Over lunch in downtown Iowa City, one week before the release of his second book, Garth Greenwell talks about the relationship between his 2016 debut novel, “What Belongs to You,” and his new book, “Cleanness,” both of which are narrated by the same American man working as a teacher in Bulgaria. The first book is tightly focused on a single relationship while the second is more expansive.
“‘What Belongs to You’ is a really streamlined container,” he said, “and the world was bigger than that container.”
The new book is, perhaps, a different kind of container all together. You could call it a collection of linked short stories. You could call it novel. Greenwell, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who calls Iowa City home, refers to it as “a book of fiction.”
“What Belongs to You” won the British Book Award for Debut of the Year, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for six other awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
He also thinks about the book in musical terms, drawing on his own extensive experiences as a musician and poet.
“This thing I say about it being a song cycle, that’s really how I think of it,” he explained. Like a composer, he thought deeply about how “Cleanness” would work in terms similar to musical notions of harmony, key, mood, tone and more. Or to employ a different metaphor: “These nine centers or nodes of intention are like constellations held in place by these charged relationships between them.”
The book’s first and last chapters, “Mentor” and “An Evening Out,” for example, both find the narrator in fraught situations with a student or former student. The second and penultimate stories, “Gospodar” and “Little Saint,” are each explicitly (and exquisitely) detailed sexual encounters. In the center of the book are three pieces grouped together as “Loving R.” Of this structure, Greenwell said, “They (the chapters/stories) are very clearly speaking to each and mirroring each other.”
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Taken together, “Gospodar” and “Little Saint” are, arguably, the book’s center of gravity.
“Gospodar” is the first piece Greenwell wrote after “What Belongs to You” — and the first thing he wrote in America after returning from Bulgaria. He wrote most of the piece in High Ground Cafe in Iowa City because, he said, the intensity of the story and its explicit depiction of rough sex was “so scary I needed to write it in a public place.”
He knew as he wrote “Gospodar,” in which the narrator is sexually dominated, that he would need to write what became “Little Saint,” in which the narrator does the dominating. That realization was essential to the work.
“That was what made it a book,” he said. “It was called into being by its structure.”
The sex on the page is as “explicit as I can make it,” Greenwell said but not simply for the sake of explicitness. The author sees sex as a “charged, intimate, ethically freighted form of communication. I think it is one of the most intense forms of communication.” He worked to blend the frank language and imagery with “the techniques of the novel of consciousness” in the belief that “together (they) could produce discoveries, so I wanted to go as far as I could — which meant not worrying about how people would respond to it.”
Readers are likely to have a range of responses to these chapters as they raise questions about the nature of desire, our understanding of consent, and more. “The question of what we want... This kind of internal communication seems to be endlessly vexed,” Greenwell said.
He is deeply invested in these sorts of questions, and for him, they are best explored in fiction.
And so, when he was asked to right a kind of “gay #MeToo essay,” he declined because he felt he couldn’t explore those feelings and ideas in that form. “My thoughts about that are the story ‘An Evening Out,’” which is built around what he calls “an indecipherable moral situation.”
Exploring these situations, he argues, is one of the primary uses of fiction. “I think fiction is a tool we use when our other tools are inadequate.”
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For the description of what he calls “limit experiences” (drawing on the thought of Michel Foucault among others) — “basically, sex and mystical experiences” — the tool of fiction is pushed to the limits of its efficacy, requiring a determination to expand the possibilities of language. “You try to find ways to break language,” Greenwell said. The goal, then, is to find “resources for trying to understand things that seem to be beyond language or dangerous to the coherence of a self.”
As lunch winds down, I ask him about his next project — likely a novel set in Kentucky in which this same narrator wrestles with the aftermath of his childhood and young adulthood. He’s had this book in mind for quite some time; he and I have discussed it before and I’ll admit to a growing eagerness to read this as-yet-unpenned continuation of the deep exploration — revelation — of the narrator’s inner life.
For now, Greenwell said, his unnamed narrator continues to speak to him and is likely to remain at the center of his work. “The books that have the most purchase in my brain involve this consciousness,” he said. Still, he acknowledges that he would happily explore other ideas if they “bloom and take root.”
Our meal finished, it again struck me that we were still seven days away from the release of “Cleanness,” and I was already hungry for Greenwell’s next book. In the meantime, I’ll no doubt return to the many pleasures and provocations of both “What Belongs to You” and “Cleanness.”