Garth Greenwell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (cloth)

Ela tuka, he said, come here.” Garth Greenwell’s narrator comes closer; the unnamed Bulgarian man with whom he has arranged this date on the Internet makes him move on all fours, like a dog. The narrator and this man have discussed each other’s expectations and limits beforehand, in stilted English and bad Bulgarian; soon, it will become clear how poorly the narrator has made himself understood, as he flees to avoid being raped.

How does desire undo me? Greenwell asks, with a taboo-breaking frankness that places him in a genealogy reaching back to the Marquis de Sade.

The stories collected in Cleanness, and those in Greenwell’s earlier What Belongs to You (2016), all take place in present-day Sofia, Bulgaria, where the narrator, a recent college graduate, is employed as an English teacher. Within this setting, Greenwell works in a genre of erotic realism. He limns the desiring self and the half-chimerical, half-real world in which this self finds its enjoyments. Locating the inner sources and conditions of this enjoyment, and carefully staging their unraveling, are more important in Greenwell’s hypnotic fictions than the specifics of his narrator’s lovers. The aims of this exploration of desire and sex are epistemic, ontological, and hedonistic. How does desire undo me? Greenwell asks, with a searching, taboo-breaking frankness that places him in a genealogy reaching back to the Marquis de Sade, Georges Bataille, Pauline Reage, and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

A wall of cultural and linguistic otherness separates Greenwell’s narrator from his Slavic lovers in Cleanness. To read it and What Belongs to You as a queer Slav is to find oneself in a hall of mirrors, in which the Slavic reader becomes both the sadist to the narrator’s masochist, and an inadvertently dominated, naive Sadean Justine. As an Anglophone gay reader, I am moved by the ways Greenwell’s novel offers a profoundly, precisely introspective meditation on the vulnerability of desire. But as a Slavic queer of the kind the novel depicts, I see myself depicted with great awe but also muted, caught in a tableau whose terms I have not been allowed to negotiate. What creates this parallax? Greenwell’s narrator wants to be swept up in his Slavic environments; yet he also wants to control the terms of his submission to them. The tool of this control is the English language, whose elegant phrases hold his Slavic subjects captive like the spiked dog collars with which these men throttle him. The narrator’s sexual arrangements with these men are consensual; the linguistic ones continually shade into cultural domination.

It would be a mistake simply to conflate this sexually submissive, culturally dominant narrator with Greenwell himself. But it would be equally misguided to read Cleanness without considering the similarities between this narrator’s fictional biography and Greenwell’s own life as a Fulbright scholar in Sofia. This not-quite-trustworthy narrator’s partial blending with a presumably more knowing and ironic authorial figure is one of the novel’s most ambitious and tantalizing features. Greenwell borrows this narrative device not from Sade or Reage, but from Marcel Proust, that great modernist master of never-quite-complete, never completely cathartic, ironic introspection. Like Proust, Greenwell wants us to wonder whether his narrator is completely aware of his obsessions—and about whether, were he to gain such awareness, he would stop enjoying them.

The Slavic gay men of American erotic narratives are wilder, perhaps more violent, but also less self-knowing, oppressed not just by inner demons but by a homophobic social environment.

Greenwell’s Cleanness is not pornography. Still, pornography of a very specific kind constantly hovers on its margins, as it did on the margins of What Belongs to You. “Polish Boy,” “Ukrainian Boy,” “Slavic Boy”: online and in the world of genre fiction, these are recognizable categories of gay sexual fantasizing. Search for these tags on Amazon, porn sites, and in collections of erotic fiction and you will find that they are ubiquitous. Queer cousins of the “stable boy”–style pornography of which D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) was the highbrow apotheosis, they descend from literary works such as Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912)—that modernist tale of gay obsession, cholera, and decadence—and Prosper Merimée’s Lokis (1869), a Twilight predecessor about Lithuanian werewolves.

The Slavic gay men of Western European and American erotic narratives are wilder, more spontaneous, perhaps more violent, but also more precarious, less emotionally self-knowing, oppressed not just by inner demons but also by a repressive, homophobic social environment. Sex with them is adventurous and unexpected, lined with the fear of STDs but also with the thrill of newness. Their Western lovers encounter gayness in the pre-Stonewall wild, of a kind more instinctive for being bound by fewer conventions, for having had to exist for longer in hiding. In this regard, these Slavic gay men also represent the Western queers’ alter egos: counterfactual, repressed versions of themselves.

Greenwell’s narrator’s subject position and his subject matter put him dangerously close to this tradition. He defends himself from falling headlong into it, as many critics before me have noted, through the beauty of his style and the depth of introspective self-exposure this style lets him undertake. But in this mode of defense also lies the novel’s greatest paradox, one of which Greenwell himself seems aware but his narrator does not. Greenwell’s narrator lays himself bare before his reader in a way that parallels his generally submissive, intensely vulnerable physical interactions with his lovers. Yet in the same gesture, his refined command of English makes him these lovers’ superior and master.

Greenwell’s narrator is sexually submissive, but his command of English makes him his lovers’ superior and master.

This Möbius band of disempowerment and power is a classic feature of BDSM sexual practice. In “Coldness and Cruelty,” Gilles Deleuze’s 1967 essay on Sacher-Masoch’s classic novel Venus in Furs (1870), Deleuze memorably describes masochism as a double pleasure: that of submission, yes, but also of control over the terms of one’s submission. Deleuze articulates this doubleness by juxtaposing the masochist against the sadist. To achieve his pleasure, the sadist must at least temporarily forget that the control he gains over someone else’s body is fettered by the terms of the submissive’s consent, which can be withdrawn at any time. For a masochist, by contrast, this erotic artifice is everything. He enjoys his enacted submission as well as the theatrical nature of the condition in which his dominant partner puts him, and this theater’s origin—at the end of the day—in the masochist’s own yearnings and imaginations.

Greenwell’s narrator finds such safety in words: in the agreements he enters into with men prior to meeting them but also, and especially, in these encounters’ retroactive retelling. He sexualizes style and, especially, stylistic mastery, to an extent whose closest analogue is the charged eroticism of poet Frank Bidart’s flamboyant semicolons and em-dashes. Greenwell’s sentences twist and curve with near-orgiastic flourish. But where Bidart speaks of love and sex through long-dead historical personae, Greenwell’s narrator does so in dialogue with non-native English speakers. Their incomplete control over his culturally and politically powerful linguistic medium thrills him. Thus continues the passage with which I began this essay:

Ela tuka he said, come here, having decided to keep me, at least for a while. When I began to rise he snapped Dolu, stay down, and I moved across the space on all fours, the carpet featureless and gray and coarse. When I reached him he took my hair in his hand and lifted me up onto my knees, not roughly, maybe just as a means of communication more efficient than speech. I had told him I wasn’t Bulgarian in one of our online chats, warning him that when we met there might be things I wouldn’t understand, but he had asked none of the usual questions, he seemed not to care why I had come to his country, where so few come and fewer still stay long enough to learn the language, which is spoken nowhere else, which even here, as the country shrinks, is spoken by fewer people each day; it’s not difficult to imagine it disappearing altogether, the language and the country both.

The rhythmic beauty of this paragraph is as stunning as its eroticized sense of cultural superiority. Bulgarian is not an imperial language, but nor is it in imminent danger of “disappearing.” Indeed, with its roots more firmly based in Old Church Slavonic than any other surrounding Slavic tongue, it is arguably one of Europe’s staunchest linguistic survivors. But the narrator needs to tell himself otherwise: collared by this Bulgarian man, who could strangle him, he reminds himself that it is he, the American, who has a voice others will hear; he is the one who speaks the language that will not die. With his bad English, this Bulgarian man could not even read the narrator’s description of their play, let alone provide an equally persuasive, culturally portable counterpoint.

The narrator’s air of mastery extends to the students he teaches, whose self-expression he painstakingly corrects into asymptotes of native perfection. Here, the narrator’s dominance is (for the most part) not overtly sexualized. But it is still inextricable from questions of personal and cultural awareness, especially as they pertain to expressing nonnormative and queer desires. The narrator knows better than his students how to express their frustrations; as he slides between reported speech and free indirect discourse, he notes the students’ occasional resistance to his paraphrases, but also their apparent lack of alternatives to them. They are alienated from their culture and its traditionalism, sexual and otherwise. To articulate this alienation, they reach for American English and the more liberal mindset it stands for, without ever being able completely to grasp it:

I’m sorry, she said, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to diss your video—her English was the best in the class, she was a hair’s breadth from sounding like any American kid—I don’t mean to diss your video, but I’m so sick of this nostalgia bullshit. Sorry, she said, glancing at me, though she knew I didn’t care if they cursed in class, sorry, but all this men-on-horseback crap, what does that have to do with Bulgaria, I mean Bulgaria now. The hair’s breadth made a difference; there’s a kind of uncanny valley in language, competency can overshoot the mark, so that however perfectly we speak a foreign language speaking it too casually feels like an imposture, I don’t know why.

Switching from “her” to “we” at the end of this paragraph, the narrator turns her ESL awkwardness into an unsurpassable, universal condition. His student can leave her local mentality behind, but not her accent. In his tongue, she will forever be an “impostor,” someone on whose introspective efforts the native speaker cannot quite focus because the words she uses to convey them seem borrowed and collaged. The narrator struggles at least as much in Bulgarian, of course—but his is the language of the novel we are reading, and of the culture his students want.

The rhythmic beauty of Greenwell’s book is as stunning as its narrator’s eroticized sense of cultural superiority. We find no trace, here, of Eastern Europe’s own rich tradition of queerness.

In the narrator’s mind, anglophone linguistic and aesthetic superiority are closely bound: “Almost all of Sofia’s public art was in this style,” the narrator comments of the local buildings, “which I liked, more or less, though my Bulgarian friends pursed their lips at my admiration. Mnogo sots, they would say, very socialist, not just about murals and monuments but about music too, about movies and books, dismissing at a stroke whole generations”—so says the narrator, from a position of quasi-objectivity Greenwell is clearly ironizing.

Anglophone norms of gay identity also dominate the Bulgaria Greenwell depicts as, apparently, the only conceivable form of sexual liberation. Elsewhere in the book, we follow this narrator as he observes supposedly imperfectly self-aware locals staging Western-style Pride protests. He also notes at one point how much of his more liberated lovers’ prowess seems to come from the anglophone world: “My first American cock, he said then, looking up at me and smiling, my first cut cock; his English was remarkable, he spoke flawlessly the language of hook-up sites and porn.” We find no trace, here, of Eastern Europe’s own rich, autochthonous tradition of queerness. In the narrator’s fantasy—and the geopolitical reality he inhabits—such a local, non-Western version of queer cultural tradition does not seem to exist at all, having been wholly covered over by the cultural assumptions English carries with it.

Cleanness seeks to immerse its reader in the transgressive pleasures of gay sex. It also—more obliquely, and more provocatively in its Western context—explores the guiltier, less easily acknowledged pleasures of being a native speaker of English among people who recognize this language as a desirable lingua franca. Both are forms of identity one is “born into,” in some form or other; whether the pleasures of imperial dominance can be made as playful as queer ones is a question Greenwell’s prose constantly raises and about which it refuses to offer us comfort. Handing the non-anglophone other a whip can appear to level the playing field; but no amount of whipping or Westernization, Cleanness insists, can make this other’s English—or one’s own English—clean.