Sofia, Bulgaria, a landlocked city in southern Europe, stirs with hope and impending upheaval. Soviet buildings crumble, wind scatters sand from the far south, and political protesters flood the streets with song.
In this atmosphere of disquiet, an American teacher navigates a life transformed by the discovery and loss of love. As he prepares to leave the place he’s come to call home, he grapples with the intimate encounters that have marked his years abroad, each bearing uncanny reminders of his past. A queer student’s confession recalls his own first love, a stranger’s seduction devolves into paternal sadism, and a romance with another foreigner opens, and heals, old wounds. Each echo reveals startling insights about what it means to seek connection: with those we love, with the places we inhabit, and with our own fugitive selves.
Cleanness revisits and expands the world of Garth Greenwell’s beloved debut, What Belongs to You, declared “an instant classic” by The New York Times Book Review. In exacting, elegant prose, he transcribes the strange dialects of desire, cementing his stature as one of our most vital living writers.
“Extraordinary . . . The overall effect is even more impressive than [What Belongs to You] . . . The range in these stories is part of their triumph and part of what makes their existential sorrow so profound.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“A tale of tumultuous romances, [Cleanness] is explicitly—almost incandescently—erotic. In scenes containing both tenderness and violence, Greenwell showcases his powers as a taxonomist of touch.”—Cornelia Channing, Paris Review (Staff Pick)
“Cleanness is a sublime book, transcending not only autofiction or LGBTQ writing, but the very barrier between stories and novel, fiction and non-fiction.”—Ian J. Battaglia, The Chicago Review of Books
“Melancholy and lyrical, this slim volume confirms that Greenwell is among our finest writers on sex and desire.”—Esquire
"If you read gay literary phenom Greenwell’s last novel, What Belongs to You, think of this as a sequel that doesn’t let chronology worry it . . . Look forward to more of the exquisite, high-wire sex writing that has earned Greenwell his reputation."—Hillary Kelly, Vulture
“If Henry James were alive in this strange century, if Thomas Mann had been allowed to write raw sex, if Virginia Woolf had slummed it more, if Proust had been born in Kentucky, if they all commingled their blood and brains, we might get something like Garth Greenwell. Cleanness lives between Europe and America, between novel and story, between fiction and the self. It is indescribable, and it is genius.”—Rebecca Makkai, author of The Great Believers
“Cleanness is a novel of such vivid sensuality that you can almost taste it, and the book’s trio of (I can think of no other term) sex arias are almost harrowingly erotic. But just as memorable are the author’s minute observations. There is magic in seeing the world through Greenwell’s eyes.”—Benjamin Dreyer, author of Dreyer’s English
“I don't know how Garth Greenwell writes such delicate, profane fiction. These stories are grace and salt, tenderness and shadow. Reading this book made me want to sit with my emotions and desires; it made me want to be a better writer.”—Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties
“Garth Greenwell writes with remarkable power, vulnerability and an operatic beauty. Such is the compelling journey of the characters of this book that we come to a new understanding of the body, loneliness, risk, desire and even anguish, but also a tenderness, a hard-won grace that can and does transform. What he leaves us with is an absolute truth—love is what drives us all towards light, towards any kind of redemption, but we must earn it, we must give all to it.”—Chris Abani, author of The Secret History of Las Vegas
“Cleanness is stunning, provocatively revelatory and atmospherically profound. Here is love and sex as art, as pulse, as truth.”—Lisa Taddeo, author of Three Women
“An unbearably wonderful, eloquently sexual, thoughtful, emotional, delight of a novel—Garth Greenwell writes like no one else.”—Eimear McBride, author of A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing
“So rarely do words make comprehensible the inevitability and confusion of desire as Garth Greenwell’s writing does. His sensibility is akin to James Baldwin’s, and he observes the world with eyes like those of Tolstoy. With shimmering prose and undiluted intensity, Cleanness captures the indefinableness of pain and intimacy, love and alienation, vulnerability and sustainability.”—Yiyun Li, author of Where Reasons End
“In Cleanness, I found an end to a loneliness I didn't know—until now—how to describe. Greenwell maps the worlds our language walls off—sex, love, shame and friendship, the foreign and the familiar—and finds the sublime. There are visceral shocks like I’ve never encountered in print, and they delighted me, again and again. With each plunge we take beneath the surface of life, lost and new worlds appear. This could only be the work of a master.”—Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
“Garth Greenwell is an intensely beautiful and gorgeous writer. I can think of no contemporary author who brings as much reality and honesty to the description of sex—locating in it the sublime, as well as our deepest degradation, sweetness, confusion, and rage. Most American literature seems neutered by comparison. His perfect noticing extends to the way we experience love and loneliness, the feeling of exile, and the eternal search for home.”—Sheila Heti, author of Motherhood
“Cleanness is an impressive book: moving, radical, both beautiful and violent, unexpected. Garth Greenwell is a major writer, and his writing provides us tools to affirm ourselves, to exist—to fight.”—Édouard Louis, author of The End of Eddy
“Garth Greenwell’s sentences are magical and spellbinding. They breathe, and are alive, in completely unpredictable ways. Words are voyages, says John Donne. Greenwell is a novelist whose art makes a poet stand on his toes.”—Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic
“The narrator [of Cleanness] pushes more sexual boundaries this time, and Greenwell admirably pushes them too by depicting those desires with an unflinching frankness. Sadomasochism, unprotected sex, the narrator’s voyeuristic attraction to one of his students: They are all elements of the story, portrayed in Greenwell’s precise, elegant style.”—Kirkus Review (starred review)
“Greenwell's writing on language, desire, and sex in all their complex choreography vibrates with intensity, reading like brainwaves and heartbeats as much as words. Concerned with intimacy, its performance, and the inevitability of becoming and being oneself, this is in every way an enriching, deepening follow-up.”—Booklist (starred review)
“A young American teacher’s reckonings with intimacy and alienation compose the through line of Greenwell’s elegant and melancholy volume . . . Greenwell writes about sex as a mercurial series of emotional states and is lyrical and precise in his descriptions of desires and motivations he suggests are not subject to control or understanding. This is a piercingly observant and meticulously reflective narrative.”—Publishers Weekly
We had agreed to meet at the fountain in front of the McDonald’s in Slaveykov Square. By my American standards G. was late, and as I waited for him I browsed the book stalls the square is famous for, their wares piled...