Gospodine they call our narrator. “Master” or “sir” in Bulgarian, it’s a designation of authority from the students he teaches literature to at a high school in Sofia. What it connotes—distinction, domination, control—forms the basis of Garth Greenwell’s new work of fiction, Cleanness. And from the very beginning you witness an exploration of this mastery through his demonstration of it.
Cleanness is Greenwell’s eagerly awaited follow-up to What Belongs to You, his 2016 debut novel about the relationship between an American teacher and a Bulgarian hustler. That work, marked by writing equally as eloquently in describing sex as sensibility, announced Greenwell as a literary talent. In Cleanness, Greenwell remains in Bulgaria but stretches out, his focus still on an American instructor but with an expanded scope that teems with personal and political changes. Writing about an American abroad in Europe follows a long tradition of course; but Henry James and Edith Wharton never wrote so beautifully about the “erotic grimaces” displayed on Bulgarian gay hookup apps.
A pity for them, but a boon for us. Greenwell’s paragraphs will be studied for years. They are as thick as thighs, almost beckoning you as you turn the page. Looking at them you feel an almost sensual feeling as if you need to be between them to grasp their meaning. Pick out another work of fiction that you’ve read recently and compare the paragraphs. They most likely look manic compared to Greenwell’s. There is nothing abrupt in his writing, few single lines or interjections. Everything is enveloped. Somehow, I never thought I would be blushing at the shape of a paragraph, but here I am.
That hot-faced yearning is one that readers will feel throughout Cleanness. The book is centered on the relationship between the narrator (who remains unnamed except by title) and R, a Portuguese man living temporarily in Sofia. The relationship seems to catch them both by surprise. R is semi-closeted and our narrator, although openly gay, struggles with the anxiety and alienation—unsure of his desires and warped by a seldom spoken about past. Yet they form a love like neither of them has ever had before. Both of them feel tentative with it at first, as if their past was not expecting this present. Their nights together, their short vacations, their visits to art galleries—normal times for many couples—are tugged between, as the narrator reflects about his teaching and writing, ardor and the arduous.
In each story, a turn—of emotion or self-realization—relies on a translated word. There is “an uncanny valley in language,” our narrator notices, between words and their meanings. Shared language and emotion both rely on an ambiguous trust after all. The movement from meaning to meaning is just as fraught as the unsteady ground between two men in love—pleasure and trust always in motion; always needing to be conveyed because it never feels settled. His writing translates fraught desire, that feeling almost impossible to describe, to something tangible.
That feeling of simply being able to feel is hard-earned because of the knot of emotional and physical pain the narrator endures. Godsopine, it turns out, is not only what his students call him, but what he is forced to call a man that leads him through a violent hookup in one of the book’s more harrowing chapters. The encounter was at first consensual. The man speaks only Bulgarian and their sex is meant to be comfortless. Greenwell uses the translated words of degradation coming from the man to signify the descent of interest and wary pleasure into, slowly, fear and abuse. Just as a word can signify something totally different with a slight change in tone, their sexual encounter soon escalates from into viciousness. In the following chapter, ‘Decent People,’ the narrator joins a mass protest against the corrupt national government. But by the end of the protest, the same protesters attack a small group of gay activists who joined in the march. You know then that what he and R conveyed, translated, was a love tempered, if it survives at all, by norms intimate and expansive.
Here, Greenwell’s full reach comes apparent. So much of queer life can be a suppressed striving for something more. Cleanness is an education then in the possibilities of queer expressiveness. And the best teaching, as the narrator notes early in the book, is “long looking;” a form of attention that, because it is sincere, and earnest, and apparent, can offer hope simply by observing and describing, with exquisite detail, how we actually can live.
In a book obsessed with language and yearning, it’s meaningful that the last story in Cleanness ends with the teacher sleeping beside the schoolyard dog. I won’t say any more about how he ends up there. But it’s a peaceful rest, perhaps because dogs give direction in neither Bulgarian or English, or words of any kind. We leave this book satisfied into silence from the astonishing prose offered before us.
Garth Greenwell will appear at a Women and Children First Bookstore event through Crowdcast, with author Paul Lisicky at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 25.
Carr Harkrader is a writer and educator living in Chicago. He works for a nonprofit where he writes and designs online educational resources and content. Originally from North Carolina, he is often the slowest talker amongst any group of Northerners. He enjoys both crappy reality tv and literary fiction, while often not really grasping the meaning of either.