Reviewers of Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, compared the author to W G Sebald, James Baldwin, Proust and Thomas Mann. Even knowing that ours is an age given to hyperbole, readers of that book might have found themselves bemused: slim, sporadically rarefied, it is the tale of a fretful American in Bulgaria and his love affair with a gay hustler. Not A Single Man, not A Boy’s Own Story, but perfectly readable, and a fine way to pass an afternoon.
In Cleanness, Greenwell has assembled what seems to be the trimmings of this first book into a quasi-novel in stories. It has the same setting, the same narrator – a nameless teacher and writer at the American College in Sofia – and the same concerns with intimacy and distance in relationships, particularly carnal liaisons. It begins in a muted vein with ‘Mentor’, in which the narrator meets a student in a cafe to listen to his near-monologue about the trials of gay life in Bulgaria and his grief after coming out to a close friend with whom he is in love. The narrator observes him with blended compassion and impatience, thinking the story much like his own and ruing the cynicism that comes with recognising how quickly and completely youth’s infatuations fade with age.
In ‘Gospodar’ and ‘The Little Saint’, which portray rough sex from the perspectives of top and bottom, the narrator struggles to overcome his demure voice in his efforts to capture brutality. In the first, he is beaten, spat on, forced momentarily into sex without a condom; in the second, he berates as a ‘worthless faggot’ a man who wants to be ‘nothing but a hole’ for him. In the New York Times, Greenwell claimed to have aimed for ‘something that was 100 percent pornographic and 100 percent high art’. In execution, this means, apart from a fussiness that makes even urophagia sound prim, a ‘stroke by stroke’ descriptiveness of the kind William Gass derided as ‘exactly as absurd as a chew by chew account of the consumption of a chicken’s wing’. As a pornographer, Greenwell may succeed, not because the prose is especially piquant or obscene, but because pornography needs only an invested consumer to feel the heat. The art presumably lies in such suggestive if never-quite-true musings as ‘But then there’s no fathoming pleasure, the forms it takes or their sources, nothing we can imagine is beyond it.’
Not a great deal happens in Cleanness: a march is observed, two trips are taken, a boyfriend who has a cameo in What Belongs to You is found and lost. A group of American writers meet a group of Bulgarian writers, and one of them, a priest, goes for a swim; the narrator gets drunk with some students towards the end of his stay in Sofia, touches one on the groin, feels chagrined and takes a taxi home. The paucity of incident demands an intensity of style, but Greenwell’s idiom is torpid and distant. ‘Very’ and ‘slightly’, adverbs that take up space but add no precision, appear in Cleanness by the dozen; the narrator is startled ‘a little’, shamed ‘a little’, feels ‘a little’ ridiculous, and so on. Few things are just what they are, whereas many are ‘kind of’ – one wonders what exactly ‘an armoire of some sort’ or ‘a kind of peasant cloth’ might be. At times, this straining to avoid the right word becomes almost obsessive:
he had left months before, long enough for grief to have passed but it hadn’t passed, and I found myself resorting again to habits I thought I had escaped, though that’s the wrong word for it, escaped, given the eagerness with which I returned to them.
With such vagueness, with so many ‘almosts’ and ‘as ifs’, ‘buts’ and ‘thoughs’ (the last of these averages an easy two per page), with initials taking the place of character names and with even obvious references to specifics suppressed, the intended ambiguity dissolves into a sense that nothing is ever really being talked about at all. There is throughout a discrepancy between the writer’s ambition and his material. What the book wants is conflict, vigour, strength of feeling; without them, it is less fiction than an extended improvisation in a single tone.