The mournfulness of the book is not straightforward. He has anonymous, sadomasochistic encounters with other men, vividly described, his arousal alternating with shame. Greenwell shows the pain of internalised homophobia — in one moment of consensual aggression the protagonist remembers the terror of his father approaching with a belt. We’re inside his head as he calls one partner a “faggot” during sex, using the language of hatred to invoke pleasure, and feeling a mix of relief and sorrow.
Greenwell was a poet before he became a novelist, and the namelessness of the characters gives Cleanness the feel of a lyric poem, at once confessional and anonymous. The anonymity creates a space for biographical speculation, leaving you wondering whether you’re reading journal entries rather than fiction, and exactly whose propriety is being protected by those blank initials. But the ambiguity and lack of characterisation creates a problem too. Because everything is channelled through the mind of a single narrator, the book becomes, at times, overwhelmingly solipsistic.
Although there are several passages of lyrical scene painting and vivid reportage – notably a brilliant description of the ebb and flow of a protest rally – the focus is on Greenwell’s movement through the city’s homosexual underworld and the emotions that his encounters provoke. His motive is not pornographic sensationalism: sex for Greenwell is simply the area in which one is most aware, most alive, most vulnerable, and there’s nothing comfortable about the exposure it entails. He is drawn as much to mine the “shame and anxiety and fear” it involves as to its momentary pleasures and elusive rewards.
The book encompasses all kinds of experiences from the tender to the tawdry, as well as political hopes and fears of the narrator’s Bulgarian friends. At times, it put me in mind of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, about a woman, Faye, who spends her time listening to the stories of others. However, Cleanness struggles to define its purpose. The narrator is a man of boundless appetites who is constantly lost in the fog of desire – often literally losing his bearings, whether in the backstreets of Sofia or Venice. There were times when I did too. Some of the episodes feel overstretched and anticlimactic – and though anticlimax is often the desired effect, the energy of the stories peaks and troughs in much the same way...
Greenwell writes with great acuity about interpersonal chemistry, from the thrill of holding hands in public spaces (in a country where homophobic attacks are not uncommon) to the ritualism of S&M, which is rendered here as a kind of performance – a dance of self-negation and withholding. He refrains from using speech marks in dialogue, and frequently deploys comma splices where others might have gone with a semi-colon or a fresh sentence. (“We wouldn’t stay the night, the hotel in Bologna was paid for, we would spend a few hours exploring and then come back.”) Such gimmicks can often feel contrived, but Greenwell’s storytelling is so consistently engaging, and his sentences so immaculately weighted, that they succeed in imbuing the prose with a sense of suppleness and momentum.
With such vagueness, with so many ‘almosts’ and ‘as ifs’, ‘buts’ and ‘thoughs’ (the last of these averages an easy two per page), with initials taking the place of character names and with even obvious references to specifics suppressed, the intended ambiguity dissolves into a sense that nothing is ever really being talked about at all. There is throughout a discrepancy between the writer’s ambition and his material. What the book wants is conflict, vigour, strength of feeling; without them, it is less fiction than an extended improvisation in a single tone.
The boyfriend, known only as R, is at the heart of the novel. The central section tracks the narrator’s doomed relationship with the young Portuguese man, the ebb and flow of feeling so intensely and precisely rendered by Greenwell that it feels almost indecent to be privy to something so intimate.
It’s in those moments that he no longer feels apart: he revels in the gift of cliché, proof of the “commonness of my feeling; I felt some stubborn strangeness in me ease, I felt like part of the human race”.
Our teacher seems doomed to play every role in the lover’s repertoire, with some pleasure, yes, but with little or no satisfaction. In the opening story he is merely the conduit for a young man’s confession to the unreciprocated desire he feels for another boy. In the next, he is on the floor of a sadomasochist’s apartment being spat at and pissed upon. In a later story, he switches roles and dominates a sexual partner. The second section of the book sees a more traditional portrayal of romantic love, but his longing for abasement is never far from him. Greenwell is a great stylist, with the tone and structure of his sentences shifting each time his central character changes position in the narrative.
Greenwell is trying to find a way to write about sex that portrays minds and bodies with equal candour. But while his endlessly twisty sentences unspool with admirable fluency and control, I can’t truly say I never found myself bored.
Even more than his debut, this is an airlessly solemn affair, with a nagging sense that life’s emotional range is being muzzled for the sake of a rather willed melancholy.
Greenwell is a master of precision: everyday intimacy is so well wrought that it can feel unbearable to read, as if he cuts too close to the skin. A book’s greatest achievement is often seen as the moment when the reader recognises a part of themselves that they hadn’t yet verbalised. Greenwell’s writing achieves this effortlessly, but in Cleanness he gives something more. In the warmth that rises through his prose there is a poignant optimism. It leaves the reader with the hope that it might spread.