Content warning: Sexual assault
The first section of Garth Greenwell’s novel “Cleanness” tells us a great deal about the narrator and protagonist. From the get-go, it is made clear that he’s an American expatriate working as a high school English teacher in Bulgaria, that rough sex is how he’s distracting himself from a terrible breakup with a man known as “R.” and that the relationship at the heart of the novel isn’t meant to last. It is immediately intimate, forcibly so, and all without ever revealing the narrator’s name.
All other characters in “Cleanness” are known only by their first initials. In “Cleanness,” a person is only as important for their actions, reducing the importance of names and other preset labels. In “What Belongs to You,” Greenwell’s debut novel — of which “Cleanness” is a continuation — one character, Mitko, is referred to by his name, as the central relationship in that novel is the one between him and the same unnamed English teacher whose expressive introspection fills the pages of Greenwell’s second novel.
Though in “Cleanness” this de-labeling is implemented to a more extreme degree, a sense of piercing familiarity permeates throughout as readers experience a nonlinear sequence of vital moments in the narrator’s life during and after his relationship with R. Even without having read “What Belongs to You” — which expounds in much greater detail the circumstances of the narrator’s youth, spent living in the American South — the narrator in “Cleanness” is a holistic image of himself, expertly woven within the course of the nine “stories,” or chapters, that make up Greenwell’s novel.
This expert weaving is the result of Greenwell’s signature lyricism, which occurs not only in the diction used but also in the syntactic structure of the novel. There are no short sentences in “Cleanness.” Greenwell’s protagonist chases thought after thought, clause after clause (after clause, after clause), leading readers gracefully down sentences that begin with one observation and end with a drastically different one. This, coupled with long block paragraphs and quotation-less dialogue, makes “Cleanness” a musical novel, its rhythm never faltering even when the gay European art film-esque lack of a plot occasionally starts to feel like pointless meandering.
In one of the novel’s strongest sections, “Mentor,” this lyricism and musical quality is exhibited best. “What Belongs to You” largely placed the narrator’s life outside of Mitko in the background; although the narrator’s relationship with R. is clearly portrayed as earth-shattering, more so than the one he had with Mitko, “Cleanness” takes a different route, going into more detail about his life as a writer and a teacher.
It is a fantastic opening, melancholic but also bittersweet. “Mentor” sets the tone for what is to come, and yet not, as the next story plunges readers into the narrator’s despair without mercy, the novel constantly in a tug-of-war between these two states. The nonlinear setup works flawlessly to tell all nine stories — indicators of time frequently provided to avoid confusion — building upon each other with an easy cohesion that is rare in fiction that relies on nontraditional formatting. It feels as if this narrator’s story couldn’t possibly be told any other way — if it were, it would be patently erroneous.
Impressive as it is, “Cleanness” is far from a fun popcorn read. Thematically it is dense, dealing with sexual assault, Bulgarian politics and protest, homophobia in Bulgaria and the ethics of bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism, or BDSM. Still, if readers choose to reckon with these issues along with Greenwell’s nameless protagonist, difficult as it may sometimes be to experience his pain, the experience of Greenwell’s lilting yet stark language is well worth it.
While “Cleanness” can stand alone, it’d be remiss to skip out on “What Belongs to You,” which also features R. and, as previously mentioned, much more backstory for the narrator than is provided in this follow-up.
Is it possible to feel like you’ve always known a person whose name you don’t know? In “Cleanness,” it’s not only possible, but inevitable.