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

“Physical love is unthinkable without violence,” Milan Kundera wrote in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Some of the most essential recent fiction has surveyed the pain and pleasure of being on the receiving end of violent physical expression. There’s been a lot to absorb about submission.

In Sally Rooney’s impeccable novels, women yearn to be tied or beaten or choked or otherwise degraded; for intricate reasons, they feel they deserve no better. Marianne, in Rooney’s “Normal People,” desires to be “subjugated and in a way broken.”

The intensities of submission are a theme in Ocean Vuong’s novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” There’s a hair-pulling and hair-raising sex scene. The participants recognize something feral in each other. One thinks, “This is how we were going to do it from now on.” In Alan Hollinghurst’s recent novel “The Sparsholt Affair,” sex gives way to commentary about “the slight invalidish luxury of having been had.”

These are hardly new themes, in literature or anywhere else. In Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” to pick just one example, the protagonist “went to bed with men as frequently as she could” because “it was the only place where she could find what she was looking for: misery and the ability to feel deep sorrow.”

Yet perhaps, in a world that feels freshly broken, there is a renewed desire to be brought low.

Early in Garth Greenwell’s incandescent second novel, “Cleanness,” there’s a sex scene between two anonymous men who’ve met online. The setting is Sofia, Bulgaria. An American teacher in middle age arrives at an apartment to meet a man who is older, overweight, unhandsome, a brute.

[ “Cleanness” was one of our most anticipated titles of January. See the full list. ]

The sex that results is pulverizing. “With great force he spat into my face” is the start of it. There are leashes and cat-o’-nine tails, choking and well-aimed kicking. What the teacher feels is gratitude. He is recovering from a failed relationship; he is seeking a “force that can make me such a stranger to myself.” He says, “I want to be nothing.”

One of the profound things about the online world, he thinks, is that you can “call out for anything you desire, however aberrant or unlikely, and nearly always there comes an answer; it’s a large world, we’re never as solitary as we think.”

[ Read The Times’s profile of Garth Greenwell. ]

Anyone who read Greenwell’s first novel, “What Belongs to You” (2016), knows that his writing about sex is altogether scorching. You pick his novels up with asbestos mitts, and set them down upon trivets to protect your table from heat damage.

There’s a moral quality to these extended sessions. In bed is where Greenwell’s men work out and reveal the essences of their personalities.

Sex scenes are the hinges of Greenwell’s novels, as they are of Kundera’s. These writers also share a certain heavy-heartedness, in addition to gray Eastern European settings. Carnal moments are accelerants; they’re where Greenwell’s existential and political themes are underlined, then set ablaze.

Greenwell’s first novel was also set in Sofia; it, too, was about an American teacher living there. The slim books are similar in content and tone. There’s been some grumbling among readers I know, as this novel’s arrival detonates across the landscape, that they’re too similar.

This complaint, to my mind, is easily dismissed. Greenwell extends his reach in “Cleanness.” It’s a better, richer, more confident novel. You intuit its seriousness and grace from its first pages. It’s a novel in search of ravishment.

Greenwell’s teacher spends a lot of time with younger men, many of them students or former students. He admires their beauty. They remind him of his younger self. Some are gay in a country where it is nearly impossible to come out of the closet, and he longs to tell them that it gets better.

Greenwell is a sensitive writer about the student-teacher relationship. “My profession is a kind of long looking,” he writes, yet in other ways the students are “entirely opaque” to him.

At another moment, the narrator thinks: “That’s the worst thing about teaching, that our actions either have no force at all or have force beyond all intention.” He adds that “the consequences echo across years and silence, we can never really know what we’ve done.”

The teacher rejoices in “the company of these boys.” He loiters around them and longs to touch them. He goes with them to clubs. He takes a much younger lover. The book becomes about travel, self-exile, political protest and the demands of long-distance relationships.

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?

“Cleanness” is related in nine chapters that can be read individually, as if they were short stories. Greenwell has an uncanny gift, one that comes along rarely. Every detail in every scene glows with meaning. It’s as if, while other writers offer data, he is providing metadata.

This novel’s second half is not quite the equal of its first. Some scenes end rather than resolve. Greenwell is a brooder. You begin to wonder how his humorlessness will wear over time.

Yet there are no failures of equilibrium. This writer’s sentences are so dazzlingly fresh that it as if he has thrown his cape in the street in front of each one. Greenwell offers restraint in service of release. He catches you up so effortlessly that you feel you are in the hands of one of those animals that anesthetizes you before devouring you.

Students and instructors, dominants and submissives. As “Cleanness” moves forward, as if in a game of chess, positions are castled. Who is the emcee, and who is the contestant? The teacher finds himself doing things he never suspected he might.

This novel is, in part, about memory and nostalgia. (The narrator grew up in the American South.) It is also about shame. “I knew I felt something I shouldn’t feel,” is a typical comment. The narrator feels “the shame that felt like home.”

Most fundamentally, it’s about putting two people together and squeezing out sparks.

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