Cleanness by Garth Greenwell
Author: Curt Weber
February 2, 2020
Garth Greenwell’s first novel, What Belongs To You, was greeted with much admiration both by critics and the everyday reader, longlisted for the National Book Award and made multiple Best of the Year Lists. The pressure must have been strong to deliver again. And deliver he does. This is no sophomore slump. Though it could be considered a sequel, and maybe that is what it’s meant to be, both the writing and stories told are an elevation of what preceded. An expansion. And a strong one at that.
For a book called Cleanness, there is a lot of glorious dirt in its pages–both real and metaphorical: the heavy dust, brought by wild winds, blanket the city, the politics, a carpet in the home of a sex-partner, the relationship lines between teacher and student, master and servant. The author, though, could also be referring to the manner in which he writes–precise, unfussy, clutter-free.
The novel follows a gay American expat in Sofia, Bulgaria. His various romantic and erotic exploits provide the reader a well-crafted examination of the nature of desire. The book is broken into three sections, each exploring various themes: love, both lost and found, sex, politics, regret, and shame, mostly taking place in an often challenging, post-communist land. And yet there’s hope in the stories, coupled with the longing, the exhilaration, and the disappointment that sexual desire brings. These narratives take place in a very specific cultural context. There is a chapter that explores a bit of the political situation in Bulgaria, with many references to the country’s past scattered throughout. And there is a chapter that recounts an unrequited love story and the feelings elicited, playing out in a culture that frowns upon same-sex desire.
And then there are the sex scenes… There was much chatter about the sex-scenes in the first book–of the world he described there, anonymous sex in public places. The ones in this novel are on another level altogether. No description or emotion is softened, or minimized. Their frankness unsparing. They unfold in long sentences, over paragraphs and pages. The first sex scene, which describes an intense sadist relationship, may be uncomfortable for some readers. The scene gave me pause; the writing is what pulled, or pushed, me through. The narrator’s descriptions of the brutality involved are as beautifully composed as those that form the basis of the other related chapters The sex scenes can be uncomfortable, sometimes very much so, but they are also titillating, joyful, a turn on, and also a turn off. Greenwell uses these scenes as places of self discovery.
Greenwell returns again and again to the power of carnal wants and exposes them as confusing, exciting, infuriating, relentless, and wonderful emblems to our humanity. You may find yourself wanting to judge the characters for their blatant actions and needs, but a turn of phrase, a word, a simple description placed ever so gently and matter-of-factly will change your perception. As a reader, I recalled some unconventional, perhaps frowned upon desire that I once craved, or acted upon, and my judgment of the characters was altered with empathy. Greenwell takes wayward longing and makes it a unifying force.
By Garth Greenwell
Hardcover, 9780374124588, 240 pp.