In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry writes that beauty “seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication.” The same is said of violence in Garth Greenwell’s new novel Cleanness. This is not a new claim; violence will always be entwined with the concept of the cycle, in which violence is replicated over and over again, perpetually and across generations. But Greenwell’s connection to beauty, as an abstraction that is essential and inescapable, bears highlighting. His novel is about beautiful men and, more importantly, the ready-to-erupt violence that bubbles under their surface. Cleanness, at its core, is an examination of the sticky and inextricable pairing of masculinity and violence — and, ultimately, the resulting trauma of when these two frictive forces inevitably collide.
Like Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs to You, a romance is at the narrative center of Cleanness. We are again privy to a semi-autobiographical tale that 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.
In the novel, we meet a young American teacher (a Greenwell stand-in) in Bulgaria on the heels of a breakup. Each part of the triptych narrative focuses on a particular sexual or romantic episode: his relationship with R., his assault by a stranger he met online, a possible new romance, and his momentary attraction to a former student (the last two of which compose the final section).
The three parts are not presented in order, and the overall chronology of events isn’t made obvious. But the novel isn’t worried about being temporally linear; it’s more invested in moments when the temporalities put pressure on each other, fold into each other and, most importantly, mirror each other. Gestures from one scene are sometimes mimicked in another, for example. But Greenwell also replays descriptors, folding those into each other. People are beautiful, people have animalistic responses, and people are in a constant state of cleaning — cleaning the streets, cleaning themselves (externally and internally; literally and metaphorically). These are the tools Greenwell uses to explore the complexities of contemporary masculinity.
Cleanness is a bit similar to Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School — both novels are postmodernist ruminations on masculinity, though their similarities extend far beyond this critical focus. At the center of The Topeka School is the story of Adam Gordon, an intelligent and popular debate champion. The novel is told through Adam and his two psychologist parents’ — whose marriage is falling apart — perspectives. Between those three voices, a fourth emerges — that of Darren Eberhardt, a young and confused teen who commits a mysterious act of violence. Like Cleanness, violence haunts the pages of Lerner’s novel; we know something bad is coming, we just don’t know when. This feeling of unease is intensified by Topeka’s narrative structure. The novel takes a fragmentary approach — it switches perspectives and jumps across time periods, sometimes smoothly and other times purposefully abruptly.
A fragmentary approach is classic for narratives of trauma — I am reminded of the film adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, which focuses on the aftermath of a son’s act of murderous violence against his own family and his school community. The film is narratively broken into little splintered shards, puzzle pieces tossed around a table. We watch Tilda Swinton spiral, and only slowly get bits and pieces, leaks, out of order. While in Cleanness we do not get the whole narrative, each part, each fragment, is more cleanly cut than in The Topeka School; the narrative doesn’t jump back and forth, but instead presents one moment in time, a clean and precise slice, per section. The result is a more straightforward, less ambiguous, read.
But Lerner does not always beat around the bush; when the moment arrives to critique male rage, to hone in on the flimsiness of unwarranted masculine malaise, to read into the violent effects of society’s expectations regarding masculinity, Lerner responds by taking a direct approach. Lerner literally uses the phrase “toxic masculinity” in the novel — and a protest against ICE towards the end proves that the novel isn’t meant to be a subtle dig. We even see Darren Eberhardt, the young, violent teen, in 2016 as a MAGA-hat-wearing, alt-right bro at a Trump rally. There is nothing ambiguous in those moments. Is it too heavy-handed? Probably. Greenwell, on the other hand, is infinitely more subtle, providing us with very few answers. He blurs the edges, making it hard for us to decipher how we feel of his protagonist, especially towards the end, at which point Greenwell’s stand-in has a moment of sexual transformation, and you have to ask yourself: is his newfound masculinity toxic?
Greenwell leaves the decision to his reader. He avoids being preachy, and the result is that his characters feel lived-in, and less like caricatures. Having complex, perhaps ambivalent characters whose likability may be questioned, ultimately, is a more powerful tool for proffering pathos than, say, producing more classically constructed, unambiguous, clearly motivated characters. Comparing Lerner’s novel to Greenwell’s is useful, then, because both share a similar purpose — with critiques of masculinity front and center — but arrive to their shared destination by taking different approaches. A comparison makes it clear that there’s a blunt, heavy-handedness to The Topeka School, which amplifies the subtlety of Cleanness. Greenwell bears his heart; his is a novel of intimacies.
As I mentioned, Cleanness is essentially bookended with moments of sexual violence. The first is the scene of the protagonist’s assault. The moment is long, and wrenching, and full of uncertainty; it is not quickly understood that this will evolve into a scene of assault. Instead, there are beautifully described moments of deep and emphatic introspection at the start that speak volumes to Greenwell’s character’s internal texture, none of which exactly suggest that this will culminate in violence (for example: “as I took him in my mouth I felt that gratitude I nearly always feel in such moments, not so much to him as to whatever arrangement of things had allowed me what as a child I thought I would always be denied.”). But slowly, an unease settles — though, it still isn’t certain that this will head south. Greenwell is toying with us — until he’s not, and exactly what we did not want to happen happens. It’s devastating, a scene that spans over twenty pages. Greenwell writes of every single detail, none of it minute, or banal, but given a miraculous weight. It’s the most autofictive moment in the novel, too and, naturally, the most distressing. But by the end of the novel, this scene is revisited, and spun around like a toy until it has shed its old skin and given way to a new form. Cleanness is a house of mirrors — specific acts, moments, occur and reoccur with different people, in different contexts. One moment, the narrator covers R.’s forehead in kisses (“a garland, I thought, I had garlanded him — You are the most beautiful, I said to him, you are my beautiful boy.”), and then soon after he is covered in kisses by someone else. Similarly, early on his assaulter is spitting into his mouth, and later he’s spitting into his sexual partner’s mouth.
The penultimate chapter of the novel has the narrator playing the sexually dominant role with a young man he meets online. He replays many of the same moments of his own assault, but here the lines of consent have not exactly vanished. His partner seems to be enjoying himself, but it’s hard to parse through his euphoria when we cannot help but be reminded of how little the narrator enjoyed going through the same motions earlier in the novel. Greenwell writes: “I took pleasure in his suffering, in his willingness to suffer. It was the pleasure of being a man, I think, I’m not sure I had ever felt it before. I luxuriated in it, I didn’t want to let him go.” Is this the novel’s thesis? It’s certainly the closest, and most literal, Greenwell gets to calling out the toxicity of masculinity. This moment seems to say that the character finally understands what it means to be a man per society. Which is to say, a man is one who inhibits violence, inflicts violence, and gets off on it.
Greenwell is not done fucking with us. Instead, there is something else Greenwell does that demands our attention — he drills into the animalistic aspects that arise in moments of violence. For example, during the scene of his assault, Greenwell writes: “I cried out with real urgency, an animal objection.” Then, during a protest, he takes a similar approach, and we see the same animalistic turn: “The mood was changing as the chant broke down and became something less choate and more animalistic, hisses and boos.” The protest continues to morph into something more raucous, less sure: “The sound of the crowd grew louder, that inchoate sound, formless and primal, inhuman, hardly animal now but primordial, chthonic, like a sound the earth would make. It wasn’t an animal sound but it elicited an animal response.”
The animalistic descriptors have Greenwell (re)summoning his initial scene of assault and raising a new question: what is the difference between sex and protest? They both are moments of congress in which a human becomes an animal, according to Greenwell. Cleanness affirms that there is an animalistic urgency involved in moments of violence, sexual or not. But it’s almost as if the sexualized human is no longer human, but an animal. To Greenwell, the beautiful, animalistic, and violent are most important. But what’s the difference? We are containers for all three anyway.
This is a remarkable novel whose prose is both original and insightful. Though there are moments that recall the classics, Greenwell proves to be such a master of the form that it’s almost as if he invented it. He takes the trope of revisiting a past love on the heels of possible new romances and spins it on top of itself; this is more than a romance. This is a novel about human suffering, and the complexities of making connections amongst ourselves. It’s about growing up, and growing into oneself. Eros is at its core, too: “He wasn’t obviously beautiful but he was beautiful, it was a combination of charm and intelligence, a kind of earthy old-world grace, and of the wiry athleticism I felt when we hugged,” Greenwell writes. Then, about someone else: “I was struck again by his beauty, which was offhand and accidental, with his disheveled hair and ruffled clothes, a beauty stripped of self-regard.” In Greenwell’s world, people (men) are beautiful, animalistic, and inherently driven by violence.
The term “cleanness,” as used in the novel, refers to the brushing away of the narrator’s shame through R.’s love, the dirt of the city being swept away, and the attempt at healing from past trauma. Greenwell writes: “Sex had never been joyful for me before, or almost never, it had always been fraught with shame and anxiety and fear, all of which vanished at the sight of his smile, simply vanished, it poured a kind of cleanness over everything we did.” It concerns a clearing away. A confrontation with the dirt of our lives, both the literal (as seen in the debris of the streets), and the metaphoric. Ultimately, it’s as if the novel in itself is a tool for this cleanness, a way for Greenwell to examine trauma and attempt a sweep at it. Though there is also a violence in clearing something away, vis-à-vis the cleanness described in the novel. If we consider hygiene as a euphemism for violence as well, then Cleanness is an attempt at confronting and swiping away at violence — with violence? Greenwell, a master at avoiding the obvious, leaves that up to us.
Josh Vigil is a writer living in New York.