Sex, Violence and Self-Discovery Collide in the Incandescent ‘Cleanness’

Garth Greenwell’s second novel is about a middle-aged American teacher’s sexual and existential journey while working in Bulgaria.

Comments: 31

  1. Include me out.

  2. Judging from the year-end book lists reviewed in the Times, novelists—and artists of all stripes—seem engaged in a savage competition to express the most extreme experiences and feelings as normative. Dwight Garner's review legitimizes and abets this toxic culture, describing a book like "Cleanness" as "incandescent," but the adulatory adjectives can't conceal a zeal for depravity that saddens me.

  3. "I'm glad I'm not young anymore."

  4. “Art gropes,” said John Gardner. “Pulverizing” sex scenes were not, I’d wager, what he had in mind when he did. And “it destroys only evil. If art destroys good, mistaking it for evil, then that art is false, an error; it requires denunciation.” I wish Dwight Garner had elaborated on the “moral qualities” of a character’s “gratitude” in being permitted to fulfill another’s death-dealing desire “to be nothing.” If Greenwell fails to convey the profound spiritual consequences of such profanity, fails to communicate through it Kundera’s own disgust of a “vile, monstrous” freedom “where shame, inhibitions, and morals have ceased to exist”—and instead offers an unabashed or even ambivalent endorsement—then I’d argue the book is irresponsible and, ultimately, unworthy of examination as “literature,” which, at its best, strives to elevate the human condition not pervert it. Maybe I’m just old fashioned.

  5. This reviewer may well be a better writer than most novelists! I exclaimed out loud at several of Garner’s unique sentences, so if he’s so clearly impressed by the subject author’s talent I’ll be reading this book.

  6. Hello! Have I woken up in a previous century? You are seriously asking this question? Yes, teachers hanging around their students because the teachers are interested in the students sexually is wrong.

  7. It may be fashionable to say that people want sexual violence but my experience as a psychiatrist tells the opposite story - people wounded and harmed by sexual violence. The review makes it sound consensual and wanted - That’s really not always the case !

  8. The normalizing of BDSM is infuriating. The desire to be degraded and "deserve no better" is nearly always brought on by childhood sexual/mental trauma. It controls you you are not controlling it. Sorry. It's a chemical addiction in the brain. Cortizol, the fight of flight chemical released by the brain during pain and stressful events is combined with dopamine, oxytocin and other "pleasure" chemicals it releases during sex. The brain is overloaded. And we like it. Well, we like cocaine too. And BDSM effects the brain the same way. It's an addiction that's hard to break and will over-ride the ability to form healthy, equal nurturing relationships because they will seem "boring and vanilla". This is science. Stop normalizing addictive behavior (50 Shades et all). We live in a broken, anxious society and it's no wonder many people (esp. women) are seeking this way out and wanting to make it "normal". *(P.S. I'm not talking about a little spanking now and then).

  9. @Ignatius J. Reilly ....but what is "normal"? I think you will find that those and that which you think are "normal" are simply those and that which you don't know very much about. This should be especially true when it comes to sexuality. No one is normalizing anything here---this is a book review, of a book written by a GAY author. Who do you think should write such books dealing with this topic---only straight, vanilla people from a hetero-normative perspective? Also, BDSM =/= sex addiction. Those are two different things that you are conflating.

  10. @Ignatius J. Reilly Your PS completely invalidates your tirade! You're morally repulsed by behavior in the novel, yet admit to enjoy spanking? Well, isn't it simply a matter of degree? What you find OK (spanking) may be reprehensible by others. And what you find reprehensible (and have judged pathological), others do not. You've simply drawn an arbitrary line. So typical. "What I choose to do is "normal," but what YOU do is addictive and abnormal." Moralizing on shaky ground right there. Amazing that you would throw that post script in there and still click "submit" when it destroys your argument so effectively!

  11. @Bike Fanatic: On the other hand, in life, simple matters of degree are important. It's not like numbers, where the difference between 5 and 50 and 500 is just a matter of zeroes. What some of the comments tell us, from people with some background, is that this kind of extreme sexual violence is often connected with trauma and dysfunction, so to treat it all simply as choices of pleasure might be to miss something important.

  12. — If you switched some of the pronouns in “Cleanness,” if this book were about a lusty straight male teacher elatedly mingling with vastly younger female students, why would we view it differently? Does this novel evade some of the questions it raises? Am I evading these questions right now? — Yes. But thank you for admitting it, albeit in a sideways fashion.

  13. This review is nearly all adjectives, perhaps because the book lacks actual substance. This kind of review sidesteps what a book is actually about, and rhapsodizes about how it is written. Unsatisfying. Pehaps like the addictive abnormal activities it reveals. There is a certain brave usefulness about revealing deviant behavior--and I do not mean same sex, which is not deviant--and authors often go where others fear to tread, but it is the reviewer's job to let us know just how and why the author has focused on it. Lolita comes to mind. It informs. Does this book? I'm not likely to read it, so I won't know. Does any young person today grow up actually putting sex in context? Or is it just another way to stimulate a lazy and uninspired mind/body, another drug-- like reading about more and more outlandish human activities.

  14. Wait - what: "Some of the most essential recent fiction has surveyed the pain and pleasure of being on the receiving end of violent physical expression..." Two inches across the page from this: "It was about an hour into Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial when his lead defense lawyer came under attack..." Yeah: “Big Brother is watching you. Double-think means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it..."

  15. Is Donald Trump the political equivalent of this author’s desire for sexual violence. Just an extension to violence against our society, way of life and Government institutions? Did those who voted for him know this all along?

  16. Thanks for alerting me to a book I certainly will never read.

  17. @Not A Prude Do you need to be alerted to books you'll never read? Because that would amount to hundreds of thousands of alerts, would it not?

  18. No book ever makes it really big in the US publishing world without an excessive dose of sex/violence/quasiporn/ - amirite

  19. I'm so tired of sexualized violence being not just portrayed as normal, but a positive and celebrated way to "work out and reveal the essences of one's personality," to quote the reviewer. No. Wanting to be degraded (in the novel, spat on) in sex is not something we should celebrate. It's almost always a symptom of trauma, often sexual abuse. Considering that Mr. Garner recently trashed the remarkable "Milkman" by Anna Burns, I seriously question his literary judgment.

  20. I haven't read these books, but from the descriptions, I have no desire to read them, no curiosity, no need to fill my mind with their strange conceits. We have reached a sad state when we are attracted to books featuring sadism, masochism, and deviant coupling. There is a world of literature where characters love each other and enjoy nurturing, affectionate heterosexual or homosexual relationships. We don't have to read about cruelty to know it exists. And so does mental illness.

  21. "Am I evading these questions right now?" Yes, Garth, you are. A friend dear to me was violently gang-raped as a child by three grown men. There are three words that sum up my response to this review: "Shame on you." And, shame on Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Not just for profiting from a reading public that found fifty shades of gray worth "consuming", but for selling a 223 page book for $26. Let me add that I taught college human sexuality courses thirty years ago. I am neither a prude nor a censor.

  22. @Mary Sojourner So are you saying that thirty years ago, human sexuality professors were incapable of distinguishing between consensual and nonconsensual sex? That explains a lot, actually.

  23. This is a book written by and for a gay male audience. Pronouns are not interchangeable because the experience of how gay men interact with each other is very different from straight couples. This review is from a straight man who does not view gay male lives through the same prism as the audience for this book.

  24. Mr. Garner's inability to support his opinions with concrete textual examples is supremely evident in this review. Perhaps the Times' language restrictions limit what he can quote or say, but unfortunately, in this review his writing comes off as self-serving --i.e. "look how well I can create images"--rather than serving the book and the potential reader with clear description and information that can help the two to get together or remain apart. An "incandescent" novel may give out heat and light, but what is it revealing, what is it making warm?

  25. @Fred Misurella The lines he quotes from this supposedly spectacular stylist are really pedestrian. “That’s the worst thing about teaching, that our actions either have no force at all or have force beyond all intention.” Really? Who would have thought?

  26. I wish we could be honest about our desires. But, I guess not.

  27. I'll listen to someone who has read the book. Not to someone who has strong opinions about its subject, not in this case.

  28. This was exactly the problem with the first novel: “his novel’s second half is not quite the equal of its first.” It was half a good and interesting book.

  29. It seems that plenty of previous commenters have pointed out the many flaws not only in Garner's review but in a novel that seeks to promote gay literature in a story of brutal violence, abuse and self-abnegation. The previous day the NYTs published a promotional PR piece on the author. Stop promoting gays as dysfunctional. What is this, Fox News?

  30. This review leaves me asking, "Huh? What is this book about?"

  31. I'm amazed at how uninformed people are about sexuality. Look, I have no interest in engaging in the kinds of behaviour that Mr Greenwell describes, but it is an aspect of human expression that we would do well to try and understand. The old way of just ignoring and trying to shame people didn't really work for anyone, and the fruits of that repression are all around us. Also, it's bad strategy. I'd rather that the people with these inclinations develop a way to find each other and explore safely, and thus weed out the sociopaths. By the way, most of the horror people are expressing here is identical to how people talked about homosexuality in general even just twenty years ago. Think about that.