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Named a Most Anticipated Book of 2020 by The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Entertainment Weekly, Oprah Magazine, Salon, Vulture, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The AV Club, InsideHook, The Chicago Review of Books, and The Rumpus
“Incandescent ... [Greenwell's] writing about sex is altogether scorching. You pick his novels up with asbestos mitts, and set them down upon trivets to protect your table from heat damage ...Greenwell has an uncanny gift, one that comes along rarely.”
―Dwight Garner, The New York Times Book Review
“Extraordinary ... The overall effect is even more impressive than [What Belongs to You] ... The range in these stories is part of their triumph and part of what makes their existential sorrow so profound ... Incomparably bittersweet ... Brilliant.”
―Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“Exquisite ... Greenwell displays a precocious ability to take readers into his narrator's mind and body ... Greenwell submerges readers in the bedroom, sharing his protagonist's intense attractions and doubts ... Greenwell's prose sings, even as much of the music occurs in the rests. This writer understands beauty and loss, sorrow and hope, his fluid writing making the telling seem effortless.”
―Martha Ann Toll, NPR Books
“[Cleanness] is, quite simply, a work of genius that will change the way you understand the world and your place in it.”
―Bethanne Patrick, The Washington Post
―Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly
“In much the way that other male American writers, such as Hemingway, Baldwin and Edmund White, have chosen Paris as the place in which their lone protagonist can be tested and changed, Greenwell uses Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, as his cauldron ... [He] displays an extraordinary skill at handling time ... [The titular story is] an exquisite piece of writing.”
―Colm Toibin, The New York Times Book Review
“An electrifying portrait of sex’s power to lacerate and liberate, to make and unmake our deepest selves … [Greenwell] melds an incantatory cadence with the catechistic language of porn, which is ridiculous until you’re ‘lit up with a longing that makes it the most beautiful language in the world.’ … Intimately powerful.”
―Julian Lucas, Harper’s
"Absolutely spellbinding . . . Exquisite in its handling of what for many readers will be taboo territory."
―Michael Upchurch, The Boston Globe
"It’s difficult to explain just how much depth there is to Greenwell’s writing; suffice it to say there are things he accomplishes, emotional destinations he reaches in the course of a sentence that many other writers can’t get to over the course of a whole novel."
―Omar El Akkad, The Millions
“Greenwell may be the finest writer of sex currently at work. He is certainly the most exhilarating ... A glorious, affirmative vision.”
―Michael Lapointe, The TLS (UK)
"Greenwell’s writing―long, dense sentences that often seem to act as heat-seeking missiles―seems married perfectly to the form of this book, where the usual narrative stitching of a novel is done away with. What we are left with are precise evocations of emotion and heat (and what heat! There is so much heat in this book it is sometimes difficult to hold). [Cleanness] thrums with life; it invites readers to a state of higher intensity, such that as you move through it you begin to feel an awareness of and an awe at the possibility that life could actually be lived that way.”
―Nellie Hermann, Los Angeles Times
“The narrator’s quest for self-knowledge seems to intensify in moments of intimacy, and Greenwell’s erotic prose is notably explicit and lucid, shorn of decorous metaphor ... It is commonplace to think of sex―especially the anonymous, boundary-testing, sometimes unsafe sex that the protagonist seeks out―as a release from the prison of self. For Greenwell, though, sex is never a means to blot out thought but instead an opportunity for heightened awareness.”
―Dennis Lim, BookForum
“Transfixing ... Greenwell’s narrator is a poet of self-abasement, keenly attuned to the notion of size, of taking up too much space, and its centrality to queer experience ... But at the same time he is intensely self-aware, sensitized to the redemptive properties of love and intimacy, which take form in the sinuous rhythms of his words."
―Jake Nevins, The New York Times
"Intense, emotional and super-sexy ... The ebb and flow of feeling [is] so intensely and precisely rendered by Greenwell that it feels almost indecent to be privy to something so intimate."
―Francesca Carington, The Sunday Telegraph (UK), Novel of the Week
"Greenwell is a great stylist, with the tone and structure of his sentences shifting each time his central character changes position in the narrative ... In a single sentence he manages to juxtapose ideas in such a way as to create a shiver of recognition in the reader."
―Alan Murrin, The Spectator (UK)
“Stunning . . . Greenwell's fearless, introspective stories probe the private regions of a gay man's heart, whose unstable ground, rocked by seismic passions and deeply buried rage, is as likely to split open as to flower.”
―Steven Tagle, them.
“Greenwell's writing on language, desire, and sex in all their complex choreography vibrates with intensity, reading like brainwaves and heartbeats as much as words. Concerned with intimacy, its performance, and the inevitability of becoming and being oneself, this is in every way an enriching, deepening follow-up.”
“The narrator [of Cleanness] pushes more sexual boundaries this time, and Greenwell admirably pushes them too by depicting those desires with an unflinching frankness. Sadomasochism, unprotected sex, the narrator’s voyeuristic attraction to one of his students: They are all elements of the story, portrayed in Greenwell’s precise, elegant style . . . Brave and beautiful.”
―Kirkus Review (Starred)
“A young American teacher’s reckonings with intimacy and alienation compose the through line of Greenwell’s elegant and melancholy volume . . . Greenwell writes about sex as a mercurial series of emotional states and is lyrical and precise in his descriptions of desires and motivations he suggests are not subject to control or understanding. This is a piercingly observant and meticulously reflective narrative.”
“Melancholy and lyrical, this slim volume confirms that Greenwell is among our finest writers on sex and desire.”
―Esquire (Most Anticipated)
“Few writers capture the dirt and shine of desire, how love and lust can brutalize and soothe, like Greenwell, the author of 2016’s game-changing What Belongs to You. Here, in this frequently breathtaking novel-in-stories, he follows a nameless American narrator walking among the shadows of Bulgaria’s underground gay scene in search of ‘the key to the latch of the self.’”
―Michelle Hart, O: The Oprah magazine online (Most Anticipated)
"If you read gay literary phenom Greenwell’s last novel, What Belongs to You, think of this as a sequel that doesn’t let chronology worry it...Look forward to more of the exquisite, high-wire sex writing that has earned Greenwell his reputation."―Hillary Kelly, Vulture (Most Anticipated)
“A tale of tumultuous romances, [Cleanness] is explicitly―almost incandescently―erotic. In scenes containing both tenderness and violence, Greenwell showcases his powers as a taxonomist of touch.”
―Cornelia Channing, Paris Review (Staff Pick)
“No contemporary writer I know of conveys desire better than Garth Greenwell. His second book of fiction, Cleanness, is an audacious wonder, whose nine stories of intensely textured personal interactions form an unusually hard to define novelistic whole. The book is an argument against convention, both structurally and on the character level―the melding of forms makes Cleanness feel both unique and familiar as it explores the boundaries of longing and the turbulence of love.”
―Adam Dalva, Guernica
“Cleanness is a sublime book, transcending not only autofiction or LGBTQ writing, but the very barrier between stories and novel, fiction and non-fiction.”
―Ian J. Battaglia, The Chicago Review of Books
“The intense elegance of Garth Greenwell’s prose―even when he’s describing rough sex or embarrassing passes or drunkenness―always startles me. It’s insane that anyone should be this good at writing, that anyone should be able to stir up the emotions of strangers so quickly, so deftly.”
―Emily Temple, LitHub
"[Cleanness] hones in on queer desire, shame, and trauma. Greenwell’s prose is lyrically brutal and filled with anger, regret, disappointment, and, mostly importantly, eros. Greenwell is a master at writing about longing, but is also expert at navigating emotionally fraught sex scenes that can quickly descend into scenes of detachment, alienation, and violence; Cleanness is devastating."
―Josh Vigil, Full Stop
“Searingly immediate and authentic ... The theme beneath the flesh is powerful and subtle: a quest for the kind of intimacy which, rather than confirming a lover's identity, upends it." -- The Economist
“Cleanness exposes readers to love & sex in all of its messy iterations, & it does so with a deftness of language that makes Greenwell one of the most accomplished writers of our era.”
―Jarrett Neal, The Chicago Review of Books
“In this magnificently controlled book, Greenwell places himself in a queer canon that is at some remove from the queer men coming of age more recently … It is deeply radical to reclaim the “filthy” spaces of queer longing, to find, again, the guilt or the complicity in the violence enacted by one queer man on another, all things that feel more and more excised from queer writing … Somehow, Cleanness avoids all that.”
–Kamil Ahsan, AV Club
“Like the work of Jean Genet before him, Greenwell transforms individual appetites into expressions of unlikely commonality. His fictions depict moments of epiphanic desperation―shame, pleasure, remorse, and ecstasy―in which the mysteries of spirit and flesh are rendered briefly legible … There are also moments of almost unbearable gentleness in Cleanness, sentences that feel like pressing on soft tissue.”
–Dustin Illingworth, The Baffler
“I was grateful for this book, as if it had been written for me alone … Greenwell writes about moments of nuance with unrelenting precision, seeking not to flatten them but to fan them out into an array displaying their every possible shade. His structure reflects that gentle exploration: the sentences revise and layer over themselves, and the sections of the book, each of which could stand alone as its own story, seem to inhale and exhale into one another, as if in waves, drawing the water and sending it out again against the shore.”
--Nadja Spiegelman, Paris Review (Staff Pick)
“Beautifully written … Harrowing and mesmerizing … This is an extraordinary, disturbing, visceral novel that seduces as much as it scalds.”
–Sam Coale, Providence Journal
“Filled with stunning poetic prose alongside spare, cutting exposition … Gorgeous, achingly earnest and sincere … Cleanness is a novel about desire. A novel about love. About being human.”
–Laura Calaway, The Literary Review
“If art has any political value it comes when it is chewed, digested, reacted to … Greenwell does precisely this in Cleanness … His prose inhabits and describes spaces of unbounded connection, on the streets and in the sheets.”
–Ben Miller, LitHub
“Beautiful and moving ... Greenwell, in his writing, conveys a palpable sense of unconstrained emotion and passion.”
―Bill Burton, The Provincetown Independent
“I don't know how Garth Greenwell writes such delicate, profane fiction. These stories are grace and salt, tenderness and shadow. Reading this book made me want to sit with my emotions and desires; it made me want to be a better writer.”
―Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties
“Garth Greenwell writes with remarkable power, vulnerability and an operatic beauty. Such is the compelling journey of the characters of this book that we come to a new understanding of the body, loneliness, risk, desire and even anguish, but also a tenderness, a hard-won grace that can and does transform. What he leaves us with is an absolute truth―love is what drives us all towards light, towards any kind of redemption, but we must earn it, we must give all to it.”
―Chris Abani, author of The Secret History of Las Vegas
“An unbearably wonderful, eloquently sexual, thoughtful, emotional, delight of a novel―Garth Greenwell writes like no one else.”
―Eimear McBride, author of A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing
“Garth Greenwell, whose first book is a masterpiece, amazingly has written a second book that is also a masterpiece. The great enterprise that Joyce and Lawrence began―to write with utter literal candor about sex, grounding one’s moral life and philosophical insight in what that candor reveals about us―finds fulfillment, a late apotheosis, in Greenwell’s work. Cleanness is the act of a master.”
―Frank Bidart, author of Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016
“In Cleanness, I found an end to a loneliness I didn't know―until now―how to describe. Greenwell maps the worlds our language walls off―sex, love, shame and friendship, the foreign and the familiar―and finds the sublime. There are visceral shocks like I’ve never encountered in print, and they delighted me, again and again. With each plunge we take beneath the surface of life, lost and new worlds appear. This could only be the work of a master.”
―Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
“Garth Greenwell is an intensely beautiful and gorgeous writer. I can think of no contemporary author who brings as much reality and honesty to the description of sex―locating in it the sublime, as well as our deepest degradation, sweetness, confusion, and rage. Most American literature seems neutered by comparison. His perfect noticing extends to the way we experience love and loneliness, the feeling of exile, and the eternal search for home.”
―Sheila Heti, author of Motherhood
“Cleanness is an impressive book: moving, radical, both beautiful and violent, unexpected. Garth Greenwell is a major writer, and his writing provides us tools to affirm ourselves, to exist― to fight.”
―Édouard Louis, author of The End of Eddy
About the Author
- ASIN : B07S2M19X9
- Publisher : Farrar, Straus and Giroux (January 14, 2020)
- Publication date : January 14, 2020
- Language: : English
- File size : 2318 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 242 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #29,029 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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I picked Cleanness randomly from online recommended reading shelves, the recommendations coming from someone who is supposedly smart about such things, an NPR or New Yorker pick. Probably the New Yorker since excerpts were previously published there, before being crammed together with other pieces published in other “literary” magazines, and it appears an attempt to capitalize on his early success on his first novel, which I’ve not read. While I understand the financial need to do so, something which has been probably true for writers ever since they began writing, it also helps clarify why many second novels flop. But perhaps there’s something deeper going on. Maybe it’s another example of writers with some talent pushing literature into creative new directions. Or maybe it shows just how out of touch the literati are with most readers and the majority of middle class readers.
Cleanness shows a mastery of the language, and moments are worth reading. I suspect those moments are different for each reader, depending on what you’re into. For example, the overly lengthy BDSM scene might be your thing. (All scenes are overly lengthy, so much so that you might feel beaten to death with the words.) For me, it was the initial scene when the narcissistic narrator engages in a coffee shop discussion with a student who is lamenting the loss of his lover. The gayness in this opening scene is beside the point. You can feel the hard edge, the open hurt, deeply felt by those of us fortunate to have been in love. The other scene was the first street protest, which surges along with the writing style well suited to imitate the surge of the crowd. The narrator is a literature teacher in Bulgaria where attitudes toward gay relationships are, as you might imagine, repressive. The protests are for or against something nebulous, but gay rights is an overriding theme in the book.
All secondary characters are identified with a letter, R. or N. or whatever, which seems to serve little purpose except perhaps to emphasize anonymity in the face of oppression, but mostly only emphasizes the already oppressive attention to the narrator, and to allow me to characterize it as an alphabet soup of characters swimming around in weak broth, which I very much appreciate.
Basically, I’ve become a reading masochist, able to wade my way through pages and pages of no paragraph steam of consciousness descriptions of the narrator’s feelings. And no, I’m not unsympathetic because it’s all about gay love. I even tried substituting “she” for he and reading it, discovering that the so-called story felt the same, a 200-plus page one-note effusion roiling out into the darkness like my wife’s snoring and exacerbating my insomnia. Perhaps it’s my fault, my age, my willingness to be as experimental in my reading as writers are in their writing. I’ve more time to read and thus more time to subject myself to books like Cleanness, then of course having to clean myself off with a lousy review like this one.
Lastly, since so much of this and other literary novels are from writers who publish in high class literary journals, it makes me wonder about their relevance, outside the academic literary world. Over the years, I’ve found a few stories in these journals that were excellent, but the vast majority of them were bafflingly lackluster and often read like tedious navel-gazing reflections, showcases for a good vocabulary, or strict workshop writing. Maybe it’s because the editors are usually academics? The echo chamber of the intellectually privileged? Maybe I just prefer a story with a punch line or a few twists and surprises, you know, something that requires thought that draws you into another world and doesn’t subject the reader to someone who just repetitively vomits emotions.
And the irony isn’t lost on me that this “review” is more about me as reader than it is trying to tell you what Cleanness is all about. I must be too dumb to truly understand its significance, but at least this review isn’t over 200 pages of gush.
Top reviews from other countries
The sex he's talking about is gay sex, which is why, for the narrator, it was once infused with those negative qualities of shame and anxiety, qualities which, he implies, real love has the power to erase. The 'he' of the sentence is R, his lover, like all the characters in the novel represented only by a capital letter. Much of the story is about the transformative but ultimately fractured relationship the narrator has with him. It's a moving, joyous, sad, and horny relationship, which gives the book much of its emotive power. It proves that Greenwell is as capable of writing about tender love-making as he is about the transgressions of more violent, messy sex.
Greenwell has written about the pleasures of writing about sex in an article in the Guardian Review (09.05.2020), and as this novel demonstrates he does it with powerful precision, never falling back on the tired tropes of erotic gay writing - everything is freshly imagined and in forensic detail. There are three aspects of sexual activity between men imagined here: a SM session between the American and a hook-up that goes wrong; a passionate and tender love session with R; and sex with an online sex-worker that brings out the savage, even homophobic, hidden being in our narrator. Each approach reveals something fundamental in terms of character, which might not otherwise come to light: this is one of the rationales for such writing, as Greenwell makes clear in his article. These scenes, or chapters, are visceral, handled with extraordinary skill.
The novel is not linear, its structured around a number of evocative, significant incidents, spaced over a number of years, ending with a farewell, drunken party for the professor, thrown by his ex-students - he is leaving Bulgaria after seven years of teaching and of voluntary exile (incidentally, the least interesting of the stories). In trips to restaurants, on holiday in European cities, in hotel rooms, we learn a little of R's history, why he's so wary of coming out, why, ultimately, he seems lost. As they negotiate their break-up online, we see the American slide back into a life of casual sex, coming full circle. Their relationship, unable to weather the effects of long-distance, last two years, and the ending of it, the strains under which it exists, cast a melancholy haze over the whole book, giving it an attractive, mutely plangent tone. What the narrative brings out is the mutability of human relationships, their depths and fragilities, the distance that exists between people, which can be bridged only fleetingly by sex, more permanently, but elusively, by love.
Greenwell is an important writer, not only for his unique take on gay experience, but for his handling of prose, for the uncanny insight he has into the nuances, the violence and tenderness of desire.