Garth Greenwell’s second book of fiction consists of nine closely linked stories involving the narrator of his first novel, What Belongs to You. That book is about a queer American teaching literature at a prestigious school in Sofia, Bulgaria, still dealing with an upbringing that connected same-sex desire to shame, contamination, disgust, and dirt. In the basement men’s room of the Sofia cultural center, he meets a handsome Bulgarian who makes his way in the world by having sex with foreigners in exchange for gifts. In their interactions over many months, we see the Bulgarian man’s health and prospects go downhill while the narrator gradually discovers that he can be on the side of health. The novel’s title suggests that the narrator is doing the difficult work of shaping his own boundaries and defining his own character, of determining what is properly his own. A key to the transformation is his mature, reciprocal relationship with R., a young Portuguese man who is in Sofia on a student-exchange program.
R. now becomes a central character in Cleanness and is explicitly made a marker of the narrator’s health. “Sex had never been joyful for me before...it had always been fraught with shame and anxiety and fear, all of which vanished at the sight of his smile, simply vanished, it poured a kind of cleanness over everything we did.” Yet he keeps finding a profound aspect of himself that is unmoved by the relationship with R. and that desires to return to scenes of erotic degradation and shame, ritual repetitions of his father’s punitive disgust at his sexuality. Two of these scenes are described in such graphic detail that some readers will be put off. What makes them more than pornography is the way they deal with the experience of selfhood as a burden. At these moments the narrator explicitly wants to become nothing, to lose all sense of selfhood, will, and agency by becoming a pure object for another. Nietzsche compared the pain of individuation and self-consciousness to that of sea animals first feeling the terrible weight and awkwardness of their bodies as they emerged onto land. Ancient peoples commonly had rites for an ecstatic loss of self. That Greenwell has these in mind is suggested when his narrator goes to a writing conference on the Black Sea, to what was in ancient times a Roman city dedicated to Apollo. He notes how much he likes the sea, how you can lose yourself in it, how it drowns out thinking the way it drowns out noise. We are back with Nietzsche’s contrast between Apollo—the god of beauty, form, and individuation—and the oceanic, individuality-swallowing, ecstatic Dionysus. As much as the narrator is made happier and “cleaner” by his relationship with R., he still has feelings that suggest that what really belongs to him, what provides his profoundest sense of self, is an ecstatic losing of himself in cruel, often degrading rituals. He and R. celebrate their devotion to beautiful form through a brief visit to lovely Venice, but at one point in that city he imagines he can see Aschenbach, from Death in Venice, emerging from the sea. Thomas Mann’s character tried to maintain his rigid sense of identity through exhausting intellectual work, but his attraction to beautiful Apollinian form in the person of Tadzio soon gives way to an attraction to a world of disease and to the suggestion of ecstatic erotic rituals.