book review: Kink by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell




KINK: STORIES edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell
★★★☆☆
Simon & Schuster, February 9, 2021



Like most anthologies, Kink: Stories was a mixed bag, though it’s certainly enjoyable for its novelty alone (its thesis being that erotica has a place in literary fiction). I found the preponderance of stories about BDSM started to get a little boring after a while, but this was otherwise a refreshing collection that I enjoyed spending time with.

I felt the stories that were the most successful were the ones that contextualized the characters’ kinks—I don’t mean that in a ‘every kink comes from a fucked up childhood’ kind of way; I mean that your life and your sex life are part of the same whole and some of these stories were more interested in interrogating that intersection than others. 

The two absolute stand-outs were Brandon Taylor’s Oh, Youth (tender, devastating) and Carmen Maria Machado’s The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror (weird, sensual)–incidentally the two longest stories in the collection. The other surprising highlight for me was Trust by Larissa Pham, an author I’d never heard of, whose Vermont-set story I found evocative and effectively moving. 

The less said about Roxane Gay’s Reach the better, and a handful of other stories fell flat too, mostly the ones that lacked interiority of any kind. You could tell that a lot of these authors wanted to forgo character and dive straight into Commentary About Desire, and I always found that much less effective.

(Also, anyone looking forward to new Garth Greenwell should know that his story, Gospodar, is a chapter taken straight from Cleanness–I ended up skipping it when I realized I recognized what I was reading as I hadn’t particularly enjoyed that chapter the first time.)

Bottom line is that it’s honestly worth the price of admission for Taylor and Machado, but otherwise it didn’t totally reach its promising potential.


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

book review: Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

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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.