‘Nodes of Intensity’

An Interview with Garth Greenwell
Garth Greenwell (Gary Doak / Alamy Stock Photo)

Garth Greenwell’s 2016 fictional debut, What Belongs to You, dramatizes with elegance and daring the power of erotic desire. It follows the ebb and flow of a relationship between two men: the unnamed narrator, an American living and teaching in Bulgaria, and Mitko, a prostitute he meets in a public bathroom. Throughout this slim, luminous book, Greenwell attends both to the “mawkishness of desire,” how it makes fools and melodramatists of us all, and to desire’s “genuine luminosity”: how touch and feel might become, in the narrator’s lovely phrase, “sacramental somehow, like a ritual by which I would be bound.”

Greenwell’s new novel, Cleanness, covers similar ground. Again, the unnamed narrator is an American teacher abroad in Bulgaria who recounts, in exacting detail, encounters with strangers and lovers—but it’s even more daring than Greenwell’s first effort: the sex more explicit and more sacramental, the story more complexly structured.

I recently spoke with Greenwell by email.

Anthony Domestico: So much of the brilliance of this book resides in its sentences—a distinctive, musical, elongated syntax that moves relentlessly forward yet circles back to qualify and clarify. Where does this attention to cadence and syntax come from? Your training as a poet? Your training as an opera singer? Your love of other writers of long sentences like Henry James and Carl Phillips? Is this the natural rhythm of your thought or something you have to labor over (or some combination of the two)?

Garth Greenwell: Writing is always a difficult negotiation between the libidinal—indulging our urge to seek pleasure, and letting pleasure become a kind of knowledge or criterion—and the austere—imposing discipline, order, form. All of the things you mention—opera, poetry, the writers I admire—have trained my sense both of pleasure and of the satisfactions of form. Classical singing is an extraordinary education in the materiality of language and the emotional power of suspending language in time. As a poet, I was extremely lucky to have as teachers Frank Bidart, Jorie Graham, and Carl Phillips, each of whom investigates, in very different ways, the expansive potential of English-language syntax. And yes, I do think there is something in my sensibility that inclines toward sentence shapes that are at once expansively seeking and recursively self-interrogating. I wouldn’t know how to apportion importance among these things, or how to try to untangle their specific contributions to the shapes of what I write. What we mean by style, I think, is the sense of an entire life condensed to a voice, and I think it’s the element of art-making we can least engineer. I know that when I am writing, it feels less as though I am willing sentences into being than that I am trying to feel out or receive a shape or energy that precedes—or is independent of, or is in complicated negotiation with—my will.

AD: You’ve talked about how you see yourself as writing novels of consciousness. You’ve also mentioned how queer the tradition of the novel of consciousness is, citing not just James but Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, and others. Why do you think this is the case? What is it about queerness that lends itself to the writing of this particular kind of novel?

GG: I’m always wary of generalizing about queerness, which has innumerable manifestations. But queerness as I have lived it—growing up where I grew up, having the kinds of experiences that I’ve had—has led to the kind of inwardness and reflection that result from feeling out-of-joint with the world I inhabit, a kind of alienness and unbelonging that I’m immensely grateful for. I can’t imagine my life as an artist without it. I do think that particular experience of queerness primes one for a kind of writing that finds interior drama as fascinating as exterior.

AD: What Belongs to You had a very clear tripartite form: the first and third sections were set in Bulgaria, focusing on the narrator’s relationship with a lover named Mitko, while the second section circled back to the narrator’s traumatic childhood in Kentucky. Cleanness likewise divides itself into three parts, each containing three stories, and again the second section moves back in time. Here, though, the narrator doesn’t recollect trauma but remembers a joyful, tender, even transfigurative love affair he had with a man named R. How early in the writing did you discover this three-by-three structure, which you’ve likened to the form of a song cycle? What did it enable you to do that a more straightforwardly chronological form wouldn’t have?

GG: The first pieces of Cleanness were written years ago, at the same time I was working on What Belongs to You. It wasn’t until I wrote “Gospodar”—which is now the second story or chapter, and which was the first thing I wrote after finishing What Belongs to You and after returning to the United States—that I could imagine the things I was writing cohering into a book. “Gospodar” explores, in Jamesian, phenomenological detail, a sadomasochistic encounter from the perspective of the submissive partner. I knew, once I had written it, that I had to write a companion scene that would explore a similar encounter from the dominant perspective. It would be years before I wrote that piece, “The Little Saint,” which is the second-to-last chapter of Cleanness, but somehow the relationship between the two scenes evoked a sense of the structure that would hold them.

The first thing I knew about that structure was that the story of the relationship with R., which introduces the narrator to a kind of love he had never experienced before, would occupy the center of the book, and that it would be told chronologically, with a beginning, middle, and end. I also knew that I wanted the reader to reach those middle chapters with a sense already of the whole shape of the relationship—with the knowledge that the relationship has been lost, and that its loss is devastating. I’m not sure I can say why that felt right to me. The subject of the book, its deepest subject, maybe, is transformative love, and what it means to have to navigate a world altered by the experience of a love one has lost. I wanted to show the consequence before we see the cause.

It can seem a bit precious to describe the book’s structure by analogy to a song cycle, but it feels true to me: the nine chapters constitute little nodes of intensity, autonomous but interdependent—not stitched together but arranged in a kind of constellation. The movements between them are shifts of affect, texture, key—not the cause and consequence of plot.

AD: Cleanness opens with the narrator worrying that he hasn’t done enough to care for, and attend to, a current student; it ends with him worrying that he’s done too much for a former student—that he’s crossed a line he shouldn’t have. Why frame the book with these two stories about the student-teacher relationship? How does the structure of this relationship resonate with the book’s interest in desire and restraint?

I resist all attempts to hold art responsible to ethical or moral programs, and art doesn’t have any obligation to be edifying.

GG: Like the relationship with R., teaching has introduced the narrator to a kind of love he didn’t know he was capable of, a disinterested love. I was surprised, when I began teaching high school, by the intensity of the love I felt for my students, and also by how intimate my relationships with them were: how eager they were to talk to me about their lives, how open they were with their feelings. This required a constant, difficult negotiation: to be helpful to my students, I had to be open and vulnerable enough with them to establish trust, to have a human relationship with a human face; but to be helpful to them I also had to maintain the distance of authority, demarcated by clear, firmly held lines.

In two of the book’s chapters, as you say, that negotiation goes wrong: in one, the narrator’s tentativeness, his fear of stepping over a line, may check him from offering his student a comfort he very much needs. And in the book’s last section, “An Evening Out,” the narrator goes out drinking with two former students and acts in a way that he feels is a betrayal of his vocation, and that he worries may have done real harm. That story was one of the hardest to write, because I wanted to face up to the complexity of the situation and of the characters’ motives. Their desire to step out of the teacher-student relationship, to establish some intimacy free of an imposed structure of authority, is a humane desire, I think, something quite beautiful. But the narrator loses his sense of himself without the orientation of that structure, and he acts in a way that will cause him great remorse.

Laying it out like this is a very pale version of the experience I hope the stories give the reader. I write fiction because plain exposition is too weak a navigation device for a particular dilemma; I need the weird pressure of narrative and scene, the grappling hooks of expressive syntax, to render a situation in a way that lets me think about in the fullness of its difficulty and nuance. The last thing I want fiction to do is judge or render a verdict—acts which always flatten complexity. The luxury of art is the permission it gives to dwell in that complexity.

AD: There was a lot of sex in What Belongs to You; there is even more in Cleanness, and it’s depicted in greater detail and at greater length. You describe desire in all its carnality, yet you’re also interested in how it touches upon the transcendent. “There’s no fathoming pleasure, the forms it takes or their sources, nothing we can imagine is beyond it,” the narrator writes in language that sounds an awful lot like a theologian describing, or describing the inability to describe, God. What’s the biggest challenge for you in writing about sex and why do you find yourself drawn to the challenge so often here?

GG: I have two, strongly held, absolutely contradictory views on writing sex. On one hand, sex seems to me a remarkably privileged phenomenon for the writer, a uniquely charged act of communication between characters that can do an immense amount of work in fiction: develop character, explore relationships, generate inwardness, illuminate social and historical context. On the other hand, it seems to me a phenomenon like any other, no more remarkable than taking a bath or eating breakfast. Both of these statements seem true to me; there’s no reconciling them. Writing sex well demands the same skill set that writing anything well demands: patience, precision, a determination to see clearly.

AD: Speaking of religion, we learn that the narrator “had played at conversion in graduate school,” meeting with a priest to consider becoming Catholic. This flirtation with conversion, the narrator thinks, arose from a longing for self-emptying: “I wanted to unmake myself,” he says at one point. This echoes an earlier moment in the book, when the narrator, playing the role of the submissive in an S&M encounter, finds himself “at last at the end of my strange litany saying again and again I want to be nothing, I want to be nothing.” Do you see this longing to be unmade as at the heart of all ecstatic experience, whether it be religious or erotic? How do you parse the different kinds of unmaking desired for in those two realms?

GG: I don’t think there’s much parsing them: I think they’re the same. It’s no accident that we have one lexicon of devotion, that romantic and spiritual longing make use of the same vocabulary. This is one of the paradoxes that makes sex such an interesting subject for art: sex is the experience that places us most firmly in our bodies; sex is the experience that gives us our least dismissible intimation of something beyond our bodies. And the desire to exceed the body is always, or so it seems to me, a desire to destroy or unmake the self, to empty out the body, as you say, maybe with the hope—as for the mystics—that something else will fill us. This gets at some of the significance of the idea of “cleanness” for me: a desire for cleanness is necessarily a destructive desire, a desire for unmaking that would return us to some original state before contamination. Nothing in the world is more dangerous than that desire.

AD: At one point, while having a sexual encounter with a man he’s met on the internet, the narrator observes, “To argue with him would have been to lay claim to him somehow, to violate his ethics of claimlessness.” What is attractive about this ethics of claimlessness—the cruising and hookups that the narrator partakes of? And what is missing from such an ethics? Why is the desire for the freedom of claimlessness always in tension with the desire to lay claim, as when the narrator claims R. by kissing every inch of his body, or when R. names a stray dog because “he liked to give things names, I think it was a way of laying claim to them”?

GG: So many of the stories we tell ourselves about love are about ownership and exclusivity. Queer people have long made rich, sustaining, affective bonds out of a kind of sexual sociality, which is accommodating of love but divorces it, at least potentially, from the possessiveness of straight romance. That queer sociality has almost always been dismissed as morally unserious. I wanted to take it seriously. I wanted to think about the idea of promiscuity as a discipline of radical hospitality, hospitality in the old, grand sense: a welcoming of the stranger as ethical responsibility but also ethical and affective opportunity, a vehicle of possible revelation. It seems very beautiful to me, an act of self-sacrificial love, to make one’s body available to the other in the way the character you mention does. That chapter is titled “The Little Saint.” I think when I started writing it I wanted that title to have a little frisson of irony; by the time I finished it, I understood that I meant it entirely earnestly.

I’m not sure that the narrator is claiming R. when he kisses him in the way you describe: as he does that he whispers to R. “I love you,” which is importantly different from “You are mine.” But of course they do lay claim to each other, and maybe the most important line in the whole book, for me, comes at the end of the title story, when the narrator declares, “Anything I am you have use for is yours.” This is an important moment for him: he’s not laying a claim on R., but making himself available to another’s claim. This is something I don’t think he could have said in What Belongs to You.

We want a sense of belonging, which necessarily trammels our freedom; we want to be free, which precludes all attachment. This seems to me one of the central dilemmas of human life. I don’t see a way out of it; I’m interested in novel organizations of sexuality and sociality that might make the bind less intolerable.

AD: The word “claim” also comes up when the narrator finds himself unexpectedly moved by a series of paintings. At first, he dismisses the “still lifes and modest landscapes” as “quiet and unambitious, minor.” Then, as he looks at one of them in particular, “There was a kind of presence in the painting, I felt, I could sense it humming at a frequency I wanted to tune myself to catch…. There was a promise in it, I felt, I mean a promise for me, a claim about what life could be.” Is this how you feel when you have a meaningful aesthetic encounter: that a promise has been made to you, that a clam about life’s possibilities has been made?

GG: I resist all attempts to hold art responsible to ethical or moral programs, and art doesn’t have any obligation to be edifying. But I do think that great art, or some great art, helps teach us how to live. Not by precept or constraint, but by the opening up of possibility. There’s a mysterious communication between a work of art and its perceiver, and a demanding one—I do often feel that I have to make some alteration in myself to meet a work of art, that I have to tune myself to its pitch. (This is one reason works of art speak differently to us—or don’t speak to us at all—at different moments in our lives.) I am an atheist, but I have a devotional temperament, and art is my religion. The achievements of great works of art, their depth and challenge, their beauty—all of this bestows a significance on existence that, as I experience the world, nothing else can grant.

Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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