On the surface, Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness seems to be a book about sex before anything else; many of the stories contained within it are about desire, coming out, or the act of sex itself. But while these might be the headlines of the book, considering them together, and in the context of what happens on the margins of the different stories, it becomes clear that there’s something deeper at work. Much of the sex in Cleanness is explored through the prisms of kink and fetish, using the tropes of desire and the ways in which it’s performed, as a way to explore trauma, intimacy, and queerness.
Cleanness follows an unnamed teacher who lives and works in Sofia, Bulgaria. He’s shown in classes, in cafes, in bedrooms, interacting with students, friends, and sexual partners. The narrator has something of a love-hate relationship with the city he calls home; in spite of the many things that Sofia offers him, it’s clear that it isn’t a place that’s always hospitable when it comes to queerness. Civic protests in the novel reveal the fine line that queerness walks: “we have to choose between being gay and being Bulgarian, fuck that, it’s so fucking homophobic.” This tension, and the specter of danger that seems to follow queer life in Cleanness, opens up old wounds, allowing for an exploration of trauma and the ways in which it can lie in bed next to desire. This is reflected in how sexual desire is articulated in one of the stories in Cleanness, “Gospodar,” where the narrator engages in an act of sexual submission.
His submissiveness hints at not only the ways in which desire is performed, but also the darkness that can lurk beneath it, the necessity for communication and safety. When the narrator is asked what he wants, he replies, “at first slowly, and with the usual words, reciting the script that both does and does not express my desires.” Performing sex, especially as it’s presented in art, is often something of a double-edged sword. While fantasy can be depicted as something that deepens connection, it can also exacerbate tensions, and turn the small distances between people into chasms that they can’t cross. In I Love Dick, both Kraus’s original novel and the recent (tragically under-discussed) TV adaptation, Chris’s love for the eponymous Dick becomes a kind of game, one that’s intellectual and sexual simultaneously.
In the book, Chris writes letters to Dick that she never plans on sending. It’s a kind of exercise, a way of exploring desire, abjection, where those two things intersect, why one would want to feel abjection, and how might it lead to the feeling of being desired. In the TV adaptation, with slightly less experimental style and tone that’s more like an art-world-sex-comedy than anything else, Chris’s games about — but never with — Dick end up crossing over into the realm of her marriage. It’s no wonder the second episode of the series is called “The Conceptual Fuck.” In a way, Chris actualizes her desires, using both her letters and her husband, as part of the performance.
The most interesting linkage between I Love Dick and the acts of sexual submission in Cleanness is how the subject of desire becomes not so much an object of desire as simply an object. Kraus writes, “Oh Dick, you eroticize what you’re not, secretly hoping that the other person knows what you’re performing and that they’re performing it too,” hinting at the power and pitfalls of sexual fantasy, and the extent to which it exists to fill in the gaps that a person perceives in themselves. This is realized in the TV adaptation by turning Dick into a kind of cowboy, creating a new interpretation of a decades if not centuries old sexual stock image. The loss of self that comes with sexual fantasy — turning from person to object, from Man to Cowboy — also exists in Cleanness. During “Gospodar,” the narrator is gradually dehumanized, something he acknowledges by saying his partner was “no longer speaking to me but addressing the object that I had become.”
The thread of sexual submission woven into Cleanness isn’t just about objectification and pleasure. When a character submits in Cleanness, there’s a sense of danger to it, not just the specter of violence that explodes to life in “Gospodar,” but of a kind of reunion with trauma, a reminder of the fear and humiliation that so often plays a role in growing up queer. The “shame that I called home” is an idea that’s invoked in Cleanness, the idea that queerness and shame are somehow linked, two things forced together.
The idea of adolescent queer desire, both with and without shame, is the central idea that animates playtime, the second poetry collection by Andrew McMillan. Some of this shame and fear is permanently linked to the shadow that the AIDS epidemic has cast over queer life, something McMillan acknowledges in “Blood,” when he writes, “when I leave/I feel a dread moving in that will not lift/for two weeks.” McMillan’s poetry also acknowledges the performance inherent in so much of sexual interaction, as in the poem “First time sexting,” a poem that shines a light on how performing desire can make it clearer. McMillan writes, “our bodies/seemed drawn towards this thing we couldn’t/articulate and so we described/it to each other nightly for hours.”
This echoes the idea of a scripted desire in Cleanness, a way of understanding bodies and desire, but also potentially coming up against the limits that are so often imposed on them, especially in sexual contexts — gendered ideas of dominance and submission, or filtered through masculine/feminine binaries. Being more active in a sexual scene doesn’t necessarily need to equate to dominance; there’s a power that comes from being able to receive pleasure from someone, just as there’s power in offering oneself, body and soul, to another. Greenwell writes, “They were places I had never touched him before, some of them, and this gave gravity to the moment, more gravity; I whispered I love you as I kissed him, and then two kisses later I whispered it again.”
But, just as submission can open the door to the shame called home, dominance also has a darker side, the idea of taking without limits. In the story “Little Saint,” the narrator of Cleanness finds his old sexual dynamics inverted as he aggressively dominates a partner. This dominance, just like his submission in “Gospodar,” conforms to the tropes and clichés of sexual performance: “That’s right, suck that cock, the language of porn that’s meaningless unless you’re lit up with a longing that makes it the most beautiful language in the world, full of meaning, profound.” The scene here takes a turn towards a more extreme kind of submission, with the narrator’s partner offering himself up as an object: “Please, he said again, his voice muffled, I’m nothing. He repeated this, I’m nothing, I’m nothing, and I echoed him.”
Although the narrator’s sexual partner gives out a “cry of joy” during this scene, “Little Saint” shows an understanding of the ways in which the performance of sex and desire, particularly through the prism of BDSM, has the potential to be emotionally draining and potentially harmful, for both the dominant and submissive partner. There’s a danger of becoming lost in the performance, of boundaries becoming blurred, on both physical and psychological levels. Just as Kraus’s Dick is always performing a kind of art-world-cowboy, and repressed desire is just a breath or a touch away from coming to the surface in playtime, Cleanness reveals the darkness and possibility for the abuse of power in relationships. The narrator cries at the end of “Little Saint,” and there’s a kind of emotional withdrawal that comes with his tears, a kind of acknowledgement of a masculinity that’s on the verge of toxicity when it comes to performing sexual dominance; Greenwell writes, “I was embarrassed, I didn’t want him to see me, when he asked what was wrong I couldn’t answer.” The “couldn’t” is what’s interesting here, as if the very acknowledgement of weakness or weeping would somehow break an illusion, change the dynamic in some irreparable way.
The aftercare of the sexual scene has a kind of uncertainty about it, a lack of understanding about what’s been performed and what’s real. As the narrator stops crying, he’s told, “don’t be like that, he said again as I put my arms around him. Do you see? You don’t have to be like that, he said. You can be like this.” But what this might be is never clarified. It could mean that the narrator could be aggressively, violently dominant, or unafraid to be vulnerable. Likely, it’s some combination of the two. Cleanness, with its stories of desire and longing, of politics and sex, shows a powerful understanding of the fact that nothing is truly set in stone: identities and desires can change, just as countries can change, as the political marches that animate another story, “Decent People,” explores.
Cleanness is about a search for something — for love, for home, for freedom from shame. This search often takes on a sexual dimension. As Chris’s search for an identity takes a road-trip through America, art, and abjection, Greenwell’s narrator tries to find himself through not only sex, but all the other things that inform it. The question of what he does or doesn’t have to be like is one that never really gets answered, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The narrator mentions his love of Whitman, how “it was a different poem because of the protests, which became the context of our reading.” It makes perfect sense for a book like Cleanness to tip its hat in acknowledgement to Whitman. Greenwell’s book, like it’s narrator, and the narrator of “Song of Myself,” contains multitudes; they contradict themselves, they perform versions of what others want to see, but all of this is done to try to understand, above all else, the self — what it means to desire and be desired, what it means to love and be loved.