It’s a provocative glance into the complexities of sex and love, and the personal suffering that goes with it.
We can all agree that it’s easier being straight; some of you more so than others. It’s the norm, it doesn’t require explanation. There’s no reason to hide, no reason to mentally beat yourself up, no awkward glances, no wasting time deciphering the sexuality of attractive strangers.
But Garth Greenwell goes a lot deeper than that. In Cleanness, he uncovers the venereal desires that transcend sexuality and sexual appetites while unravelling the various interpretations of connection—with ourselves, the different ways we love others and the places we explore.
Cleanness follows a closeted American teacher preparing to leave the landlocked city of Sofia, Bulgaria; the place he’s called home during his years abroad. His memories waver through his profound experiences, each playing a test on his grappling mind, each seeking to connect with his true sense of self.
But what remains a constant reminder is his connection to his own sexuality. It’s important to note this because Bulgaria is one of the few countries that doesn’t socially tolerate homosexuality. The protagonist of the story learns to deal with his sexual desires in ways that, I feel, have not been explored so deeply in any other literature. Garth navigates this world so explicitly, picking out the nuances that everyday straight people would never even notice. The nearing hands that never touch in the middle of a crowded restaurant, the side glances shadowing internal dialogues, the external factors that threaten pure love.
Sexuality transcends every minority on this planet; in fact, sex is the most basic need according to Abraham Mazlow. A majority of us understand the complexities that surround this human condition. Whether it’s the conquest of mating, the challenges of pleasuring and being pleasured, and the love that encapsulates it all— no matter how much we scream for NSA. But many of us are averse to talking about it openly.
This is perhaps why gay men, in particular, are so adept at sex. Because we freely talk about it, because we’ve had to ever since the AIDS epidemic blew our world apart. And therein lies the reason why many men who hate their same-sex attraction feel so disgusted with their sexuality. It’s the stigmas that permeate cultures, giving rise to stereotypical ideas. It’s the stain we expect to attain from those around us.
This is exactly why Garth Greenwell titled his book “Cleanness”. We all strive to be the best versions of ourselves, and too many of us cover up our abnormalities when we do it. For the protagonist in this book, it’s the idea of remaining pure that has somewhat haunted his life. Remaining pure in a society that is so troubled by political and social upheaval, that it feels oblivious to the real society that inhabits it.
We yearn for cleanness, for purity in the face adversity. But perhaps we should learn to enjoy dirtiness, embracing the taboos that truly make up the human race.
We are human, after all.