book review: Cleanness by Garth Greenwell



CLEANNESS by Garth Greenwell
FSG, January 14, 2020


Cleanness is a sparse and melancholic novel about an American man living in Bulgaria.  His sexual encounters with other men – some of these encounters loving, some purely transactional – mostly take center stage in this story that unfolds across nine vignettes, in which the narrator reflects on the time he’s spent living and teaching in Sofia.

Greenwell’s linguistic prowess is this book’s greatest strength; I think On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an obvious enough comparison, though they vary in subject matter – but these are the kind of novels that won’t appeal to anyone who grows weary of lyrical prose and introspection, who instead need a diverting plot or a strong attachment to characters.  (I have to wonder if I’m becoming such a reader, because my only qualm with this book was a certain lack of narrative cohesion that seemed to be beside the point entirely.)  But the writing is worth the price of admission alone:

“But none of this was right, I rejected the phrases even as they formed, not just because they were objectionable in themselves but because none of them answered his real fear, which was true, I thought: that we can never be sure of what we want, I mean of the authenticity of it, of its purity in relation to ourselves.”

The narrative mostly centers on the protagonist’s relationship with a man he calls R. – his ideal, pure image of R. in stark contrast to the degrading sex he seeks from other men after his relationship with R. crumbles.  This tension between cleanness and toxicity underscores his interactions, and the alienation he feels as he grapples with shame and desire can be acutely felt.  Cleanness is a challenging, sexually explicit book that isn’t going to be for everyone, but I found it fascinating for its insight and the prolonged sort of aching sadness it sustains.

Thank you to Netgalley and FSG for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pre-order a copy of Cleanness here on Book Depository.

11 thoughts on “book review: Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

  1. I’m so on the fence about this one! I’ve seen some great reviews, but I was pretty underwhelmed by What Belongs to You, which was basically a greatest hits of gay tropes. I do remember thinking the writing was good though…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read What Belongs to You yet, and I do want to check it out at some point but it sounds like a good thing I started here! That sounds incredibly frustrating, and I’m on the fence about whether I’d recommend Cleanness to you… in some ways it is very much a Sad Gay Book (though it doesn’t follow the trajectory of love/AIDS/death so there’s that?) but I do think there’s a lot of depth here that it sounds like What Belongs to You might have been lacking. I did just look up your review though and a lot of things that you mentioned – the self-loathing, the casual unsafe sex – can definitely be found in Cleanness as well. So I guess I’d recommend it if you’re okay with gay tropes + a sufficient amount of insight and analysis, but I’d say skip it if you’re just over the tropes altogether (which is absolutely fair).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I wasn’t interested in this book at all – but a introspective book told in vignettes and dealing with sex and self-loathing does sound super like my type of book (no, I do not want to know what that says about me as a reader).

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s more masculine than the sort of thing that I would ordinarily recommend to you, but you’re right, the themes are SO up your alley. It’s definitely one to keep on your radar! (Plus, it’s short.)


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