Greenwell, Garth. “Cleanness”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020,
“Foreignness, Obligation and Desire”
Set in Sofia, Bulgaria, Garth Greenwell’s “Cleanness” is a novel of hope after major change. It is a time of upheaval during revolution in which an American teacher faces a life that is transformed by finding and losing love. As he prepares to leave the place that he has come to know as home, he struggles with the life he led including the intimate encounters that were part of his life in Bulgaria. He realizes that these memories are reflections of his past. When a student shares a confession with him, he is reminded of the first person he loved. He had been seduced by a stranger and became part of a sadistic relationship with an older man. Then there was a romance with a foreigner that both reopened and healed wounds. As he reflects on his past he begins to realize something about making connections— with the people he has loved, with the places he has lived and with himself. Reading this is like falling into a dream with gorgeous language and even more beautiful landscapes.
Greenwell takes us into the mind of his main character, the teacher/narrator and we read of subconscious urges and conscious longings. There are explicit sex scenes and great detail related in the first-person. Sex here becomes a way to communicate and a way to understand the importance of sex in the world. We cannot forget that the map of Europe was formed by sexual urges and desires and we see here that sex is about power and control.
Those of you who have read Greenwell’s “What Belongs to Me” (one of my favorite recent books) will recognize the teacher/main character but this is not a sequel. Rather, it is a continuation of that story but it also stands alone. Knowing something about the writer, I cannot help but wonder how much of this is autobiographical.
Divided into three sections of three chapters each, we have vignettes of relationships that took place before, during and after the main relationship, the one that the teacher has with a character simply named R., a young student from Lisbon, who we see as lacking goals in life and somewhat unable to rest. As I said earlier, there are graphic depictions of sex including anonymous couplings, S & M encounters and passivity and dominance. These are not gratuitous but totally necessary for us to understand the teacher. Some of the sexual encounters are loving while others seem to be there for transition but all are necessary.
The prose is glorious and lyrical and I thought as I read that I could well imagine Greenwell introspecting as he wrote. Prose like this comes from the essence of being and is very real.
Let me take you on a short tour of the plot. “Mentor”, the first story is about the narrator meeting a student, who shares a story that the narrator recognizes from his own adolescence. The next two chapters are about a sexual encounter and attending a protest march and we realize here that the book is actually a collection of separate scenarios that are loosely connected. At the center of the book is the teacher’s affair and relationship with R. that has ended and our teacher feels lost. Part 2 gives us detailed information about that relationship but this leads us to several more scenes that at first show no connection to each other. Even though I had a bit of trouble with the connection between the relationship with R. and the chapters of disassociated scenes, this did not stop me from enjoying every word. I saw the book to be written in a kind of stream of consciousness. Having spent many years of my life living in Europe and searching for myself, I found a great deal to identify with and that is what great literature does—it pulls us into the story and doesn’t let go. I do not see myself letting go of what I read here anytime soon.