Power Is Always Present
A CONVERSATION WITH GARTH GREENWELL
Garth Greenwell’s forthcoming Cleanness is the highly-anticipated follow-up to his debut, What Belongs to You. It follows the same unnamed narrator, an expat teacher living in Sofia, Bulgaria, through a broad range of intimate encounters: between teachers, students, lovers, friends, past, and present. The following is a conversation between the author and a number of his FSG readers. It has been edited for clarity.
FSG: How does time work in Cleanness? Why do we tend to know where we are geographically, but not always temporally?
Garth Greenwell: There are only a few historical references: there are the protests that occurred in Sofia in 2013, and then, more generally, the financial crisis and austerity measures. That crisis is why R. and the narrator can’t make a life together: they can’t find jobs that would let them live in the same place. I think one of the things I want to do in my writing is to carve out a space between narrative, which I think of as having a kind of propulsive movement through time, and lyric, which I think of as being the suspension of time. The first sentences of several chapters set a fuse on fire, I hope; they begin a narrative arc. But then, within each chapter, there are very lyric moments in which time is frozen. It interests me to take a moment that feels dense with significance and to freeze it, and to try to pick apart some of that density.
FSG: “Lyric” is an interesting word, and a poetic one. How does a poetic ethos inform your work? Your characters explicitly reference poetry, especially as it takes place against a backdrop of political upheaval and catastrophe.
GG: I wrote poems for twenty years before I began writing fiction. Even though I don’t write poetry anymore, I still think of myself as a poet more than as a novelist. I still feel like I don’t know anything about writing fiction! I’m interested in what can happen in prose when you bring the tools of poetry to it. The way I think of narrative has everything to do with poetry, with music and with opera, and not so much with the cause and consequence of plot.
And yes, there’s a way in which I believe what the narrator says in “Decent People” about the role of poetry and art: that a poem can be bottomless. It can be an object of endless contemplation. I want to find a way to make prose do that. “Decent People” came out of the actual experience of teaching Whitman as those 2013 protests took place in Sofia. Whitman articulates a vision of what “America” might mean that still feels viable to me–it still feels like something I can buy into. My students in Bulgaria felt that there was not a similar figure for them, a national vision that seemed viable. Teaching Whitman in Bulgaria helped me understand how central Whitman is to my sense of America. We know how problematic Whitman is, and how he failed his own most expansive vision–but the force that those poems have is still remarkable to me. They feel like a shape I wish we would pour our country into.
FSG: You’ve mentioned reading Victorian novels. I’m wondering: did those inspire the decision to refer to all characters with just an initial?
GG: I should come up with an answer to that. I should have some very sophisticated response like, ‘Well, it’s like a Russian novel from the 1840s!’ I can’t explain it, though. I like to think about literature in analytical ways, but then I also want to be really protective of the urges I don’t understand in my own work. For instance, there’s something embarrassing for me in the idea of making up names. It feels like a step too far into the fictive. I know there’s a lot of anti-fiction sentiment right now, and I don’t really share it–I think invention is a crucial human tool, something we need to engage meaningfully with the world. Still, there are certain signposts of invention that I really resist, like quotation marks and giving characters names.
FSG: I think it works really well.
GG: Oh good! The convention of initials also suggests toying with the idea of fiction and nonfiction. Maybe it’s part of this attempt to strike out a territory between narrative and lyric. If narrative is engaged in particularity–the details of biography and character–the lyric voice is meant to be a voice anyone can step into. When I studied with Helen Vindler, she said: the lyric “I” is an “I” that anyone can occupy. We’re all speaking through Emily Dickinson’s poems. I want my characters to be embodied people, but they are also, to a certain extent, representative or archetypal.
“A poem can be bottomless. It can be an object of endless contemplation. I want to find a way to make prose do that.”
FSG: Reversals of power provide a central structure in the book–particularly in instances of sexual dominance and submission, and the recurrence of trauma in fetish. Could you speak about that?
GG: The struggle over power happens in any encounter between two people. There’s a tradition of thinking, from Nietzsche down through Foucault (especially early Foucault), that argues that power is all that there is between human beings. I don’t agree with that–I think there’s meaningful affect or commitments that power can’t account for, but I do think power is always present. Sex between men engages power in particular ways. There are codes of masculinity that make its negotiation particularly charged. I’m interested in situations in which that struggle becomes text, not just subtext– part of a contract.
S&M, for example, can make power visible as something that can be manipulated and performed. I think of S&M as an aesthetic experience, in the sense that it puts a constructed frame around an experience. Within that frame, things can be acted out safely that may otherwise be dangerous and traumatic. It presents an opportunity to process and think through trauma.
In this book, sex has different kinds of emotional valence. “Gospodar” was the first of the really intensely sexual pieces of this book that I wrote. It drew me forward into a place that was dark and terrifying. I was the first thing I wrote after finishing What Belongs to You, and the first thing I wrote after returning to the States. I remember writing much of it in a cafe in Iowa City. I would look up from the page and there would be people just having coffee and talking and working on their novels in a feverish way. I couldn’t believe that the world was still around me. Writing that chapter was just an intense and terrifying experience.
FSG: How do pain and cruelty inflect the narrator’s relationship with R.–sexual and otherwise?
GG: Sex is one of the profound experiences of our lives. I think it can be banal and boring and routine and I also think it can be transformative. The R. stories were an opportunity to write sex in a different emotional context–one of tenderness and commitment–but I still wanted to show how it is still inflected by the same dynamics that an S&M structure allows you to make visible, performative, and manipulable. Cruelty and the longing for pain, the desire for dominance or submission are not things we get to just set aside. We have to find some way to accommodate, to live with, and to accept them. How can you do that within the relationship of love?
The most important line in the book occurs for me at the very end of the title story. The narrator is having sex with R., and he makes a declaration–not something he says out loud, but an inward declaration: He thinks, “Anything I am you have use for is yours.” It’s a giving over of himself, a recognition of love that until this moment had been impossible for him. But he only arrives there by cruelty–by realizing, just before this, that among other things R. is feeling he is feeling pain, a pain he craves. The narrator realizes that he likes causing R. pain; he becomes aware of his own cruelty. It’s only by acknowledging that cruelty, by finding a way to accommodate it, that he is able to arrive at the declaration the story ends with.
We don’t have access to R.’s experience in that moment–his experience is untrespassable. He’s asking the narrator for something, and the narrator is trying to give it to him. What is he asking for? And is this something that is healing for him? Is this something that’s further brutalizing to him? I’m not sure the book lets us know. That, too, seems to me a fact of human life, that we can’t know. But they try to love each other. That’s what’s important to me, for the two of them: They are trying, as best they can, to love each other.
“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
“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