Cleanness by Garth Greenwell, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020
The question of whether to regard Garth Greenwell's second book as a novel or a collection of short stories is one which I am curious about. It either says a great deal about the lingering brilliance of Cleanness as a novel or points to its flat disjointedness as a collection of stories. Of course one could take the middle-ground and choose to call it simply a "book" - after all, what do genres and categorisations really mean? What do they ultimately add or detract from a work of art? Perhaps because I am prissy bibliophile I yearn for some kind of mental primer before setting out on a reading experience: if one is reading a novel, one reads, surely, in a particular kind of way: one's consciousness is piqued to register a certain continuity of theme, place, character arc, through lines of plot, the development of tension, rising climax, resolution and so forth. Likewise if one is reading what is a declarative short story, one reads in a slightly different manner: minutia, gradation, that masterful withholding of exposition or absence of detail which is nonetheless entirely satiating. A comparative work might be something like David Szalay's Turbulence which is a short "novel" comprised of a series of "stories" interlinked by the overarching conceit of air travel and the myriad random associations and connections - metaphoric and physical - which networks out of such a hub of disparate human interaction. But where Turbulance seemed to want to make an overt novelistic claim by virtue of its omnipresent narrative detachment and lineal chronology, Cleanness revels in own sense of almost abstract and disjointed diffusion.
Greenwell's publisher remains evasive over the issue as does Greenwell himself on his acknowledgements page. Some reviewers choose to call it a novel, others a collection of stories. In a way, this ambiguity - it being neither one thing nor the other - feeds interestingly into a sort of extra-textual element to the "work" itself. I read the "book" in part as a concise yet insightful philosophical statement on the fundamental dilemma of queerness: the idea that a gay person is always not quite someone, but some other person too; that the "gay life" is by its very nature never an entirely inclusive one but rather a reactionary state exclusive of certain facets which have been sequestered to the heteronormative sensibility; that there are always degrees of self-separation, self-"divisioning", self-rationalisation which factor into the modalities of queer life; that the gay or lesbian individual is male or female and yet must - for the purpose of ultimate total physical union - enact a role which surrenders the notion of fidelity to one's own core designation. For this reason there is much negotiation over the distribution of "roles" in queer pairings: the question of dominant vs submissive, active vs passive, the male role or the female role; all distinctions which Greenwell is preoccupied with. Contrary to the zietgeisty post-gay claim, absolute role-swopping versatility in this domain is largely a myth, most probably generated to neutralise a certain kind of pervasive homophobic stigma attached to the status of the patriarchally feminised "sissy". Whether those of us who are gay choose to accept this or not, there are usually a set of prosaic negotiations which need to be awkwardly navigated and concluded before anything meaningful takes place, the very reality of which functions as a dislocation from the "normal" sequencing of relations. "Boy meets girl" does not collapse into the immediate identity crisis as "boy meets boy" does: the trope is spared the indignity of the unusual, the enactment of the fantastical, the mechanics of what is essentially a crude exercise in makeshift engineering. In brief: someone in a gay pairing always needs to enact a pretense towards being someone else!
Greenwell seems to understand this fundamental dilemma which he sets about to establish in the book's complex and comprehensive emotional register. The narrator, never named, but autobiographically so close to Greenwell's own history - as an American émigré English teacher in Bulgaria - as to be virtually auto-fictive, engages in a series of encounters and interactions with exclusively male characters (women are entirely absented from the book except for a brief passing cameo of no consequence), all of which are predicated on a currency of erotically charged transactional exchanges. One could summarise Greenwell's thesis here as the notion that whenever two men come together there is some degree of interaction which is never simply benign or neutral. Whether platonic or physical, there is often an electric erotic charge passing back and forth and in the hands of a writer of this skill it is refreshingly rewarding to invest in the belief that in most cases a vague conversation, a certain stare or mere bodily closeness can be conveyed in language and sentiment which is far more distilled down to the essence of pure eroticism than is an actual full-blown physical encounter. Greenwell's ability to write so eloquently at this constant subtextual level reminds me a great deal of the South African writer, Damon Galgut, especially in his masterful novel, In a Strange Room, which would make an ideal thematic and tonal comparative to Cleanness, if less overtly graphic in nature.
The reason such honed-in observations manage to convey a continuum of low-grade eroticism is because Greenwell's narrator is so constantly attuned to the sub-surface "white noise" which establishes the nuances of power relations between men. Take this description from the first chapter/story called 'Mentor' which captures the moment a teacher follows his student along the streets of Sofia towards a cafe: As we entered these spaces, which were quieter and less travelled than the boulevards, G. slowed his pace, allowing me to come up beside him, and we walked in a more companionable way, though still without speaking. Nothing and yet everything is happening in this sentence: its inaneness is deceptively loaded. The student, 'G' (full names are never given: an authorial decision which captures the importance of anonymity in a gay underworld of risk and danger) has asked the narrator to spare a moment of his time to advise him on a delicate personal matter and yet it is the student who somehow exudes and maintains the dominant role in what should be a pretty conventional and obvious power dynamic between pupil-master. In a scenario where experience and the ability to extol advice (ownership of information) should denote a currency of authority and control, it is the teacher who is left feeling as if he has been subjected to a greater lesson, a more telling insight from the encounter: How much smaller I have become, I said to myself, through an erosion necessary to survival and perhaps still to be regretted, I've worn myself down to a bearable size.' The book plays on variations of this theme in some degree or other throughout its nine seemingly separate chapters/stories.
If we settle on Cleanness being a novel (even though individual pieces appeared as prior stories in other publications) then what makes it successful is its resistance to any semblance of linearity or chronology. There are nine chapters in which the narrator conveys the degrees of adaptation and adjustment required to navigate a seemingly protean and subterranean life. We are never told any dates, we do not know whether the chapters are sequential or more randomised. We do not know in which order the narrator comes upon the various encounters he has, whether some of the more extreme and punishing occur before or after his one central relationship with 'R' which forms the three chapters at the centre of the novel (but even they are full of ever-changing dynamics and subject to new and differing realisations). The narrator is therefore someone who is both present within a landscape, but somehow experiencing it from a remove. He belongs to the gay subculture of Bulgaria but he is an outsider too, never quite feeling comfortable or at ease: the extreme explicitness of scenes depicted in the two contrasting stories of submissiveness and domination 'Gospodar' and 'The Little Saint' capture the alien hostility of the world of crude and casual gay sexual exchange in a country like Bulgaria in which 'people line the streets to throw stones at the queers.'
The narrator meets anonymous men for hook-ups via an online app and yet his depth of insight into himself during these trysts often reaches greater heights than when he is with someone - 'R' for example - on a more permanent basis. In a manner of speaking, the subject of this novel is the level of introvertedness and introspection which can only often be understood in moments when one is either subjecting oneself to the greatest level of humiliation or else dispensing this brute sadism over someone else. Either way, it is a selfish act, fundamentally a lonely act. It also falls in-between two fully contained outer selves: the idea that to be completely submissive is only enabled by being in full and absolute control and vice-versa. You are being someone, but some other person too. Sometimes the one act leads to a devastating sensation of personal despair or grief, such as in 'The Little Saint' when a moment of particular sexual savagery leads to an intense emotional outpouring, of uncontollable weeping which brings about a beautiful sense of tenderness and emotional enlightenment between two men who had only seconds earlier been in the throes of abject brutality. It is this kind of purifying "cleanness" in its varying guises and modulations which Greenwell sets out, time and again, to access and render for us so exquisitely. The Jamesian qualities to his writing, so forthrightly cemented in the subjective, ring out with a kind of plaintive truth.
The peripatetic nature of the novel does mean that it is given to a sense of detachment from the usual attention to plot and rising tension. I personally found this to be affecting and rewarding rather than unfulfilling but there is also a feeling that as a result this book's parts are at times a greater achievement than its whole. Greenwell's preceding novel What Belongs to Us presented us with strikingly similar terrain but was focused, in the main, on the narrative arc relating to the streetwise but tender Mitko. As a result it was cumulatively more engrossing. And yet, there is something about the core emotional honesty of Cleanness which seems bulkier, more substantial in what it has to say about the gay man in a gay-hostile world, a foreigner abroad, a teacher falling out of love with his vocation, an introvert on the fringes of the mainstream. The final story is one of the novel's most powerful. 'An Evening Out' relates the shame felt when a moment of one-sided attraction lingers on the edge of possibility: 'I had mostly succeeded, if he had seen glimpses of what I was he had never until tonight seen me fully. I had leered at him, I had touched him, I had been a caricature of myself, I thought, but that isn't true; I had been myself without impediment, maybe that's the way to say it.' The sense of being part of a fraternity, of knowing camaraderie and yet cruelly being cut off from it or being marginalised from its core because of the dangers of delving too deep into its erotic centre has a pathos to it which surfaces quite often in Greenwell's sentences. His narrator sets out to seek human company but ultimately finds himself more alone. The closing pages are deeply touching as the narrator befriends an old dirty dog and brings her inside, at last, we sense, finding the solace resident within beings who gift us pure and unbridled companionship without forcing a dissembling crisis upon us.