“The time has come to think about sex,” wrote Gayle Rubin, a pioneer of queer theory, in 1984. Rubin wanted “a radical theory of sex” that would pursue a nonjudgmental attentiveness to sex in all its forms. Such a theory would “build rich descriptions” of human sexuality, while acknowledging how certain histories and social norms shape—and sometimes maim—our sex lives. This radical theory of sex would harness the power of nuanced attention in order to “identify, describe, explain, and denounce erotic injustice and sexual oppression.” In the decades since 1984, plenty of queer writers have taken up Rubin’s call. But rarely has one done so as seriously as the novelist Garth Greenwell, who masterfully employs the art of explicit, empathetic description as a way of theorizing sex. Indeed, his latest novel, Cleanness, posits sex as central to life. Here, Greenwell challenges readers to see how the pleasures of sex, especially for queer people, can be foreclosed by what Rubin called the “erotic injustice” of shame. Yet he also shows how sex might be an act of difficult but healing care.
When we last saw the nameless narrator of Cleanness—an American teacher living in Sofia, Bulgaria—he was lowering his face into his hands. That haunting tableau, which concludes Greenwell’s 2016 debut, What Belongs to You, leaves us with the image of a man overcome by shame, trying his best not to see the empty spaces once occupied by Mitko, a sex worker and the narrator’s damaged, destitute lover. While care is a central theme of both novels, it took a different form in this previous work, in which Greenwell imagined the obligation to care for a lover via sex and via intimacy in terms of debt, repayment, and the fantasy of a clean ledger.
Before finally breaking it off with Mitko, for example, the narrator asks himself “what would it mean to do enough.” He goes on to wonder how one might bring into stable focus “that obligation to others that sometimes seems so clear and sometimes disappears altogether, so that now we owe nothing, anything we give is too much, and now our debt is beyond all counting.”
“To do enough”: Greenwell demonstrates that this satiation, of both the debtor’s desire to have discharged his duty and the creditor’s need to be repaid, is a fantasy. We either fall short and feel bereft or we overshoot and find ourselves in a place where care becomes toxic.
I have now taught What Belongs to You twice, in undergraduate courses on contemporary queer fiction. Both times, the conversation in the classroom inevitably turned to the novel’s questions about the transactional nature of sex and intimacy. What are the debts we incur when another person allows us to touch and to enter them? What kind of credit might be accrued when we invite another to enter us and to offer us what the narrator of Cleanness later calls “the pleasure of service”? The narrator’s relationship with Mitko begins in sex work, as he exchanges a crumpled bill for a blowjob that leaves the narrator feeling unsatisfied and cheated. Given the transactional origins of this relationship, then, how does it evolve into a new one? And how, by the end of the novel, does the narrator feel that he has incurred a debt to Mitko that is “beyond all counting” —the infinite debt of love, and the duty of care it implies?
The plot of Cleanness picks up some time after the events of What Belongs to You, with the narrator’s relationship with Mitko having receded into the past, and I hesitate to call it a sequel. It is, rather, a companion or an intensification; one could read the two novels out of chronological order. Cleanness defies easy summary, and its plot moves freely in time: composed of self-contained chapters, many of which were originally published as short stories, it challenges us to feel resonances, to trace patterns, and to navigate shifts in scale between the narrator’s personal history and the political history of Bulgaria, his adopted home.
As with the forward and backward movement of Cleanness’s plot, the narrator appears caught again and again in the kind of time warp generated by the experience of loss, in this case the end of his relationship with R., which is the focus of the novel’s second of three sections. Facing an undetermined and therefore disorienting future, the narrator feels himself pulled backward into the past.
Greenwell has written about his indebtedness to James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, that masterful “anatomy of shame” that tells the story of another gay American expat in Europe. David, the protagonist of Baldwin’s novel, escapes from America to find himself in Paris. But as he narrates his story in hindsight he laments that “if I had had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed home.” Like David, Greenwell’s narrator seeks the cleanness of a blank slate—a fantasy of a future in which the debts of the past are discharged, and the very self that has been built from the accumulations of that past is stripped thrillingly bare.
One way to cleanness, Greenwell suggests, is through sex. Two of the novel’s most searingly memorable chapters narrate, with unerring and empathetic precision, the sadomasochistic scenarios through which the narrator hopes he might descend to the bottom of sexual pleasure and find its absolute limit.
The first of these indelible chapters, “Gospodar,” finds the narrator playing his preferred role as a bottom; later, in, “The Little Saint,” he tentatively plays the top, reflecting on how taking on a new role allows for a renewed self-examination, “examining myself, my willingness to master him as much as his willingness to be mastered.” But such analysis does not lead to any final truth about desire and its sources: “There’s no fathoming pleasure,” the narrator admits early on, “the forms it takes or their sources.”
The fathoming of pleasure and the interrogation of what lies “beyond the pale of our own desires” is, however, the difficult task of these chapters, and the nuance of Greenwell’s writing is astonishing. Here we have one of the truly great modern writers of sex, and this is not because his sex scenes are always sexy—though they are often that, too.
For example: in “Gospodar,” the narrator finds himself “resorting again to habits I thought I had escaped,” describing his desire for pain and submission in the shame-soaked language of the bad habits he cannot kick. Yet “escaped,” the narrator admits, may be the wrong word, “given the eagerness with which I returned to them.” Shame, rage, and the shadow of trauma lurk in every corner, giving a hard, glinting edge even to pleasure, and making the longings of the body feel like damaging addictions.
Greenwell’s greatness as a writer of sex—his keen, graphic, thrilling attention to bodies, orifices, fluids, and sensations—is not straightforwardly pornographic; it is also attuned to how emotional needs and power struggles play out in the sexual scenario. The narrator finds in the bottom role “the pleasure of service … or more darkly the pleasure of being used, the exhilaration of being made an object.” Submission, he continues, is also “a way of being nothing, or next to nothing, a convenience, a tool.”
He echoes here an earlier chapter, “Mentor,” in which the narrator counsels a student, G., through his tentative coming out, as well as the loss of G.’s best friend and love object. The narrator assures G. that he will awake out of his pain one day: “It’s precisely like waking from a dream,” he says, “and like a self in a dream the self that feels this will be incomprehensible to you.” Yet as he offers advice about how to leave past selves behind, the narrator becomes aware of the pain that lurks in this optimistic image: “How much smaller I have become,” he thinks, “through an erosion necessary to survival perhaps and perhaps still to be regretted, I’ve worn myself down to a bearable size.”
Greenwell’s narrator is a bit like Dickens’s Esther Summerson, the first-person narrator of some portions of Bleak House, with her fervent hope to shrink to almost nothing, becoming a mere point of view under which the lives of others can take their fullest shape: “My little body,” she assures us early on in the novel, “will soon fall into the background now.”
“Cleanness” is a narrative of radical caring, a study of the mutual care that might exist beyond the mere payment of debts and the fulfillment of obligations.
The nothingness that Greenwell’s narrator seeks in sex is also available to him in the turbulent history of his adopted country, which is itself becoming rapidly diminished, as its young people leave for brighter prospects elsewhere. Some of Cleanness’s vignettes find the narrator contemplating the past and the future of Bulgaria. Much of what he has learned about the country comes from the illustrated “children’s history” book given to him as a primer upon his arrival, its pages “filled with barbaric invasions and mothers in tears, villains and victims stark in their frames.” “There’s no getting to the truth of such things,” the narrator finally admits, “they’re so far in the past.”
This is a country haunted—as the narrator himself is—by what could have been and what might still be. As he takes in his tourist’s view of a ruined fortress, he thinks, “I could almost feel the centuries peeling back, exposing a world whose brutality was clear in the walls raised up to resist it.”
This potent but historically vague image of a ruined fortress, and the story of violence the narrator reads in the walls that have long ago failed to ward off violence’s inexorable incursions, is balanced against another chapter, equally vague in historical detail, in which the narrator takes part in a mass protest against government corruption. The protest conjures an optimistic image of a Bulgaria reformed, even while some of the protestors wonder whether this optimistic “energy without a plan” can reverse the inertia of history.
This depiction of protest, more focused on the humming energy of collectivity than on the details of Bulgarian history and politics, resonates intriguingly with the novel’s sex scenes. For in both we find the narrator hoping that a “momentary spasm”—a kind of reflex movement of a desiring body, whether that of a protest or a lover—might become something “real.”
If the novel represents sex as a therapeutic journey to the deepest limits of pleasure, then it is not a therapy that offers easy answers, and fantasies themselves are sometimes revealed to be fragile fictions. In “Gospodar,” for example, we find the sadomasochistic contract suddenly and disturbingly breached when the fantasy of submission tips in a moment into rape, leaving the narrator feeling that “the will-lessness I had assumed … had carried me now past anything I might want.” In “The Little Saint,” we see the narrator as a dominating top suddenly overcome by rage and shame, feeling as if he has been reenacting the violence of his abusive father.
The literary critic Talia Schaffer has argued recently that we might look to novels for rich representations of the “ethics of care,” a philosophical tradition with deep roots in feminist thought that emphasizes “the fundamental interdependency of human life and social organization” rather than individual autonomy. “Literary texts challenge their readers,” she writes, “confronting us with culturally alien assumptions and unpredictable discursive complications.” Greenwell’s aesthetic experiments challenge us in just this way, through his intricate attention to bodies and to sex, and through his use of the novel’s montage structure to juxtapose sexual intimacy and political collectivity. These features of literature, Schaffer asserts, “can teach us new ideas about the workings of care,” and about how “care works over time … as a process, a duration, and a performance.”
Exemplifying Schaffer’s theory of the novel, Cleanness is a narrative of radical caring, a study of the mutual care that might exist beyond the mere payment of debts and the fulfillment of obligations. The book develops an image of care that is tested and enacted—sometimes finding rapturous expression, sometimes falling apart under the burdens of the uncaring past—in sex, in collective protest, and perhaps even in pedagogy.
Indeed, the relationship between the mutual care of the sexual relation and the collective well-being of the reforming nation intensifies as it echoes across chapters. On the way to the start of the protest, a taxi driver laments to the narrator that, in Bulgaria, “nobody cares about the others”; he hopes for Bulgaria to become more like America, explaining, “I have the idea that you care for each other there.” (The irony of the misdirected fantasy stings.) And later on, in “The Little Saint,” we hear an echo of the taxi-driver’s fantasy: here, an enthusiastic bottom, the martyr-like figure of the chapter’s title, wonders why he shouldn’t give away his body freely in sex: “I think we should all give it away, wouldn’t it be wonderful, everyone fucking all the time, everywhere.”