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Cleanness 
by Garth Greenwell.
Picador, 223 pp., £14.99, April, 978 0 374 12458 8
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InU&I (1991), his book about John Updike, Nicholson Baker imagines explaining the appeal of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library to his literary hero. ‘You know, once you get used to the initially kind of disgusting level of homosexual sex, which quickly becomes really interesting as a kind of ethnography, you realise that this is really one of the best first novels to come along in years and years!’ But Updike couldn’t get used to the sex. Reviewing Hollinghurst’s third novel, The Spell, in 1999, he complained that ‘our noses are rubbed, as it were, in the poetry of a love object’s anus’ and about the author’s habit of recording ‘penile sizes, tilts, tints and flavours … with a botanical precision’. Never mind that Updike’s own work displayed a comparable attentiveness to the shapes and shades, tensions and textures of female genitalia; that was an altogether more meaningful business. ‘Novels about heterosexual partnering … do involve the perpetuation of the species.’ How this was involved in the oral sex in Couples (1968) or the anal sex in Rabbit Is Rich (1982) wasn’t explained.

Garth Greenwell was born in 1978 and first read The Swimming-Pool Library when he was twenty (around the time Updike was reviewing The Spell). He described the ‘immense sense of permission’ it gave him: ‘There was a great liberating thrill in reading … a book that was so unapologetic in its representation of men having sex – pleasurably, promiscuously – with other men. It felt radical in its indifference to the moral judgments of straight people.’ The unnamed narrator of Greenwell’s first two books responds to other gay writers in a similar way. He assigns his students Frank O’Hara ‘primarily for his joy, his freedom from guardedness and guilt’. But Greenwell’s own qualities aren’t necessarily those of his idols. Although he describes gay sex with total candour, the narrator’s pleasure is usually ambiguous and always short-lived: ‘Sex had never been joyful for me before,’ he writes in Cleanness, ‘or almost never, it had always been fraught with shame and anxiety and fear.’ The moral judgments of straight people loom large. Greenwell is interested in what it means to be told your sexuality is disgusting: what it does to your sense of self, and how it contaminates desire. His writing is unusual in combining Hollinghurst’s frankness with an agonised sensitivity to how that frankness can be perceived.

In What Belongs to You (2016), Greenwell’s first novel, the narrator recalls how the childhood ritual of showering with his father ended abruptly one day when he got an erection: ‘He thrust me away without a thought for the slickness of the tiles; and when I looked at his face, which was twisted with disgust, it was as if I saw his true face, his authentic face, not the learned face of fatherhood.’ Later, as a teenager, a boy with whom he has been intimate makes him watch while he has sex with his girlfriend: ‘I was there to see how different from me he was.’ These memories are juxtaposed with an account of the narrator’s intense, mutually exploitative relationship with a hustler called Mitko who ends up giving him syphilis. The only unambiguous moments of joy in the novel take place at a remove, when the narrator encounters children: a young girl playing with her father, the pair displaying ‘an intimacy confident of absolute possession’; a small boy mucking around on a train, his smile ‘impossibly bright, sure of itself, and sure, too, that nothing could resist it for long’. The novel suggests that all desire involves a yearning to recapture this early state, and in their most tender moment together, Mitko holds the narrator ‘like his beloved or his child’ – but also, we’re told, ‘like his captive or his prey’.

Cleanness is a sequel to What Belongs to You: a sequence of nine interlocking episodes recounted by the same narrator, set during and after the events of the earlier book. Most of the chapters were first published as freestanding stories, but they acquire a texture and richness from being arranged together. After a subdued opening, the mood rises to an exultant pitch across three chapters describing the narrator’s relationship with a Portuguese student called R. (who played a minor role in What Belongs to You), then falls back into melancholy and mortification in the book’s final third. There’s little continuity in terms of plot, but the recurring motifs give an impression of symmetry. When we are told, towards the end of Cleanness, about a priest ‘who had called … for all decent people to line the route of the Pride parade and throw stones at the queers’, it recalls an earlier chapter, ‘Decent People’, in which one group of participants in an anti-government demonstration carry brooms and plastic bags to tidy up after themselves while another subjects the narrator’s friends to a homophobic assault. The second and eighth chapters describe sadomasochistic encounters, but the narrator’s role is different each time. In ‘Gospodar’, while being humiliated by his ‘unhandsome’ partner, he is grateful for a flicker of ‘what seemed like tenderness although it was not tenderness’. Later, in ‘The Little Saint’, the narrator tries out the dominant role; he finds that ‘it was important to seem like I didn’t care about [the man’s] pleasure but I did care about it, very much.’ Both encounters end with the narrator in tears.

Greenwell taught at the American College in Sofia from 2008 to 2015 and both novels are set in Bulgaria. In Cleanness the narrator meets one of his students in a restaurant ‘hidden … below ground’ and listens as the young man describes the obstacles he faces in coming out. ‘It’s impossible here,’ he says, listing the many people he can’t be honest with: ‘his parents, his friends, the adults at school who, in the States, might have been turned to for support; and of course there were no public resources here, no community centres or networks he could seek out’. It isn’t only indifference or tacit disapproval that gay men have to contend with in Sofia. Overt homophobia is common – it’s not worth the risk for two men ‘to hold hands in the streets, to kiss in public, however chastely’ – and when the narrator is almost raped by an online hook-up, he doesn’t bother to contact the police. Greenwell paints Bulgaria as a depressed, insular, unconfident country, a sort of geographical correlate to the narrator’s gloom and uncertainty. Bulgarians are baffled that he’s decided to live there when their own young men leave at the earliest opportunity. ‘It’s not difficult to imagine it disappearing altogether, the language and the country both.’

An isolated community within an isolated community, the gay scene in Sofia is less diverse than its English-speaking counterparts. At one point the narrator discovers an online profile of a sort ‘common enough in the States or Western Europe’, but which is unique in his experience of Bulgarian hook-up sites: ‘It claimed that anyone who wanted to could fuck him, that he wanted it rough, that his only demand was to be fucked bare, he wanted as many loads as he could get. No limits whore, it said, in good pornographic English, with a Bulgarian translation underneath.’ The narrator doubts they’ll be compatible, but arranges to meet him anyhow: ‘I was curious to know what that meant here, no limits, and where he had learned it.’ When they get down to business, the narrator’s foreignness adds an extra frisson to his partner’s enjoyment. ‘My first American cock’, he says appreciatively:

He gripped more tightly as he pulled up the shaft, milking me, and at the tip there appeared a small drop, opalescent, almost clear. I should have stopped him as he leaned forward, I was giving him too free a rein, but I let him touch the tip of his tongue to the drop, not gathering it up but tasting it, and then he pulled back, so that it stretched out gossamer between us.

Greenwell intended the raunchier parts of Cleanness to be simultaneously ‘100 per cent pornographic and 100 per cent high art’. That needn’t be a contradiction – The Swimming-Pool Library managed something like it, and so did Couples – but Greenwell’s definition of high art is quite particular. His fiction deals in exquisite perceptions and equivocal moods, and is constantly alert to emotional nuance. The tone is solemn. ‘I think art is the realm in which we can give full rein to the ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt that we often feel we have to suppress in other kinds of expression,’ he told an interviewer. His most distinctive sentences tend to backtrack on themselves: ‘I climbed or sought to climb’; ‘I went out in search of feeling, I suppose, or maybe the absence of feeling’; ‘I had never wanted permanence before, not really, or I had wanted my freedom more.’ One result of all these second thoughts is that we gain a much fuller understanding of the person thinking them. Greenwell’s sex scenes are remarkable in capturing what’s at stake for his narrator beyond an obvious physical pay-off. In the encounter with the no-limits whore, for instance, he starts out feeling embarrassed by his inability to dominate, and ends up dismayed at the well of cruelty he manages to tap. But this psychological realism, along with the fussiness of expression (‘my cock … was still hard, having never softened, or softened only briefly’) and insistence on clarity of detail (‘eager as I was there are certain preparations required, the relaxation and lubrication of passages, a general warming up’), means that the porno set-ups lack porno swagger.

The Bulgarian backdrop is abandoned in ‘The Frog King’, the central episode in Cleanness, and the narrator fleetingly achieves his ideal of happy indifference to the scrutiny of the straight community. He and R. travel to Italy – ‘a place where we could be freer with each other’ – during the Christmas holiday. It is early enough in their relationship that ‘even annoyance was part of the pleasure we took in each other.’ As they wander around Venice and Bologna ‘in a daze of looking’, the narrator starts to forget the doubts and anxieties of his day-to-day life, and to feel ‘like part of the human race’. The moody camerawork of the Bulgarian chapters is replaced by soft filters and flattering angles (‘R. turned to me, smiling, and surely it wasn’t at that moment that the bells began to ring, it’s a trick of memory to stage it that way, but it’s how I remember it, the birds flying up, everyone turning to the Campanile, as we did, its top still bright as it caught the last of the sun’), and the loveless power-play of the sexual encounters elsewhere in the book is thrown into relief by scenes of casual erotic intimacy:

R. stepped up onto the bench, he grabbed my shoulders and turned me to face him. Now I’m the taller one, he said, and bent down to kiss me, not a chaste kiss, he gripped my hair and tilted my head farther back to probe my mouth with his tongue. I tried to pull away, laughing: it was a busy road, we were in full view of the passing cars. But he held me tight, kissing me with urgency, until I realised that exposure was the point, that he wanted to show off, here where nobody knew him, where he could be anonymous and free, could live out an ideal of candour. I felt his cock hard between us; it turned him on to show off like this, I had had no idea.

The tone is that of someone contending with matters of enormous moral heft. In What Belongs to You, the earnestness suited the somewhat harrowing plot, but here, when the subject matter is more varied, it starts to feel like a limitation, a prose style that paints happiness and heartache in the same shade of blue. The issue is one of sensibility: Greenwell is squeamish about joining in with his characters’ fun. When he praises Hollinghurst or O’Hara, it’s telling he doesn’t mention their humour. Comedy has no place in his credo about art. At one point during their Italian holiday, R. begins to stroke the narrator’s leg, without looking up from his book. ‘But I knew he wasn’t reading,’ the narrator says. ‘He was smiling just slightly.’

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