Garth Greenwell’s celebrated new book, Cleanness (FSG; 240 pages), which follows a gay teacher searching for intimacy and purpose in Bulgaria, is both quiet and explosive. Wherever Greenwell’s attention lands—a hushed conversation, a sexual encounter, a political protest—there’s heat and urgency and a concentrated, almost unbearable feeling of aliveness. Much has been said about the sex scenes in Cleanness; Sheila Heti wrote, “Most American literature seems neutered by comparison.” And it’s true, where so many writers fail or grasp for clichés or simply give up and elide the act of sex, Greenwell zooms in and stays. And stays and stays.
What emerges, in the sex scenes but also in the other sustained scenes of Cleanness, is a fascinating elasticity. During an S&M scene, humiliation rises up in the narrator and then lies back down. The scripted sex veers off script and then resumes its course and then veers again. Understanding gives way to bewilderment, shame to joy, and control is lost and regained and lost. Nowhere else have I had the sensation of following every single sentence forward with a feeling of utter possibility.
When we were students, I was lucky enough to be in Greenwell’s class at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where his story drafts were, to put it lightly, legendary. Greenwell and I recently met by video-chat to talk about his new book.
ZYZZYVA: While we were in graduate school together, I read a draft of “Gospodar,” the second chapter of Cleanness. It shattered me then and now. The story is a 23-page continuous scene in which the narrator shows up at the apartment of an S&M partner he met online. What unfolds quickly enters uncharted territory. And—this astounds me—you never look away. Every twitch, every thought, every moment of pleasure and pain is documented. What is it like to write in this way? To follow an uneasy situation, minute by minute, deeper into the unknown than almost anyone would dare to go?
GARTH GREENWELL: At a certain point in “Gospodar,” the narrator says, “I want to be nothing.” I think the desire to be nothing is part of the equipment of the human being, and I wanted to write about it in a way that didn’t condemn it or foreclose it or see it as a kind of symptom. And I think that in a weird way, there is a kind of affirmation that can be reached—within the aesthetically charged space that an S&M encounter can be—through entertaining that desire for negation. That’s the promise of S&M, and also of mystical experience: that by going to the bottom of abjection, one arrives at a kind of ecstasy or affirmation. I knew that in “Gospodar” I was going to write about an experience where that goes wrong, or where that seems to go wrong. I knew that the story had to be relentless, that it had to dwell and not look away and not give an out, that the reader and the writer have to be as trapped as the characters. Writing the story was excruciating. I remember, as I wrote the scene, saying to myself: if you’re going to do this, you have to really do it, you have to commit in a way that says you’re not going to turn away from this, you’re not going to give yourself an exit, no matter how bad it gets. That’s a frightening thing to commit to.
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Z: Again and again in Cleanness, there’s this commingling of pain and pleasure. We’re shown that they’re not opposites; they supplement each other.
GG: One of the arguments of the book—not arguments, I hope the book doesn’t have arguments—but one of the deep concerns of the book is that all of these dichotomies we set up and organize our lives and our thinking around—pleasure/pain, negation/affirmation, cleanness/filth—are radically unstable, that if you go deep enough into one side of any of these pairs you will always arrive at some space where they meet and commingle. You cannot title a book Cleanness, say, without invoking the idea of filth. These are ideas that fascinated me in graduate school, when I read the tradition of mystical theology, from Plotinus all the way to Simone Weil, which is also the tradition that informs certain strands of literary theory that were popular at the time. It’s also the tradition of thinking that allowed queer theory to break down the binary of male/female, and sort of insist that that, too, is a kind of commingling. And that faith, in the porousness of these supposed binaries, is at the heart of the gamble of art for me, and especially maybe of an art that is drawn to dark places. I think there has to be a kind of belief or faith that one will find a way out of the dark, or that the dark will prove itself to be accommodating of something that is not unremittingly dark. You know, I think the greatest new novel I’ve read in recent years is Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, and one of the reasons that book is to me so moving is the way it enacts this. It’s a book that plunges into the dark, but I don’t know another book that feels so genuinely consoling. “Consoling” is an inadequate word. But the book emerges from darkness into this utterly humane space of reconciliation. She could not have gotten there except by tunneling into the dark and facing up to it.
Z: At the end of “Gospodar,” the narrator physically escapes the violent encounter, but he hasn’t escaped intact. He can’t find or reclaim his sense of humanness; he can only “compos[e] as best I could my human face.” That line hit me hard. In another story, “The Frog King,” the narrator finds himself in a most unfamiliar situation—one of mutual romantic love—and says, “I felt some stubborn strangeness in me ease. I felt like part of the human race.” And in “The Little Saint,” the narrator assumes the role of the dominant rather than the submissive, and again the narrator’s sense of humanness is in constant flux. Can you talk about this exploration?
GG: You know, if I could figure something out, using the tools of rationality or the tools of analysis, if I could put it into expository prose, I wouldn’t make art. The only reason to make art is because there are things that I can only think about in art. I need the pressure of scene, I need the pressure of the kind of sentence I write. I remember writing those lines you quote, and how they felt electric to me. They had a kind of charge, and that felt like a kind of guide, proof that some kind of thinking was happening in the text. I would be very skeptical of those lines in an expository context, taken outside of the magic circle of the chapter or the story. I don’t think they would be true in argument, but I do think they’re true in scene.
The idea of faces—looking at faces, composing faces—recurs in both of my books. I’m clearly obsessed with what it means to be a person, what personhood is, what it would mean to be adequate to the fact of another’s personhood. I’m interested in what it means to be responsible to another person and in how sociality happens between people, especially across large scale structures that can limit or prohibit sociality: structures of homophobia, sexism, racism, economic inequality. I hold on to the idea that any time two human beings have a face- to- face encounter, it’s not that they escape those structures or that these structures disappear, but that there is a possibility for something that overflows those structures, a kind of surplus potential of affect or desire, of human recognition.
You know, the ethical status of what happens in “Gospodar” is very confusing to me. People have talked about it as an assault or rape, and I can’t say that it’s not those things, but I’m also not entirely comfortable putting those labels on it. I think there is a very real possibility that the man thinks he is doing what the narrator wants and giving the narrator what he needs, and to a certain point, he does. When he needs the narrator to confess his desires and say, I want to be nothing, I want to be nothing, I think that’s a great gift, to have brought the narrator to that realization. There’s a moment in that paragraph where it says, “we gazed at each other face to face.” I intend that to be a very affirmative moment. And then in “The Little Saint,” the companion story, the Little Saint asks to be made nothing, to be made a hole. The narrator tries to fulfill that desire for him, and he is devastated by what happens. And the Little Saint licks his face, and makes him laugh, and that’s an affirmation, too. If the narrator tries to claim or compose a human face at the end of “Gospodar,” at the end of “The Little Saint” he’s given a human face by the action of this other man.
Z: There’s such a pervasive feeling in Cleanness of being on the periphery, of not being seen. The setting is Bulgaria, in a time when the country is losing its best people. In one story, we watch an amazingly lackluster opera unfold; the most talented musicians have headed west. A taxi driver says, “I’ve fucked my life,” and he turns out to be quite young, too young to be thinking his life is over. Another character says, “Americans love starting over, you say it’s never too late. But for us it is always too late.” And then there are so few openly gay men. There’s a sense of being situated on the very edge of people’s awareness or care. So both in the setting and subject matter of Cleanness, there’s a sense of re-centering, of taking what might be deemed peripheral and placing it front and center. What does Bulgaria hold for you?
GG: It has always been clear to me that what people say about centers and margins and the relation of those things to value is a lie. My whole life I’ve been told that queer experience is marginal. At Iowa, too, I was told by a professor that my writing was like a sociological report on the practices of a subculture. Well, fuck that. That’s just pure homophobia. My central belief about art is that looking at anything in the human experience, any human experience, gives access to all human experience. This idea of margins and centers, it’s another one of these dichotomies that just dissolve when you really look at them.
And anyway, if we want to grant the metaphor, it seems clear to me the margin is a much better place to be as an artist, as someone who wants to see the truth of a situation, than the center. I spent four years in Bulgaria, and I absolutely fell in love with it, with Sofia, with the language, with the students I had there. And I learned so much there about the relationship between selfhood and nation. In part that’s because my own relationship to nation became clear to me once I left my country, the way myths of my country were central to my idea of myself.
But it’s also true that I saw, in my students, how the relationship between selfhood and nation was so vexed, vexed in ways that I think America is more and more approximating. People talk about the Balkanization of America, and they mean various things by that, but one thing that seems true to me is that political discourse in America is more and more centering on a question about our relationship to a lost past. That’s something that was very present in Bulgarian politics, and something I saw my students struggle with. The desire to make America great again. The desire for some essence of ourselves that we have lost in our modern, cosmopolitan, mixed, promiscuous society. The Trump era has made more visible a transparently racist desire for a lost America in which white people felt that they could plausibly believe in an ideal of purity or non-mixture. That feels to me straight out of the Balkans.
But anyway, everything about America seemed so different to me, precisely because I was in a place that is talked about—that talks about itself—as being on the margins—of Europe, of the West. America looks very different from that vantage point. Europe looks very different. I was grateful for the education that difference gave me.
But also it was so clear to me that there was an infinite value to be found on those margins, there was an infinite beauty. The love I felt for my students, the love I felt for men I met in Bulgaria, felt infinite. This idea of centers and margins, I just think it’s always false. It’s false when we talk about Eastern Europe, it’s false when we talk about the Balkans, it’s false when we talk about queer literature.