Garth Greenwell’s deceptively slight Cleanness begins with an unnamed narrator – an American teacher and writer working in Sofia, Bulgaria – meeting one of his students at a bar in the city. The student is having troubles with love: the best friend he has a crush on is more interested in their mutual female friend. His confidences crack something open in the narrator, who realises he has lost something, “an idea of myself … which shouldn’t have been so precious to me but was.”
Although everything is above board, there seems to be something transgressive about this meeting between teacher (“gospodine” or sir, they address him) and student, which is fitting in this book about power and the illicit thrill of crossing lines. Across nine “chapters” – although they are more like short stories or impressions, only loosely coordinated and perhaps not even chronological – the narrator walks Sofia’s streets, visits Bulgaria’s old sea and mountain towns, falls in and out of love, and has some very, very graphic sexual encounters.
In the second chapter – Gospodar, which means master – the narrator goes to a man’s flat to hook up. The narrator reveals he is recovering from a break up with a man known only as R. (all the characters in this novel are known only by their initial, increasing the seedy vibe). “I found myself resorting to habits I thought I had escaped,” he confides. They’ve agreed to the rules beforehand, a bit of bondage and pain, but things get out of hand, and ultimately become frightening.
“I want to be nothing,” the narrator tells his master in this chapter, and at first I thought the book was setting up an existential angst, a desire to dissolve the boundaries of the self. But the narrator’s desires to submit and to be used have a more earth-bound source, heartbreak. In the book’s second part, we find out more about his relationship with his Portuguese lover R., whose love “poured a kind of cleanness over everything we did”. It’s a bold line, flirting with the suggestion that there are indeed “dirty” and “clean” types of love, something only too familiar to queer people who have been told their desire is perverted and deviant. But it is an honest feeling, rightly or wrongly, and as the narrator describes, perhaps the taboo is essential to the desire.
The idea of a contract and the negotiation of power surfaces throughout Cleanness, whether in the bedroom between sexual partners or more widely in society. In Decent People, the narrator joins a protest demanding that the country’s government resign in the Spring of 2013, and wonders at “the problem with democracy, the danger of crowds”. Here he finds another kind of dissolution; a foreigner, “what I wanted was irrelevant.” History looms large over the novel, whether it is Bulgaria under Soviet or Ottoman rule, a distant time that the Bulgarians in the book talk about as if happened yesterday. It is not hard to draw connections between this book set in the early 2010s, and the populism that would sweep the author’s home country in 2016.
At the protest there are shouts of “red faggots”, targeted at the country’s socialist government, but also alluding to the status of sexual minorities in Bulgaria. Queer protestors join in openly, but at the risk of being beaten up. Queer people in the country live in a kind of limbo between tolerance and hate, not yet achieving the legal and social acceptance we have in other countries. The book implies this may have something to do with the sexual violence the narrator encounters. At the same time, it is also part of the fun, because it means cruising and covert hookups are still the way to meet people.
I was reminded of another recent queer novel, The Adversary by Ronnie Scott, in which young gay men attempt to navigate the “moral wilds” of the post-marriage, post-PrEP Melbourne. Sofia is a different sort of “moral wilds”, but the dilemma is the same, how to behave ethically, or at least, consistently? Greenwell gives a kind of answer in The Little Saint, another chapter centred on an extremely graphic hookup which mirrors and transforms the narrator’s earlier sexual encounter. In the same way, the entire book seems to mirror around the central chapter, The Frog King.
Greenwell’s writing is a major draw here. It hesitates, circles, stumbles and interrupts itself as the narrator feels his way to precision. Commas proliferate, and dialogue is undistinguished from the narrator’s thoughts. This is writing you have to concentrate on, that rewards paying attention. I was struck by the sensuality of his prose. This is not a sexual encounter, but a protest on the brink of violence:
In the suspension of our breath [the pressure] mounted and became unbearable, demanding release, and though we didn’t quite move it was as if everyone leaned very slightly forward, a wave on the brink of cresting.
And Greenwell is also brilliant writer of sex. Perhaps the only other writer I’ve encountered who treats it as seriously and precisely as befits a topic that consumes so much of our culture is Brisbane’s Krissy Kneen. It’s a book of lofty ideas, grounded in the flesh.
Gay rating: 5/5 for graphic gay sex and queer themes throughout