Garth Greenwell’s second novel, “Cleanness,” is a carnal triumph. In the follow-up to his debut, “What Belongs to You” — lauded by The New York Times Book Review as an “instant classic” — Greenwell returns to the unnamed narrator of “What Belongs,” an American writer working as an English teacher in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, a country all his students wish to leave. As the narrator prepares for his own departure, he chronicles his last months in Bulgaria and the end of his relationship with a fellow expat known only as “R.,” bringing to these experiences the kind of attentiveness one only feels at the threshold of something ending and something beginning.
In Greenwell’s first novel, Bulgaria was merely a gray backdrop behind the narrator’s impassioned relations — but now the ailing country is cast as a kind of character. Spurred by ongoing protests, coinciding with the timing of the Arab Spring, Bulgaria becomes a routine topic of conversation; political change does not feel glacial. The narrator joins the protests, but not fully. “I hadn’t joined in any of the chants, even though I felt moved to; it wasn’t my country, I kept saying to myself,” he says.
Expat literature in American fiction is populated by protagonists alienated from all sides and seeking connection, often through love. In “Cleanness,” the narrator feels at home in language and in his sexuality, which Greenwell writes like no other living writer, slowing down heightened experiences enough to transcribe them. He moves breathlessly between physical touch and interior feeling, giving voice to shame, “exquisite” pleasure and everything in between. He withholds nothing, and is almost surgical in his examination of the narrator’s psyche, but nothing about his writing is clinical — it is silken and warm and abundant.
After years of cruising online and in the bathrooms of the National Palace of Culture, the narrator is happy to have found stability in R., a Portuguese student studying abroad. They share a honeymoon romance (“even annoyance was part of the pleasure we took in each other, we were that early in love”) and steal away for a budget vacation by the sea over winter break. Still, the narrator has sexual appetites that R. cannot satisfy, and they both know their paths will soon diverge. These cravings do not wane, they simmer.
Late in the novel, the narrator has an encounter with a “no limits whore,” arranged online just hours before, depicted as a remarkable play-by-play of bodies excavating new desires and difficult memories. Though shy at first, the narrator soon embodies a role he knows well, but has never performed. He takes up his belt and mimics his estranged father in words (“I’ll tan your hide”) and deed (“I took the folded belt … making the halves bend out like wings, and then snapped it quickly twice … making me flinch”). What was once a punishment, he now delivers for pleasure, though it is a pleasure spiked by anger and rooted in cruelty (“I wanted him to suffer more”). For the narrator, experiencing pleasure from another’s suffering was, “the pleasure of being a man, I think, I’m not sure I had ever felt it before. I luxuriated in it.”
This scene is hard to read, not only because it’s graphic, but because it’s so honest. Page after page, Greenwell fearlessly confronts the messiness of sex and desire: how easily pleasure slips into cruelty and back again, the thin threshold between shame and pleasure, how quickly one abandons consent in pursuit of pleasure, eclipsing even self-imposed limits.
The language around desire never loses emotional depth, even as it moves between different registers, from Hallmark-sweet to corrosive. In “Cleanness,” we encounter unexpected forms of intimacy at both ends. “[T]here’s no fathoming pleasure, the forms it takes or their sources, nothing we can imagine is beyond it; however far beyond the pale of our own desires, for someone it is the intensest desire, the key to the latch of the self, or the promised key, a key that perhaps never turns.”
Greenwell has given us a master key.
“Cleanness” by Garth Greenwell, FSG, 240 pp., $26
Author appearance: Garth Greenwell will discuss “Cleanness” with Christopher Frizzelle at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; 206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com