by Garth Greenwell
Published January, 2020
Garth Greenwell’s great subject is the New World’s encounter with Europe and his question: ‘how do you love in the face of shame?’ Greenwell sits in a long lineage of fictional transatlanticism, notably tracked by Henry James and Edmund White. Unlike these predecessors, who stage an encounter with the more familiar settings of western Europe (Paris, Rome, Florence), Greenwell’s meeting is with post-Communist Bulgaria. In his first book, What Belongs to You (2016), the narrator – an American teacher of English, and aspiring poet and writer – goes to live in Sofia and, like James’s Isabel Archer, experience life. But instead of beautiful art, architecture, and Tuscan vistas, Greenwell depicts life in decaying Soviet-era apartment blocks. He shows us hustlers on the make, rent boys obsessed with the latest Apple gadgets; the spectre of syphilis and a chronic lack of penicillin; and residents with a constant desire to flee.
What Belongs to You tells the story of an unnamed American who, cruising the toilets underneath the National Palace in Sofia, meets a street hustler named Mitko. The first part of the book tells of the narrator’s growing obsession with Mitko and their subsequent separation at a Bulgarian seaside resort. The expansive middle section, triggered by a letter requesting the narrator to make a final visit to his dying father, takes us back to the narrator’s childhood and his experiences of that underside of desire, shame. The disgust that the narrator’s father expresses when he discovers his son’s sexuality – voiced in a wish that his son had never been born – propels the narrator to seek relationships as an adult in which he is subjugated, ashamed, pitied.
What’s remarkable about Greenwell’s first work is the way it navigates the currents of shame, desire, and disgust that underlie perceptions and experiences of queer life. It becomes clear that this sense of shame has, and continues to, colour the narrator’s adult life. In the final section, the narrator reconnects with Mitko when the latter seeks him out to confess that he has syphilis. Despite the beginnings of a new relationship with another man, a story which becomes one of the central narratives of Greenwell’s new book Cleanness, the narrator is unable to break with Mitko. His return to Mitko defines the arc-like triptych of the book’s structure. It suggests inevitability, as if shame is an inherent quality of queerness that can’t be escaped, something every queer person must contend with through acceptance or rejection – perhaps through an act of transformation or a radical stance against social norms. The narrator of this book finds neither, and his continuing sense of shame is reflected in disease and compromise. We know this illness and life will be unkind to people like Mitko, a knowledge that is echoed in the current global pandemic, just as we know that the narrator will survive and continue, leading a compromised ‘life lived almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and missed chances, perhaps, but also a bearable life.’
It is in his attempt to capture his narrator’s inner consciousness through the rhythm and structure of his sentences that Greenwell most approaches Henry James. John Banville’s description of James’ language as having a ‘sense of groping vagueness, of distracted wonderings, of guesses entertained and abandoned…along with… sudden steppings into the light of revelation and blissful certainty’, is equally applicable to Greenwell. Writing about his first meeting with Mitko, the narrator says, ‘that my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely’. That Jamesian sense of a mind ruminating, wandering, and finding hard-fought-for moments of clarity permeates Greenwell’s prose.
Greenwell has strongly resisted any suggestion that his writing is autobiographical, even though he, like the narrator, taught at the American College in Sofia, and has talked candidly about his own experiences of cruising. What Belongs to You is not a roman à clef in the tradition of Edmund White not least because it doesn’t invite the reader to solve any riddles or unlock hidden identities as White’s does. A better term for Greenwell’s writing might be autofiction in the sense that Alexander Chee glosses it in his collection of essays, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Chee cites Lorrie Moore’s phrase ‘“the consolation of the mask,” where you make a place that doesn’t exist in your own life for the life your life has no room for, the exiles of your memory’. These words illuminate Greenwell’s intimate, intense, and often surreal writing in Cleanness.
Cleanness continues with the same narrator and setting Greenwell established in What Belongs to You. I read this latest work as a novel comprised of nine interconnected short stories. It is both a stand-alone text and a companion to the earlier one.It is possible to describe its nine sections as a story or song cycle, and on social media Greenwell himself has called it ‘my little book of gay sex love songs’, but my conjecture is that the book’s internal cohesion in narrative, structure, and style makes it a work of novelistic ambition. Cleanness presents fresh perspectives on the earlier work, extending the new relationship already alluded to in What Belongs to You, revealing hidden scenes and narratives, but knowledge of the first novel isn’t needed to appreciate the latest. In Cleanness, Greenwell’s canvas is larger and features many new characters, all of whom are referred to only by a signifying capital letter. The politics of modern-day Bulgaria plays a greater role too, forming an important backdrop to these intensely personal stories. For example, ‘Decent People’ is an account of a city-wide anti-corruption protest march in Sofia, which ends with a group of protestors attacking a cadre of queer marchers.
In Cleanness, Greenwell is not only concerned with narrative, character, and setting, but as with the earlier work, how these elements are conveyed in language. Take this example from the story The Little Saint:
And maybe there actually was something saintly about him, his slightness and quiet in the hoodie that framed his face like a monk’s cowl when I saw him that first time, or in the bathrobe he wrapped around himself later, when I came to his door; and maybe there was something saintly in his endurance, too, I guess I think there was, in his desire for pain.
Christian Kiefer argues that this sentence’s syllabic structure, and the use of parataxis, force the reader to construct their own meaning from these words. Is this a prelude to an intense sexual act, a religious allegory for the relationship that the characters will develop and a prefiguring of the narrator’s subsequent self-realisation, or purely a description of the character? Or is it some combination of all of these things? As Kiefer writes, ‘everything is equal because everything is filled with meaning and meaningless at the same time’.
The sequence of nine stories that make up Cleanness employ the rhetorical device of chiasmus, in that the second half of the book mirrors or reverses key motifs of the first. Another structural observation: What Belongs to You, Cleanness is a triptych. The three sections in the new work are comprised of three stories each. The first and ninth, respectively the two lowest points of the arch, focus on desire – that of a young man experiencing first love in ‘Mentor’, and of an older man and his desire for a younger in ‘An Evening Out’. If these two stories focus on Eros, the second and eight focus on Thanatos. In these stories, ‘Gospodar’ and ‘Little Saint’, the narrator explores the world of BDSM, firstly as the submissive and then as the dominant. The central panel of this triptych, stories four to six, is the curve that forms the top of the arch. It’s the only one of the three sections that Greenwell has titled, ‘Loving’, and is a complete narrative charting the start, culmination, and end of the love affair from What Belongs to You. Placed at the very centre of the book, the story ‘The Frog King’ acts as the high-point – a beautiful evocation of love and hope reflected in a New Year’s Eve fireworks celebration in Bologna. The way the book is structured gives this central section its importance. By the time we read the final story, ‘An Evening Out’, it’s as if, after the transcendent experience of love and loss, the narrator has slid back into loneliness, longing, and uncertainty – albeit transformed by the experiences he has had. While the stories in this collection can be read as a linear sequence, the chiastic triptych structure encourages attention to this rise and fall – a return to beginnings, a map of love and desire and eroticism.
This kind of literary construction has a parallel in music. As a former music student Greenwell surely knows the compositions of Bela Bartok which employ the arch form to masterful effect. Greenwell himself has written: ‘when I think about the shape of what I want to write, I think less of the cause and consequence of linear plot than of the musical development of material, the management of tension and emotional intensity’. Cleanness is a book infused with music in explicit ways too: an outdoor performance of Delibes’ opera Lakme forms the climax of the story A Valediction, while the proto-musical myth of Orpheus is explicitly referenced and plays a key role in the shape and content of the triad of stories that form the central part of the book. The Orpheus myth charts an arc of love found, love celebrated, love lost, and finally, a journey to the underground to regain love through the power of music. This Orphic sequence is mirrored in the series of stories that make up the middle section of Greenwell’s book. The titular story ‘Cleanness’ charts the narrator discovering love, ‘The Frog King’reads as the lovers’ celebratory wedding feast, while ‘A Valediction’ is the journey to the underworld, complete with Charon-like gallery owner, and the outdoor performance of ‘Lakme’, music-making to bring the narrator’s Eurydice back to life. Like the myth, it fails.
The beginning and end of Cleanness touch on desire, respectively at the cusp of experience and at the height of it, yet desire manifests in other ways throughout the work. The various sections describe the desire for freedom, the desire to flout rules, love as the apogee of desire, but it’s in ‘Gospodar’ and ‘Little Saint’that Greenwell tackles desire and subjection in relation to consensual explorations of shame and disgust. It’s here that I find the strongest link to What Belongs to You. Greenwell’s narrator again participates in a ritual of shaming that arise from expectations developed in his childhood, and this is an expansion of the themes of the earlier book.
‘Gospodar’ recounts from beginning to end, and in graphic detail, a BDSM scene where the narrator is a sub in the control of a Master (the word Gospodar is Bulgarian for master or lord). The book is at its most sexually explicit here. In an online interview with his editor, Greenwell stated that he set himself ‘the goal of writing a scene that was, at once, one hundred percent pornographic and one hundred percent high art… it’s indisputable that sexually explicit art can be great art’.
In ‘Little Saint’, as we’d expect from the mirror/arch structure, the roles are reversed. This time the narrator is the dominant partner. Unlike ‘Gospodar’, this story has a remarkable end, an apotheosis of shame, an acceptance and transformation of forbidden desire into something akin to affection. During their abuse-filled meeting, the narrator verbally subjugates his sub, calling him a ‘whore’ and a ‘worthless faggot’. Choking the sub as he climaxes, the narrator achieves a moment of self-realisation: ‘something bursting free in me, corrosive and hot, without end, I had been waiting my entire life to say those words’. In their post-coital embrace, the weeping narrator is consoled by his partner. ‘Don’t be like that, he said again as I put my arms around him. Do you see? You don’t have to be like that, he said. You can be like this.’
While the firework-garlanded celebration of love that is the climax of the central story ‘The Frog King’ is the architectural peak of the book, this final scene of ‘Little Saint’ is the emotional heart of the work. If indeed Greenwell knows his Bartok, he will be familiar with analyses that have pointed to that composer’s use of the golden ratio, following the Euclidian proposition that the ratio provides the most aesthetic balance of form, including the placement of a climax. Greenwell’s positioning of this focal point in this part of the book, one where the narrator has the clearest and most cathartic moment of self-realisation, reads to me to be in concordance with this ratio. This moment of connection and recognition between the two strangers articulates the love and affection that exists in relationships that may be historically thought of as deviant. Both states, amorous and dominant/submissive desire, allow for intimacy, affirmation, and generosity, answering the question that has haunted the book and its narrator: ‘how do you love in the face of shame?’ The answer may well be, as in What Belongs to You, with ‘inhibition and missed chances’.
Cleanness may seem an ironic title. It’s a word with a lot of baggage – dirt, disease, impurity being a few. There is certainly ‘cleanness’ in the loving between the narrator and his boyfriend. The narrator finds himself scrubbed of shame, anxiety and fear in this relationship. With the addition of the other stories either side of this central narrative, Greenwell suggests that cleanness is a relative and a much more complex term. Like Isabel Archer, Greenwell’s narrator comes to a reckoning with life’s complexity. And like James’ heroine, we are left with an enigmatic ending on what the future has in store for him.
In his review of Greenwell’s earlier novel in the New York Times, Aaron Hamburger refers to John Updike’s complaint that ‘gay’ fiction has ‘nothing to interest straight readers… in gay stories nothing is at stake but self-gratification’. A similar experience is recounted by Alexander Chee in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: ‘I will never forget the classmate who said to me in workshop, about one of my stories, “why should I care about the lives of these bitchy queens?”… A vow formed in my mind that day as I listened to him… I will make you care.’ Greenwell, like Chee, alongside a new generation of American LGBTIQ+ writers such as Saeed Jones and Ocean Vuong, is determined to make us care. Cleanness is a confronting, moving, and remarkable work of art that provides us with a fresh, and very queer examination of human intimacy, relationships, and desire. It should cement Greenwell’s international reputation and blow up the heteronormative notions of the Updikes of this world.
Banville, John, 2017, “Novels were never the same after Henry James,” The Irish Times, 7 October
Chee, Alexander, 2018, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Bloomsbury, London
Farrar Straus and Giroux | Work in Progress, 2019, Cleanness, Garth Greenwell and Mitzi Angel on writing about sex, https://fsgworkinprogress.com/2019/07/17/cleanness/
Greenwell, Garth, 2017, “Kicked out for being gay, then being rescued by opera,” The Guardian, 19 October
Greenwell, Garth, 2019, “I mean actually if sentence structure […],” Twitter, 2 July
Greenwell, Garth, 2020, “I cannot believe that my little book […],” Twitter, 27 January
Hamburger, A, 2016, “‘What Belongs to You’ by Garth Greenwell,” New York Times, 29 January
Kiefer, Christian, 2020, How Does Garth Greenwell Make Such Wonderful Sentences?, Literary Hub, 23 January, https://lithub.com/how-does-garth-greenwell-make-such-wonderful-sentences/
Welch, John W., 1998, “Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis,” Maxwell Institute Publications 22, https://scholarsarchive.buy.edu/mi/22