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?