Garth Greenwell’s 2016 debut novel, What Belongs to You, which was on the long list for the National Book Award, is a story of love, lust, and loss, centered on an unnamed narrator, a gay American teacher in Bulgaria. Cleanness, Greenwell’s follow-up novel, published last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is narrated by that same teacher in Bulgaria, still unnamed, as he embarks on a love affair with R, an exchange student from Portugal, and deals with its eventual collapse.
The book has a pleasing symmetry: it’s divided into three parts, each with three chapters. Parts one and three detail the aftermath of the narrator’s affair with R. (None of the characters is named. Each is represented only by an initial.) Part two is about the affair itself. The individual chapters are not sequenced in a linear fashion — some of the chapters, in fact, have previously appeared in The New Yorker — but taken as a whole, they offer a satisfying understanding of the narrative that is greater than the sum of its parts.
In part one, in the first chapter, the narrator meets with a troubled student who comes out to him, seeking comfort and advice on how to navigate his sexuality in conservative Bulgaria. The narrator asks the student what he wants his life to be, a question with which the narrator himself is grappling. In the second chapter, the narrator hooks up with a man for sex. It’s a graphic scene, in which the narrator wants to be dominated. In the last chapter, the narrator finds himself in the middle of an anti-government protest, which he observes but does not take part in.
In part three, in the first chapter, the narrator spends time with Bulgarian writers in an unnamed seaside town. He has taken a break from R, but his thoughts, which he can’t repress, keep returning to him. The next chapter contains another graphic scene, in which the narrator has very rough sex with a young man he meets online. This time, instead of being submissive, he takes total control. In the last chapter, the narrator goes with former students for a revealing night out on the eve of his leaving Bulgaria.
The second, middle part of the book is taken up with the affair with R. The young exchange student is restless and somewhat aimless, but the affair gives the narrator someone to focus on and fulfills his need for love. “Sex had never been joyful for me before,” the narrator says, “or almost never, it had always been fraught with shame and anxiety and fear, all of which vanished at the sight of his smile, simply vanished, it poured a kind of cleanness over everything we did.”
One of the most beautiful and moving parts of the book occurs in the chapter “Frog King.” In it, the narrator comes to realize that he is truly loved, and Greenwell, in his writing, conveys a palpable sense of unconstrained emotion and passion in this breakthrough: “I love you, I whispered again and again to him. You are the most beautiful, the most beautiful boy. You are, he whispered to me, you are, you are.”
To the narrator, the love affair is clean and pure, in sharp contrast with his past sexual encounters, which he sees as toxic. This theme runs throughout. He and R stay together for two years, even long-distance, after R leaves Bulgaria. But the lack of proximity eventually frays the bond. The transformative nature of the affair and its bittersweet dénouement are persuasively told through the narrator’s perspective.
Of the graphic bondage-and-domination sex scenes in chapters two and eight, Greenwell, in an interview with Farrar, Straus publisher Mitzi Angel, said, “I had the goal of writing a scene that was, at once, 100 percent pornographic and 100 percent high art.” The passages effectively portray the growth of the narrator and the inner workings of desire — even how it can be lethal in nature, what Greenwell described to Angel as “the obliteration of the self.”
These chapters may be polarizing. They are shocking, not only for their graphic sexual content but also for the narrator’s observations and awareness in being submissive in the first scene and dominating in the second.
In Cleanness, Greenwell has fleshed out characters who long for pain and humiliation but also love. The writing is dense, and the narrative sometimes frustrating in its inscrutability. But it offers readers a thought-provoking and compelling journey, one that reaches for real wisdom.