Cleanness by Garth Greenwell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 2020
240 pages / Amazon
For five years, I was a waitress at a small breakfast diner in the suburbs where public space is synonymous with strip malls. At first I loved the job; later I hated it; but no matter my mood, there was always something precious about the intimacy allowed by the booths. No matter that privacy was impossible, all sorts of people in all kinds of relationships would occupy them as a place both to separate from society and to find closeness to one another. When people would whisper, I knew to stay away, coming only as often as was necessary. But I admit I found ways to watch them, hiding in corners, or lingering at nearby tables, just long enough to catch a hint of the humanity seeping out from the booths.
My favorite conversations were usually the tense ones between couples; there’s something safe and freeing in knowing one’s vulnerability will absorb into the noise of a busy restaurant. Some servers were off-put when a customer would quietly cry at their table. I cherished the tears for their genuineness. But still, there was so much hidden, and so much I would never know. Whether they were getting closer or breaking up, I had only to imagine what had come before and what would come next.
Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, a book which is not quite a novel, seems to find something like a center in a diner conversation which begins with the nameless protagonist waiting for his younger lover in a corner booth for perhaps a bit too long, watching the wind thrash against the world outside the window. But the way Greenwell writes the wind, it is about so much more than weather, an embodiment of the inhospitable world a queer person so often finds themself in. Amid it and the noisy room the diner table acts like a cloister, as a positive space in which the lone narrator can be “quiet in a convivial room, a bit of negative space.” Invisibility is freedom.
A work, in part, of autofiction, the protagonist’s life reflects Greenwell’s time abroad in Sofia, Bulgaria. Like the author, the narrator is openly gay and navigating not just a foreign language but a different context for his sexuality. When his lover finally arrives, he resists public affection, as if his restraint were nothing more than common politeness. The scene unfolds slowly, diminishing the import of an event in favor of the mundane. The cadence gives the effect of the narrator half listening to his lover, R., while also looking outside to the fervor of the wind, noting “the resistance of everything fastened down.” (I can think of no better way to describe how Greenwell writes than that, Greenwell’s language full of inherent tension.) For a moment the narrator notices R.’s reflection in the window, superimposed on everything outside, including the thoughts and feelings moving through the narrator’s mind, but when he swivels his head back around to see the very real man sitting across from him, still he cannot touch him.
At first they talk about practical things, school and work, the economy, a casual story about a flirtation with another man, which makes the narrator wonder if they are friends or something more. But his young lover, seemingly untarnished by the cruelties of love, thinks little of his casual aside and returns to eating his eggplant “with a kind of joyful absorption.” As a writer, I’d be inclined to dedicate a page, or a chapter, to the subject of absorption but Greenwell is content to let the enormity of the sentence exist for just as long as it takes to read. R. shifts into a monologue that is, like all the dialogue in the book, un-flagged by quotation marks. Talking about the freedom he says he wants, R.’s words slide seamlessly into the narrator’s thought: “a freedom which surely he needed only a little courage to claim.” The narrator moves to confront him.
By now the wind clamoring on the window is in tempo with the quickening pace of their exchange, “smacking angrily at the building,” as R.’s script breaks to a back and forth. They are telling one another that they make each other happy, interspersed with the private thoughts of what that actually means. The narrator admits, but only to the reader, that “Sex had never been joyful for me before, or almost never, it had always been fraught with shape and anxiety and fear, all of which vanished at the sight of his smile, simply vanished, it poured with a kind of cleanness over everything we did.” Outside the window, the wind is carrying debris—dust and papers and leaves and little plastic cups. In the midst of it, cleanness becomes another word for freedom. “I want you to be able to live,” the narrator says to R., “really live.”
But R. is angry; he assumes he can’t be understood. In what is either a desperate attempt or a confession, he tries to explain it anyway. When R. was younger, he says, he was raped by an older man, over and over again, until the abuse was just a part of their relationship. He doesn’t want pity. “I’m not just scared to tell people what I am. If I was open, he said, looking at me, it would be like saying what he did to me was okay, it would be like accepting it. … What if he made me this way? How can I be proud of it then?” The automatic doors to the restaurant are opening and shutting all on their own, the restaurant’s ability to hold their conversation no longer so sure. “It’s something to do with the wind.”
Compared to the other chapters in Cleanness, this, its titular one, is tame—a conversation in a diner overlaid with the wind. Surely, Greenwell’s book is most notable for the way he writes about sex, as the author said in an interview with Tin House, as high literary art. But it’s in the diner that I learned how to read Greenwell that way, attuning to the extraordinary presence required for him to write all that a moment contains, and so the presence required of me to read him. In Greenwell’s eroticism, the reader as spectator is invited inside the frame to find that the body is not the central object, but the objects by which the people—in the totality of their beings—are fully realized.
When I was a waitress in the diner (who was not so different from the one in the story concerned that the food has hardly been touched, protecting the space with hospitality nonetheless), the scene between the two lovers at arm’s length was the only glimpse into the intimacy of strangers’ lives. I never got to see more—not the way they walked to the car when they left, not what happened when they got home—but with Greenwell, I do. R. walks in front of the narrator and doesn’t turn to look back as he walks to the narrator’s apartment. It’s uncertain what the two men are to one another in their transition to behind closed doors. Anything is possible. But once inside, there’s only one thing to do: as if in re-enactment of Eurydice, they undress in separate rooms.
They come together in bed, lying next to one another, silently, until the narrator asks if R.’s alright. R. lets out a whimper, “a small noise of desire or grief, I couldn’t tell,” and by this point I know that with Greenwell everything we are capable of feeling is allowed to exist. So, when they begin to touch and to arouse one another, each physical moment is inseparable from the narrative simply by the way it’s held by the sentences that contain them, details crescendoing like a symphony that can only exist with the energy of eros. Entering R., for the first time without a condom, the indiscernible noises continue as the sound of the line between pain and pleasure.
I liked that I could make him feel this, I found myself seeing new angles to make him feel more, need and satisfaction and pain, it was like a new intimacy, though maybe there was something cruel in it as well, some cruelty in myself I sensed the shape of, a shape I had sensed before but never before with R. I would give him what he wanted, I thought, though whether I was giving something or taking it away I wasn’t sure.
The scene is interrupted by the crack of the wind against the walls, but they continue on. And when it finally ends, it’s not because they finish; the reader departs before they come. The scene was never meant as a building up to ejaculation, but to a different satisfaction—the realization that the two are in love.
Of course it will not last. The book, divided into thirds, begins and ends with the narrator’s life after R., anchored by two chapter-long sex scenes. In the first, the narrator wants for his submission to be total, but is unwilling to risk having sex without a condom. In the later, he wants to be everything and only can be because he is with a man who already sees himself as nothing but a vessel. “I want to be a hole,” says his partner, nicknamed Svetcheto—the little saint. As he fills him up, the narrator feels pride.
When it’s over, Svetcheto turns toward to hold the narrator, unlike the Eurydice or a soulmate, as only a lover can. For a moment the narrator pauses, as if to hold him back would betray the feeling of everything, not to mention his lingering love for R. But then, exhausted, he feels as if he’s found an end. He puts his arm around the little saint who says, “do you see? You don’t have to be like that … you can be like this”—everything and nothing, all intertwined.
Sarah Haas is a writer living in the mountains of New Mexico. Her work has appeared in Long Reads, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Paste, Westword, Boulder Weekly, and more.