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The Poet of Infinite Longing

Desire and shame in the fiction of Garth Greenwell

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pages.

The beauty of Garth Greenwell’s sentences belies the disfiguring forces they harbor. As a writer, he is something like a poet-flagellant, suited to painful, precarious states; exquisite hungers and humiliations; the papered-over chasms of desire. Like the work of Jean Genet before him, Greenwell transforms individual appetites into expressions of unlikely commonality. His fictions depict moments of epiphanic desperation—shame, pleasure, remorse, and ecstasy—in which the mysteries of spirit and flesh are rendered briefly legible.

In his acclaimed debut, What Belongs to You, a nameless American teacher navigates a tangled, transactional relationship with a charismatic street hustler in Sofia, Bulgaria. While it isn’t stated explicitly, there is much to suggest that this protagonist reprises his role in Greenwell’s second book, Cleanness, which likewise features an expatriate teacher in the Bulgarian capital. Nine loosely connected chapters delineate the formation, ending, and aftermath of the narrator’s relationship with a Portuguese student known only as R. The evolution of Greenwell’s fiction is such that its pervasive sense of longing now enlarges, rather than artfully pares, his field of inquiry.

Greenwell transforms individual appetites into expressions of unlikely commonality.

The book’s structure absorbs the scope and grandeur of the novel and the episodic tautness of the short story collection without fully committing to either. (Greenwell has simply called it “a book of fiction.”) The resultant form is associative, dialectical, numinous—even, perhaps especially, at its most profane. It oscillates between the measured wisdom of hindsight and a torrid, in-the-moment abandon. Given this proximity to overwhelming desire, little erosions of self are “necessary to survival.” “I have worn myself down to a bearable size,” the narrator admits in the first chapter, “Mentor.” Much of Cleanness can be read as a meditation on this sentiment. Its eloquence is most readily revealed by the abrading frictions of its confessional mode.

The narrative is governed by the exigencies of pain and memory rather than strict chronology. The first three chapters, marked by misapprehension, political unrest, and sexual violence, take place after the narrator’s relationship with R. has already ended. In “Gospodar,” the language of religious ritual lends the formalized sadism of the narrator’s sexual encounter with a stranger something of a liturgical quality. Punishment exalts, albeit mysteriously, offering as it does the equivocal gifts of submission and nullity: “When he spat on me it was like a spark along the track of my spine, who knows why we take pleasure in such things, it’s best not to look into it too closely.” But Greenwell’s fiction is always willing to look more closely at the inevitability of our pleasures. When a terrifying act of sexual extremity drives the narrator from the stranger’s apartment, his resolution not to return to such a place is undermined by past experience:

I knew that having been shown it I would come back to it . . . I would desire it, though I didn’t desire it now, and for a time I would resist my desire but only for a time. There was no lowest place, I thought, I would strike ground only to feel it give way gaping beneath me, and I felt with a new fear how little sense of myself I have, how there was no end to what I could want or to the punishment I would seek.

While Cleanness is structured as a triptych, only its middle section, “Loving R.,” is titled. The naming of these three grouped chapters, in which the narrator and R. talk, travel, dine, fuck, dream, plan, and begin to fall apart, suggests a cohesion at least partially willed by the narrator, some final, hopeful appellation of love. His relationship with R. is tender—he calls him skupi, or “dear”—but streaked with precarity. R. has recently graduated and wants to find a job; the Bulgarian market is bleak. The specter of departure creates asymmetries of devotion: “I always forgave R. when he didn’t appear, I accepted any excuse he offered, whatever my annoyance I never complained. I wanted to think of this as patience, but really I knew it was fear; I would push him away if I demanded too much.”

Over dinner, the narrator argues with R., who has not yet come out to his family, that his life would be easier if he lived openly as a gay man. Portugal is a modern country, he asserts, nothing like Bulgaria. R.’s reticent defense culminates in the revelation that he’d been sexually initiated by an older family friend when he was only a teenager. His subsequent confusions about the provenance of desire dovetail with the narrator’s own, or perhaps deepen them: “How can I know what I wanted then, before he did it,” R. asks him. Like Mitko in What Belongs to You, R. is angled obliquely against the narrator’s age and comparative security, and Greenwell’s novels throb with this erotics of inequality. Surplus enriches gratification and attenuates it just as easily. “We can never be sure of what we want,” the narrator admits, “I mean of the authenticity of it, of its purity in relation to ourselves.” Such questions drive and fortify Cleanness, a teasing through of the contradictions that surmount our desires or else become part of them.

Greenwell is not only a poet of infinite longing and humiliated flesh. There are also moments of almost unbearable gentleness in Cleanness, sentences that feel like pressing on soft tissue: “I wanted to root into him,” the narrator says of R., “even as the wind said all rootedness was a sham, there were only passing arrangements, makeshift shelters and poor harbors, I love you, I thought suddenly in that rush that makes so much seem possible, I love you, anything I am you have use for is yours.” Elsewhere, in “The Frog King,” the narrator’s kisses on R.’s body become “a kind of blazon of him.” Even his language is subject to love’s profound estrangement: “But repeating the words [I love you] now didn’t dull them, it called them to attention somehow, to service, it restored them, and they became difficult to say again.”

Desire is finally too coherent to be borne by something so varied and fugitive as the self.

“They could make a whole life,” the narrator thinks of these moments with R., and there is something both sweet and treacherous about that “could,” its wistful but ultimately qualified nature. Early on, the narrator admits to a kind of erotic emaciation, an unmet need, even while in love with R.: “How many times had I felt that I could change,” he says, “I had felt it through all the long months with R., months that I had spent, for all my happiness, in a state of perpetual hunger.” If something cannot slake, can it sustain? The extraordinary force of melancholy in Cleanness arises not only from the slow dissolution of the narrator’s relationship with R., but also—perhaps even more forcefully—its bleak assessment of the compatibility between love and eros. Only one of those, finally, is permanent for the novel’s narrator.

Greenwell has always written in long, lush sentences, but Cleanness introduces a new stylistic tendency, a sort of spliced, downhill velocity reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian writer’s rhetorical aggression here transmuted to smoother, but no less torrential, feats of awareness:

All that was new there was evanescent, the toys, the tourists, R. and I; all that was lasting was old, worn dull with looking though still I wondered to look at it, the centuries-old basilica, the bells, the gold lion on its pedestal, the sea that would swallow it; and everywhere also the books I had read, so that look, there, I could almost convince myself of it, Aschenbach stepping from uncertain water to stone.

Here is that rare thing, the prose style that effectively sensitizes its readers to the experience of living with and through the consciousness it contains. We are initiated into particular ways of seeing and being, of living with art, with love, with lack, the aperture widening as we grow used to the light. Even if one were to—foolishly—leave aside the richness and ambivalence of its transgressive scrutiny, the aesthetic achievement of Cleanness alone would signal virtuosity.

In Greenwell’s fictions, shame is often a consequence of desire’s enactment. It is as if desire is finally too coherent to be borne by something so varied and fugitive as the self. “I had leered at him, I had touched him, I had been a caricature of myself,” the narrator laments in “An Evening Out,” the book’s final chapter. “But that isn’t true,” he corrects himself immediately, “I had been myself without impediment . . . ” Cleanness troubles the dichotomy between desire and shame, or rather makes of it an alloy, enjoining it with an abyss of possible behaviors and predilections. There is something triumphal in that statement—“I had been myself”—something like a liniment, a cleansing rinse. Something, I think, like grace.