The Possessed

Cleanness BY Garth Greenwell. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 240 pages. $26.

The cover of Cleanness

The title of Garth Greenwell’s new novel appears exactly once in the book, close to its midpoint, in the second of its three sections, as the narrator describes a relationship that has introduced him to the heretofore alien qualities of stability and happiness. The unnamed protagonist, who was also the central figure in Greenwell’s 2016 debut, What Belongs to You, is an American living in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, where he teaches at a prestigious high school. What Belongs to You, and other chapters of this new book, Cleanness, contain vivid accounts of the teacher’s sexual habits and appetites, which tend to be desperate and obsessive in nature, residing on the borders of pleasure and pain, and often entailing risk and abasement. But the usual patterns are scrambled with this new partner, an exchange student from Portugal who is identified, like most of Greenwell’s other characters, only by his initial, R. “Sex had never been joyful for me before, or almost never,” the narrator says, “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.”

In this formulation, cleanness is not a preexisting state but a longed-for ideal, attainable only through a rite of purification. Greenwell is a writer unusually attuned to paradox and reversal, and he knows that to call this book Cleanness is also to bring its ostensible opposite into relief. What Belongs to You, which chronicles the narrator’s entanglement with a hustler as it shades from a transactional relationship into more complicated forms of imbalance, was a memorably physical “anatomy of shame”—to borrow a phrase Greenwell has used to characterize James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, a touchstone for his own work—awash in the unclean bodily manifestations of that emotion. Its concluding section, pointedly titled “Pox,” recounts the teacher’s exposure to syphilis, which induces acute guilt and self-loathing, not to mention sundry humiliations at the hands of the Bulgarian medical system. An adolescent primal scene, recalled with pinpoint specificity, is clouded in the stench of vomit, forever linking the stigma of homosexuality to the specter of “foulness.”

Less a sequel than an expansion in both physical and mental space, Cleanness repeats, and makes more intricate, the triptych structure of What Belongs to You. Like its predecessor, it is divided into three sections, but here each one is further divided into three: nine stories in all, arranged in a manner Greenwell has likened to a song cycle. The middle section concerns the narrator’s relationship with R., which holds the promise of true contentment even as it seems inevitably doomed. The opening and closing sections unfold in the aftermath of this romance, and are structured with a subtle, elegant symmetry. The first and last stories foreground the narrator’s role as a teacher, an openly gay mentor figure in a culture where this remains uncommon. The second and eighth, designated showstoppers, are explicit accounts of (very different) sadomasochistic sexual encounters with men he meets online. The third and seventh find the narrator on the fringes of big groups, at an anti-government protest winding through the streets of Sofia and at a writers’ conference in an off-season coastal resort town. The stories interrelate in obvious and oblique ways, harboring echoes and continuities, but they are also crafted to stand alone—four of them have previously appeared in the New Yorker and the Paris Review—and their self-containment speaks to one of Greenwell’s themes: the careful compartmentalization required by our various public and private selves.

Greenwell, who lived in Bulgaria for a spell and shares many biographical traits with his protagonist, practices a strain of autofiction that depends as much on withholding as on revelation. Self-effacement is as significant as self-exposure in the case of this anonymous narrator. Across his two books, which deepen and clarify each other, Greenwell works shrewdly with negative space and structuring absences. R., glimpsed on the periphery of What Belongs to You, comes into focus in Cleanness. The previous book’s object of all-consuming desire, Mitko, the only character in Greenwell’s fiction whose name is given to us in full, is never mentioned in Cleanness even though its events are contemporaneous.

An American abroad, and a gay man still scarred by a homophobic upbringing, this is a narrator whose faculties of observation have been sharpened by permanent estrangement. As the books are devoid of direct speech, his is the only voice we encounter. Everything is recalled, filtered through the protagonist’s analytic bent and melancholic temperament. He emerges less a character than a consciousness: a searching, questioning, often tortured intelligence. Greenwell’s sentences are long but hardly rambling; coiled and supple, they suggest the shape and movement of thought, at times doubling back in tangled loops, and at others racing toward a trancelike propulsion (the middle section of What Belongs to You runs some forty pages without a single paragraph break). The overall effect can be hermetic, but the narrator is never so lost in his own head that he loses sight of the world around him.

In fact the teacher seems to notice everything, and he is apt to use his observations as springboards for associations and memories, connecting his innermost thoughts to his surroundings, external stimuli to private experience. Struggling to learn a language, he is compelled to listen more closely—the aural texture of the novel incorporates the Slavic tones of Bulgarian, sometimes translated only approximately or not at all. As a gay man whose sexual awakening transpired in cruising grounds, he is preternaturally alert to the codes of body language, the semiotics of gesture. Even while he looks, he ruminates on what it means to look. He describes his profession—his engagement with students over time, his gaze on them extended yet partial—as “a kind of long looking.” On an Italian vacation, visiting what sounds very much like the Museo Morandi in Bologna, he sees a seemingly unremarkable still life change before his eyes, becoming “a claim about what life could be,” simply from “looking longer, looking more slowly.” The touristic sights of Venice, on the other hand, induce numbness: “Their edges were rubbed smooth by too much looking, there was nothing for my attention to catch on in them.” One thing that comes sharply into focus through Greenwell’s sustained attention is the largely forsaken corner of Europe that is present-day Bulgaria. In What Belongs to You the increasingly damaged Mitko becomes a stand-in of sorts for the country. The sense of place is stronger in Cleanness, which shows us Bulgaria’s visible layers of history from the Ottoman to the Soviet era, and the atmosphere of disillusionment on the ground.

The narrator’s quest for self-knowledge seems to intensify in moments of intimacy, and Greenwell’s erotic prose is notably explicit and lucid, shorn of decorous metaphor. The matter-of-fact lyricism of the book’s extended sex scenes recalls Alan Hollinghurst, although Hollinghurst started his writing career more than three decades ago, a different time in terms of sexual freedoms, and his work often looked back to even earlier eras. Greenwell depicts—and addresses head-on—a present in which the pornographic imagination has thoroughly colonized our image banks. At a time when videos of every conceivable kink and fetish are freely available, there is something both quaint and thrilling about Greenwell’s implicit argument that the most meaningful intervention when it comes to representations of the sex act lies in the realm of written pornography. It is commonplace to think of sex—especially the anonymous, boundary-testing, sometimes unsafe sex that the protagonist seeks out—as a release from the prison of self. For Greenwell, though, sex is never a means to blot out thought but instead an opportunity for heightened awareness.

The story “Gospodar” takes its title from the Bulgarian word for lord, the term of address the narrator is asked to use in a sadomasochistic liaison. Recounting the experience, he is attuned both to the absurd artifice of the situation and to his very real arousal by it. Greenwell does not stint on physical description: We get a clear sense of who is doing what to whom, which body parts are involved, what kind of accessories come into play. But no less important is the mental landscape. The narrator continually specifies and scrutinizes the nature of his desire—“the pleasure of being used, the exhilaration of being made an object”—and the annihilating impulse that underlies his hunger: “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 the mirror story, “The Little Saint,” the protagonist assumes what is, for him, the less familiar dominant position, which seems to afford him a curious distance on the proceedings, as if watching from the outside as he examines his own willingness to assert control over a partner who has advertised himself as a “no limits whore.” Greenwell’s sex scenes exert an incongruous meditative attention on experiences characterized by impulse and abandon. In so doing, they effectively slow down time, dilating the moment to accommodate philosophical reverie and the intricate workings of erotic logic. Few writers have ever illuminated quite so clearly the role of anticipatory fantasy in sex as well as the often divergent reality.

There are also some strikingly tender instances of sex in Cleanness—the moments of intimacy with R. are charged with a different kind of intensity. If parts of What Belongs to You, with its tales of parental rejection and dysfunctional obsession, hewed to the all too familiar contours of queer miserabilism, in Cleanness Greenwell sets himself the trickier task of writing about a loving, momentarily settled relationship. Even though the romance with R. is framed from the start as a happiness that will not last—“It was a habit of mine, to rush toward an ending once I thought I could see it, as if the fact of loss were easier to bear than the chance of it”—these passages occasion some of Greenwell’s loveliest writing. As the narrator’s focus alights on the mundane satisfactions of physical proximity and the microscopic shifts in disposition through which partners fall out of and back into sync, his close looking registers as an act of patience and devotion.

It is to be expected that a book this rigorously confined to a single headspace would foster a mood of overwhelming loneliness. The narrator tries repeatedly to assuage this feeling, and his attempts, whether effective or not, are always moving. Musing on the vast array of sexual proclivities available for perusal online, he reminds himself that “we’re never as solitary as we think, as unique or unprecedented, what we feel has always already been felt, again and again, without beginning or end.” He wakes on his first Christmas morning with R. feeling like his “heart would burst”—a clichéd phrase, he immediately acknowledges, even as he relishes its “commonness.” “I felt some stubborn strangeness in me ease,” he says, in one of the book’s most piercing lines. “I felt like part of the human race.”

Dennis Lim is the director of programming of Film at Lincoln Center and the author of David Lynch: The Man from Another Place (New Harvest, 2015).