In a smoky, half-submerged bar in Sofia, Bulgaria, the protagonist of Garth Greenwell’s latest novel, Cleanness, finds himself giving advice to a young man facing a predicament all too familiar to our unnamed narrator. The protagonist, a queer American teaching abroad at the American College of Sofia in Bulgaria—as Greenwell was himself—listened somewhat regretfully to the man, a student of his, describe being rejected and distanced by his best friend after confessing having feelings for him. It’s a situation familiar to the narrator, and will be familiar to readers of Greenwell’s first novel, What Belongs To You, which features the same auto-fictional protagonist and describes one such similar circumstance. The teacher’s advice for his student doesn’t have the effect he wants it to, and the student ends up leaving disappointed. As the teacher wanders his way back to his apartment, he thinks to himself about the problem facing the student, and how any gains toward understanding ourselves comes at the cost of a dreamy, near-novelistic understanding of our lives that’s often so easy to fall into. Of course, the irony of this idea is not lost on Greenwell, whose beautiful writing is matched by his self-awareness, and has now written his second book novelizing his time spent in Bulgaria as a teacher. Yet, while the two novels share a setting, a protagonist, and overlapping history, Cleanness is a blossoming for Greenwell, who exhibits peaks here only hinted at in the preceding What Belongs To You. Cleanness is far and away one of the most evocative and sobering novels I’ve read in a long time, in which Greenwell manages to write about sex and violence, love and distance, and the feeling of home and language itself, in a way that feels immediately intimate and insightful.
In a climate of literary fiction that seems inundated with autofiction, Greenwell manages to stand out. His writing in Cleanness is more Cusk than Knausgaard, in more ways than one. While there’s a chronology to Cleanness—an appreciation that’s deepened for readers of his first book—the story here is told over a series of vignettes that could as easily be short stories. And in fact, many of them are, as noted in the Acknowledgements section. It’s stylistic quality, the aesthetic feel of the writing that connects each section together as much as any interest in an overarching plot. Like Cusk, all the events of the novel are filtered through our narrator, including the speech of others. While this technique was used in What Belongs To You as well, in that work it created a distance between the narrator and subjects through their inherent impenetrability, which is of course the same thing as distance to the self. In Cleanness, the opposite is true, and the distance Greenwell creates by cleverly calling into question his own memories of an event versus what he assumes transpired “in actuality,” down to the word choices used—especially in translation from Bulgarian to English—reveals a complexity only enhancing the nuance of his narrator.
Cleanness is broken into three sections, marked by Roman numerals, and further down into named chapters. Only the second of these three sections is named, called ‘Loving R.’, R. being the narrator’s boyfriend before what feels like an inevitable parting. While nearly the entirety of What Belongs To You dealt with a separation, in the form of a distancing between the narrator and a lover named Mitko—one of the only characters in either of Greenwell’s work to be given a full name rather than an abbreviated first initial—in Cleanness Greenwell is working with at once a much more meticulous and expansive definition of yearning and loss. After opening with the tale of the student in the bar, he goes on to describe a visceral sexual encounter gone awry, a visit to a protest of the Bulgarian people against its government but towards a disputed future, and a vacation with R. as the end of the relationship feels near, among many others.
Perhaps it’s Greenwell’s renewed focus on the intimate moments of life that make Cleanness feel so much more personal than What Belongs To You. Each chapter could be the standout story in a collection, but it’s through their conversation together that Greenwell’s ability as a writer is leveraged to maximum effect. He leans into the minutiae of his desires, both for sexual gratification as well as toward a sense of belonging, in a way that showcases what makes autofiction such a powerful medium. It’s difficult to find another writer, within autofiction or outside of it, that shows as much courage and understanding as Greenwell. His strength is in laying himself bare, and writing in a way that few dare to do.
Cleanness is a sublime book, transcending not only autofiction or LGBTQ writing, but the very barrier between stories and novel, fiction and non-fiction. And like Greenwell’s multifaceted writing, both story and lived experience, both intimate and sweeping, in reading Cleanness I found a dissonance in my reaction; upon finishing a chapter, I was filled with both the desire to hurry to the next one and just ruminate on the story finished, to revel in the world and feelings it painted for me. I’m sure this is a book I’ll read several times over, in the coming years, trying to extract every last bit of meaning in that treasured space between when one story ends and another begins. Hopefully, after a few times through, Greenwell will have more writing for me to pour over. Whether Greenwell’s next work returns once more to the gray and beautiful country of Bulgaria, or chooses to venture into new lands, I know it’s somewhere can’t wait to visit, and in all likelihood won’t want to leave.
By Garth Greenwell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published January 14, 2020