Looking at/in Cleanness
In E.M. Forster’s short story “Arthur Snatchfold,” a wealthy man and a working-class man have a sexual encounter in the woods. Unbeknownst to them, there are witnesses to the affair, and the working-class youngster, Arthur, is caught by the police and imprisoned. But Sir Richard Conway is never found out; he can “go forward with his career as planned.” The sexual encounter with which Garth Greenwell’s 2016 debut novel, What Belongs to You, begins takes place not in the woods but in a bathroom beneath Bulgaria’s National Palace of Culture. The unnamed narrator of the novel, an American English teacher working at a prestigious private college in Sofia, meets and pays for sex with Mitko, a young, homeless-looking, broken-toothed hustler. Their encounter does not end at one hook-up but develops into a fraught and tragic affair.
Greenwell’s efforts self-consciously exist within a tradition of gay writing. “Book-length work” may be the most accurate description of What Belongs to You, as neither novel nor short-story collection are entirely on the mark. Within the first few dozen pages of What Belongs to You we have references to Cavafy and Whitman. In Cleanness, his second book-length work, published this year, we are early on introduced to the poetry of Frank O’Hara. Quintessential themes of gay cultural representation are at the heart of Greenwell’s work: casual sex, father issues, the possibility of happiness and love amidst adversity and shame. Most of What Belongs to You is set in cruising areas, the bedroom, or a sexual health clinic. Cleanness expands this list of locales to include restaurants and city streets but maintains a thoroughgoing focus on the bedroom, and is also set in Sofia.
A central motif throughout Greenwell’s work is that of looking. We are aphoristically (a mode in which Greenwell is adept) told in What Belongs to You that love “isn’t just a matter of looking at someone, I think now, but also of looking with someone, of facing what they face.” But as the narrator knows, it is “so easy to look away.” Witnessing a person in pain is different, Greenwell wants to say, to sitting beside that person and confronting with them the pain itself. In a story in Cleanness the narrator attends a pro-democracy rally in the streets of Sofia. This story is the most direct engagement with the politics of the location of his works, the corruption and poverty of the developing capitalist state otherwise only allegorised through individual characters’ sickness or decrepitude. At this protest the protagonist comes across a group of LGBT activists with whom he has been previously acquainted and finds out that they have been assaulted by a homophobic group of fellow protestors. “It was pointless for me to stick around, I couldn’t do anything to help,” he remarks, the statement resonating beyond that particular afternoon and articulating the political impotency of this American foreigner’s liberalism. Indeed, in an earlier story he recounts his sense of “mission” upon beginning teaching—note the imperialist reverberations of the word. But upon seeing the battered protestors the narrator doesn’t look away, he decides to stay. In an act of solidarity, rather than humanitarianism, he “sat down with them to wait.”
In the first story of Cleanness the narrator describes teaching as a kind of “long looking.” In a later story, when touring the streets of Bologna, he finds himself in a “daze of looking.” These phrases are adequate descriptions of Greenwell’s own style, enacting as it does a form of intimate observation. From inside the wordy, cogitative head of the narrator we pay detailed attention to interactions between people, people and their surroundings, people and themselves. Counseling a gay student who is coming to terms with heartbreak the narrator confesses he is “unable to keep my eyes on his face.” He mildly resents being implicated in this student’s suffering, and on multiple occasions wishes to himself he could leave. This student recounts to him the experience of watching before his eyes his crush—a fellow male student—holding hands, having become a couple, with one of their female friends. This moment is reminiscent of a scene in What Belongs to You where the narrator remembers being in the room of his friend, also his crush, whilst the friend is being given a blow job by a female fellow student. These are moments of pained looking, queer variations of the primal scene where instead of excitement and exclusion the subject feels only exclusion. These moments produce such crises in the viewers (the student, recounting to the narrator; the narrator) because they mark the subject’s permanent exclusion from a heterosexual order, the entrapment within a posture of illicit desiring.
Greenwell’s narrator is extraordinarily sensitive: sensitive to emotional changes, to shifts in mood or speech. In the eponymous story of Cleanness the protagonist has a conversation with his boyfriend, R., which proves to be an important juncture in their relationship, a moment of vulnerability that brings them closer. But before the renewed closeness is a moment of insecurity where the protagonist is worried R. will pull away. Walking from a restaurant to his apartment the protagonist is reasoning to himself about the relationship and has the thought: “I had no claim on him, our entire relationship was founded on claimlessness.” In the same paragraph appears the following sentence:
I was glad he was coming home with me, but it meant I would have to have something to say to him, when we were out of the wind and together again in my room, in the bed where we had said so much to each other—it wasn’t true that I had no claim on him, I thought, each word was a claim, his words and mine—and now all I had wanted to say seemed false, or if not false then irrelevant.
Twice in this sentence (which seems to find endless ways not to end) does the narrator modify a previous thought of his. The impetus behind this stylistic quirk is the narrator’s fascination with what he calls in What Belongs to You “a richer meaning.” The narrator’s turning over of words has the aim of achieving a truer mode of expression. Indeed, it is through literature that he sees this state being achieved; poems are a way of “living moments twice,” of loving and preserving experience. This structure, of the thought accompanied by an afterthought about the thought, comes from a place of deeply valuing the literary objective of communicating meaning.
Quintessential themes of gay cultural representation are at the heart of Greenwell’s work: casual sex, father issues, the possibility of happiness and love amidst adversity and shame.
“Cleanness” the story stands out as significant across the collection because it is the most forthright about announcing what we might venture to call Greenwell’s “project,” his describing of “a new intimacy,” a mélange of “need and satisfaction and pain.” It is an intimacy of relationships based on “claimlessness,” where “rootedness is a sham,” and there are “only passing arrangements.” It is, in other words, a queer intimacy, one which exists outside of monogamous heterosexual forever-coupling. In this way the novel allies itself with a wave of contemporary fiction exploring the fluidity of sexuality, gender, and relationships. It is perhaps a fair enough question to ask what precisely is “new” about this intimacy, now, especially when we have stories such as Forster’s at hand, and Greenwell himself is insistent on familiarity with (a certain kind of) tradition.
Cleanness adheres to an internal symmetry. The first and last stories are about interactions the narrator has with his students. In the first story he provides wise emotional counsel, in the last he makes sexual advances at one whilst drunk. There are two BDSM stories; in one, the narrator is a sub, in the other a dom. A middle story, “The Frog King,” is an attempt to write gay happiness, in which the couple take a trip to Bologna. André Gide’s narrator in The Immoralist says that literature’s “finest works bear the persistent marks of pain. What would there be in a story of happiness?” “The Frog King” sets out to defy this idea, to negate, if only for the duration of a single story, the centrality of suffering in art about gay people. We do not remain transfixed on happiness for long, though; the closeness of an emotion to its opposite is demonstrated time and again. The middle stories traverse a wide affective range, which takes us from these delicate scenes of gay happiness to the sadness of love lost.
In Bologna, R. and the protagonist visit the old house of a deceased artist that has been turned into a museum. R. zooms through the rooms, not taking much time to look at the ostensibly unremarkable paintings. But the narrator hangs behind and tells the reader: “I found myself looking longer, looking more slowly.” Greenwell’s work extols the virtue of this most literary of habits. To be sure, there is nothing new about this, but neither, perhaps, does there need to be.