In the opening section of Garth Greenwell’s much-anticipated second book, “Cleanness,” the narrator, an American high school literature teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria, meets with one of his students in a cafe.
The student is gay and struggling with his desires in a place where homosexuality is still unaccepted. “You’re the only person I know who talks about it, who’s so public and who isn’t ashamed,” the student says. He expresses disinterest in the teacher’s suggestion of finding a community online: “That’s not the life I want, that’s not what I want to be.”
The narrator, in response, asks, “What is the life you want?”
It is a question that can be understood as a guiding one for this book as a whole. Over the course of “Cleanness,” we move with the narrator into many intimate spaces, and we watch him wrestle with his own desires and his own sense of alienation as he tries to answer it.
But to say we “watch” the narrator isn’t entirely apt. Greenwell is such a good writer that he makes us feel we are the narrator, and his struggle is our own. What is the life any of us want? And what if some of the things we want don’t fit into this desired life, and in fact seem to corrupt it, to make it impossible, to twist our very understanding of who we are?
In the opening cafe scene, in answer to the teacher’s question, the student tells a story of a recent experience with unrequited love. It is a story that echoes back to one told in Greenwell’s previous and critically acclaimed first novel, “What Belongs to You,” which shares the same narrator as “Cleanness” and is also set in Bulgaria.
Readers of the first book will hear the echo, but readers who haven’t won’t miss it. This is one of the many elements of Greenwell’s genius, to have created two books that speak to each other but do not need or take anything from each other.
The books overlap in voice and place and also in time — the central relationship in “Cleanness” is with a man named R. (all the characters in the book have initials only), who appears briefly in the last section of “What Belongs to You.” The effect for the reader of both books is of a kind of surround sound of reality and a profound sense of the fluidity of time. This fluidity occurs even just within “Cleanness,” as sections speak back to and over each other—a powerful wind that is referenced in the first section, for example, becomes a full element in the fourth, so you know that what is depicted there took place earlier.
“Cleanness” is deliberately not being marketed as a novel nor as a short story collection; perhaps this could seem a gimmick, but in fact the book doesn’t fit easily into either label. Has Greenwell created a new form here, or is it more that our labels are paltry in the face of something truly singular? The book is made up of three parts, each with three sections. Each piece can stand alone but when read one after another they magnify and crystallize, making “Cleanness” an object that is very much the sum of its parts.
The book is rigorously structured — the first section speaks to the last, as both explore the narrator’s relationships with his students; the second speaks to the second-to-last, as each depicts an explicit sadomasochistic encounter with the roles reversed. The middle part, called “Loving R.,” is three stories focused on the love relationship at the center of the book literally as well as figuratively. Each section of “Cleanness” is written as one long extended scene — with the exception of the fifth section, directly in the center of the book. That section jumps in and out of moments and depicts a tenderness of love so pure (and so imperiled) it made me cry.
Greenwell’s writing — long, dense sentences that often seem to act as heat-seeking missiles — seems married perfectly to the form of this book, where the usual narrative stitching of a novel is done away with. What we are left with are precise evocations of emotion and heat (and what heat! There is so much heat in this book it is sometimes difficult to hold).
The book thrums with life; it invites readers to a state of higher intensity, such that as you move through it you begin to feel an awareness of and an awe at the possibility that life could actually be lived that way. The intimacy that “Cleanness” invites us into — not only of its sexual encounters and its love but also of a man’s deepest wrestling with his own pain — is a space not many writers are sensitive or skilled enough to bring readers into, and it is one that seems to answer the question that the book poses about what life we might want to live.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 240 pages, $26
Nellie Hermann is the author of the novel “The Season of Migration” and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.