Longing In a Strange Land

A review of Garth Greenwell's novel "Cleanness."

In the follow-up to his captivating 2016 debut novel What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell offers another mediation on the porous boundaries between love, longing, and lust in his new book, Cleanness.  As in his previous book, Cleanness offers readers a nameless narrator: an American teaching in Sofia, Bulgaria, who finds himself adrift in a culture that seems to manifest his inner restlessness and search for a lasting connection. The narrator struggles to construct an identity through various relationships with the young men who surround him yet is stymied by the limits of language, culture, and his own sexual needs.

Cleanness is a book that defies easy classification. Various reviewers have called it a novel, while others deem it a short story collection, and others regard it as a novel told in stories. Yet as the book so eloquently conveys, labels and designations are both illusory and useless. What transpires in Cleanness is a moving, introspective rumination on rootlessness and longing within a strange land. The narrator turns to sex as a way to eradicate these feelings and make a meaningful connection. 

Greenwell presents sex in innumerable ways, from tender and loving to shameful and devastating.  A strength of Greenwell’s is his ability to coalesce thoughtful literary prose with graphic descriptions of sex. Despite its sanitized title, Cleanness exposes readers to love and sex in all of its messy iterations, and it does so with a deftness of language that makes Greenwell one of the most accomplished writers of our era. By stripping the narrator of his name and identity, Greenwell allows readers to impose their own conclusions about the narrator’s actions and the choices he makes, whether he attempts to insinuate himself into the social life of his students or allows himself to be brutalized during a kinky sexual encounter.

Some of the narrator’s encounters fortify him. The middle section of the book concerns his relationship with R., a closeted grad student who was first introduced in Greenwell’s previous novel. That relationship is given more depth and nuance here, allowing readers to better comprehend the strength of the narrator’s desire for a younger man who himself longs for acceptance yet is encumbered by his own past and cultural identity.

Other stories locate the narrator in sexual situations that force him to confront the degradation and brutality within himself and others. The opinions readers form about the narrator communicate individual and cultural ideas about the body, sex, and the need for intimacy.Although Cleanness is an accomplished book, some readers may take issue not only with its graphic descriptions of sex but also Greenwell’s writing style, which deliberately refuses to adhere to rules regarding sentence structure and punctuation. Also, the use of initials instead of names (a practice currently in vogue in literary fiction) may irritate readers with more conventional tastes. Like the narrator, the writing strives to be unbounded. One of Cleanness’s many themes is the permeability of boundaries, both geographical and personal.

The question of the propriety of the narrator’s behaviors and relationships lies tacitly just beneath the surface of each encounters. Cleanness demonstrates that boundaries between nations and cultures are confined only to maps and that individuals often become their truest selves in environments different from their own.

By Garth Greenwell
Published on January 14, 2020

Jarrett Neal's first book, What Color Is Your Hoodie?: Essays on Black Gay Identity, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. His essays, fiction, poetry, and reviews have appeared in Litbreak, The Gay and Lesbian Review, Chelsea Station, New City, The Good Men Project, and other publications. A graduate of the MFA program in Writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he is currently working on a collection of short stories titled The White Boy Does His Work. He lives in Oak Park, IL.

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