Declan Toohey reviews Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness

Reviewed ByDeclan Toohey
Garth Greenwell Cleanness

‘Cleanness’ Garth Greenwell

Picador

ISBN 9781509874637 

£8.99 (paperback)

In recent interviews, Garth Greenwell has been keen to express that his latest book, ‘Cleanness’, is neither a collection of short stories nor a novel. Instead, he sees it as a ‘lieder cycle’ whose closest model in spirit is Franz Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’, an 1828 song cycle of 24 movements. By this token, ‘Cleanness’ contains nine ‘songs’, and over their course the author recounts the final professional years of an American teacher in Sofia, ruminates over the limits of desire, and charts a bittersweet love affair between his nameless narrator and man whom we only know as R. 

For those unaware of ‘What Belongs to You’ (2016), Greenwell’s brilliant debut, this is familiar territory for the Kentucky-born author. Both books are first-person accounts of a nameless teacher at the American College of Sofia; both are populated primarily by characters whose names take the form of an initial, as if they were based on real people whom the narrator knows intimately, but doesn’t want to reveal for both their sake and his. 

But where Greenwell’s first novel was more inward in scope, ‘Cleanness’ looks further afield to include various reflections on Bulgaria’s political landscape and complicated history. We gain access into the angst-laden lives of the narrator’s students, for whom he sometimes has to reel in his own dangerous feelings. We hear more from the Bulgarian working classes, who have little choice but to work ‘twelve, fifteen hours a day, every day’ in order to survive. We encounter far more sex—and on this topic Greenwell’s virtuosic flair comes to the fore—but in prose that, to cite the author, is ‘100 percent pornographic and 100 percent high art.’  

If ‘Cleanness’has a plot, it hinges on the narrator’s desire, on the one hand, to satiate his sexual urges and, on the other, to clean himself of the filthiness he associates with these wishes. As such, there are professional and public distractions—whole chapters devoted to his consultation with students, his socialising with writers at a Bulgarian literary festival—along with the intense sex of his private life: two memorable chapters delineate, in excruciating detail, his BDSM experiences from the alternate vantage points of sadist and masochist. In between, he falls in love with R., a twenty-one-year-old Portuguese exchange student, who, for his own reasons, has trouble fully embracing his sexuality. Nonetheless, there ensues a two-year relationship, and at its peak the narrator experiences with R., albeit fleetingly, that sense of cleanness or psycho-spiritual harmony he so desperately craves. The remainder of the book concerns itself with his impending return to America, and the question of whether this internal harmony is something that can withstand the turbulence of a long-distance relationship.

Though only his second novel, ‘Cleanness’ illustrates that Greenwell is one of the most exciting, and essential, writers working today. His style is at once unobtrusive yet distinct: his sinuous paragraphs are peppered with comma splices, pristine description, and discreet imagery; his sincere tone, with its insistence on the significance of the everyday, takes its cues from pre-‘Ulysses’ James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, while his commitment to the subject of same-sex love springs organically from the writings of James Baldwin, Edmund White, and Colm Toibín. His dialogue, like that of many a contemporary writer, eschews inverted commas. 

Overall, he is dedicated to the cadences and caesuras, the music and lyricism, of well-wrought sentences and affecting paragraphs. It should therefore come as no surprise that, before spending the best part of two decades as a poet, he trained first as a classical singer. It is out of this continuum that the musicality of ‘What Belongs to You’and ‘Cleanness’leaps. 

Most integral to Greenwell’s craft, though, more so than the sedate pulse of his prose, is the seed of artistic promiscuousness and mystery his work strives to cultivate. His narrator understands that to read across languages and literary forms can only be a fruitful thing, and about his words hovers a quasi-religious presence; to his narration, there is a sense of secrecy, a sense in which great art, great writing, should carry within it the same ineffable quality as a deity or a supreme being. 

This protest against insular forms of thinking Greenwell has openly criticised in the past. Earlier this year, for example, he spoke to ‘The Paris Review’ about how the majority of contemporary writers have been ‘professionalized to a perilous extent.’ Indeed, in a time where every second American writer, it seems, has an MFA degree, ‘Cleanness’is a reminder for literary practitioners to look beyond the groves of academia and the world of professional publishing: it cautions against literary parochialism and makes a case for aesthetic porousness, namely one that discourages writers to stay in their own lane. (And because Greenwell has both received an MFA degree from, and served as a faculty member for, the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is perhaps best equipped to make such a case.)   

‘Cleanness’, ultimately, plays with this idea of stylistic fluidity throughout, but no better than towards its end, when a Bulgarian writer named N. holds forth on ‘the G-spot of the story, how it is like a woman,’ and how ‘it is difficult to make the story come.’ Taken aback, the narrator suggests why it might not be a man instead, asking whether this would alter the form of the short story as we know it. But before his interlocutor can respond, there is a commotion elsewhere: a fellow writer, who also happens to be a priest, has stripped to his briefs and taken to the sea. And just as the narrator and the Bulgarian writer immediately lose interest in the ontology of the short story, enraptured by the theatrics of the priest, so the reader throughout ‘Cleanness’becomes similarly unhinged: we forget, momentarily, whether Greenwell’s book is a novel, a collection, or a song cycle, and instead see the work for what it is—a beguiling yet understated work of art. 

Declan Toohey

Bio: Declan Toohey is an Irish writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in ‘The Stockholm Review of Literature’, ‘Stone of Madness Press’, and ‘Strange Times’, among other outlets. He is currently based in Nova Scotia, Canada, where he is at work on his first novel. 

Declan Toohey

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