In 2016, I read a library copy of What Belongs to You and loved it so much, I bought a copy shortly after, and read it again. It was a perfect little novel, really. I know there are people who prefer the novella Mitko (which is an earlier version of the first section of WBTY) but I read WBTY first, and I thought it was all absolutely necessary, perfect even. Beautifully written, it told the story of the unnamed narrator’s relationship – no, experiences – with Mitko, with a middle section that told of the narrator’s childhood, and told us, really, everything we needed to know about the narrator. It was all right there in its pages. [and here’s my rave review of that book, on this blog, from 2016]
Which is why, when I heard that Cleanness featured the same unnamed narrator in the same setting (Sofia, Bulgaria), I was worried. Greenwell had written a, frankly, brilliant novel in WBTY, why would he go back to that world so soon? But then, I thought, he had written a brilliant novel, maybe Cleanness would be just as good.
Split into three sections like WBTY, but in Cleanness each section has three chapters within it, giving us a book of nine stories. And firstly, the format needs addressing: Cleanness isn’t a novel, and it isn’t really a book of short stories. It feels like it’s in that murky world of the fix-up novel, where existing stories are slotted around new ones to make up a book, but by all accounts this book was planned. Sure, there’s overlap and reference within but the stories feel like remote islands separated by hundreds of miles of empty sea.
Immediately, in the first section, I knew this was not WBTY (and look, that’s okay, it could be something else, and I would get on board, but…) and I went from being excited to, at times, hating this book. One reviewer said that you could read Cleanness independent of WBTY, but I can’t imagine how (or why) you would.
This first section contains three pieces, Mentor, a bland and relatively boring section about the narrator and a gay student looking for advice. It’s a piece that thinks it’s more meaningful than it actually is (this is a world where gestures seem imbued with earthshattering meaning). And things that in the first book I didn’t mind, such as only calling characters by their initial, in Mentor with a much larger cast of classmates that the student was discussing, often became confusing. (Also, for all the fact that the second section is called Loving R., it is more than telling that the only person named in either of the two books is Mitko, and not R. the young man the narrator spent years with). The next piece, Gospodar, is where I started to despair. Greenwell has spoken a good bit recently about the purported ‘radicality’ of this book, how he wanted to write something sexual but ‘art’. Well, unfortunately, throughout the book, Greenwell writes about sex as if he’s the first person to ever write about it, and it grates. This section, in which our narrator is a sub in a dom/sub scene, turns violent at the end, and disturbing (it is never mentioned again outside of this section and the ramifications of the rape are never explored). I feel that Greenwell purposely wanted to write ‘sexy’ BDSM lit prose that turned into something darker, and whilst it shocked (and that was certainly part of the point), it just felt nasty and stuck out like a sore thumb. The third piece, Decent People, about rallies in Sofia escaped my memory entirely (to the point that I had to look it up).
The second section, the only one with a title – Loving R. – fares better as it has a unified subject, but at times it feels, well, amateur. In the collection’s title story, the narrator and R. have a stormy conversation whilst a literal storm takes place outside the restaurant. I really feel that Greenwell is capable of much better than this. I was vaguely surprised to learn that R., who is briefly mentioned in WBTY (and I’m curious to investigate where Cleanness sits temporally in relation to WBTY), was young (perhaps this was mentioned in WBTY, but I had forgotten?). But then, the whole book, both of them really, is about the narrator’s attraction to young men, yet it is a largely unexamined attraction, which is curious considering that many of the men (outside of the sex-based stories) are his current or former students. I’m not saying a character in a novel has to be a paragon of virtue – one of my favourite novels is Lolita – but the narrator lives a rather unexamined life, which is odd for someone who writes about his life so much. The relationship with R. inevitably ends – and perhaps aside from the narrator’s predilictions, this is why he was a student: to give a definite end date – but this leads us back to the freewheeling morass the first section had been in, where the narrator either dreams his way through his life or is violently, sexually, granularly there.
The third section opens with a piece called Harbor, a gathering of American and Bulgarian writers, of which the narrator is one, and it made me curious, what does the narrator write? I don’t think the narrator is the author of these novels, i.e.. the narrator hasn’t written WBTY, he is a character in it, but I would like to read something of what he has written, something external from his always-on-the-run-brain. But perhaps the narrator’s writing is terrible, or worse, mediocre, and best avoided. The second piece, The Little Saint, is the companion to Gospodar, except in this story, the narrator is the dom. Again, Greenwell writes as if this is earth-shattering, but it isn’t (as evidenced from the even keel of the sub), but perhaps that’s the point, perhaps the narrator is over-dramatic, wracked on the cross of his own emotions, constantly running unexpressed in his head. Greenwell also tries to write sex, whilst aware of the clichés of writing sex, leading to an all-too-knowing commentary on dialogue that, while appreciated, doesn’t quite work. Maybe overall it’s the character of the narrator that I’ve grown to dislike. The last section An Evening Out tells of the narrator, again with students (former ones this time), one of whom he surreptitiously hits on, before he leaves Bulgaria and teaching forever. Why? Teaching, because he’s fed up with it (fair enough). Why is he leaving Bulgaria? Presumably because he is no longer teaching? What will he do now? No one cares enough to say, or that it is so meaningless as to not even be mentioned. The book ends with him, drunk, curled up with a street dog that after all his years there, he finally lets into his house (and if that isn’t a backhanded reference to Mitko, I don’t know what is).
More than anything, this book, not only does it just not work as a narrative for me – too “this x makes you feel y, doesn’t it?”, too not the sum of its parts, nor its parts operating singularly – but it feels, plainly, unnecessary. Sure, Greenwell can write, and writes beautiful prose at that, but the story should have ended with WBTY. Cleanness adds nothing new, and for all of its talk about sex, and shame and gay men’s interaction with both, it adds nothing really new there either. Cleanness feels like an afterthought, the ghost of a lost love stuck wandering where it died, forever.
You can use our online catalogue to reserve a copy of What Belongs to You here. [Cleanness, inexplicably, is only available as an eBook in Europe at the moment, with a physical release not planned until April]