeping those wounds open, while gesturing at the possibility of transformation, is one of the signal achievements of Cleanness, and Greenwell’s writing more generally. It is also a trait that puts him in a line of gay writers who have come before him, authors who seem conspicuously absent when publications make large (and, I think, rather outlandish) claims about the novelty of Greenwell’s work in gay literature. I mean this not as a knock against Greenwell, whose writing is its own remarkable achievement, but rather against the laziness of critics who so often disregard gay literature until a piece of recognizable quality comes along from a recognizable press, catches their eye, and is dubbed “a noticeable shift in gay fiction being treated as literary high art.” (Surely, not everyone’s LGBTQ bookshelf is narrow enough only to hold Casey McQuiston’s admittedly fun Red, White & Royal Blue.) One would not have to strain too hard to see Greenwell’s writing in line with work from members of the Violet Quill, like Edmund White or Andrew Holleran, gay writers who took seriously, if also like Greenwell in a markedly affected and ornate way, the task of representing the the gay sexual and cultural worlds in which they were enmeshed. One might also trace literary lines of flight from Jean Genet (who kept recurring to me while reading Cleanness), Dennis Cooper (who writes the transfers between sex and the riddle of gay subjectivity and desire more tightly), and James Baldwin (whose soaring loquaciousness is grounded by characters written so well as to be felt in the viscera), among others. There is also, of course, the unmistakably Jamesian strain in Greenwell’s writing, evident in his dense, extended sentences that strain syntax to make room for ever more observation and texturing, the drama of the tearoom standing in for that of the broken teacup. The continued affection for these traits in Greenwell’s fiction speaks to the persistent desire in our culture for the “high literary gay novel,” not for its sudden appearance on the scene in the new millennium. There’s a moment in Cleanness in which I imagine Greenwell anticipating and delighting in these connections to gay literary history. “[W]e’re never as solitary as we think, as unique or unprecedented,” the narrator observes of the endless encyclopedia of desires articulated and about which communities gather on the internet, “[W]hat we feel has already been felt, again and again, without beginning or end.” With Greenwell, we are lucky to be at the beginning, with the end still many more volumes to come.