After debut success, Garth Greenwell returns to the ‘pit of despair’

Novelist describes Cleanness, follow-up to What Belongs to You, as a song cycle

Cleanness proves that Garth Greenwell hasn’t suffered ‘difficult second album syndrome’.

Cleanness proves that Garth Greenwell hasn’t suffered ‘difficult second album syndrome’.


I spoke to Garth Greenwell while we were both on lockdown. The impact on authors has been huge. Appearances, festival events and classes have been cancelled and, although there has been a surge in online book sales, authors launching new books are uncertain of the impact our new world order will have on their work.

Greenwell’s planned UK tour, where a visit to Ireland was being discussed, has unfortunately been cancelled. It’s a loss. We’re missing a rare opportunity to hear the author talk. He is an engaging, generous speaker, who is articulate and considered about his process, his work and the art of writing, in a way we don’t often get to witness.

The last time I interviewed Greenwell for The Irish Times was on his previous UK tour, at the South Bank in London, six weeks after his debut novel What Belongs to You had been released. He was shocked that the book had already caused quite a stir. Little did he know it would go on to be a massive international success and be hailed as a modern masterpiece.

I asked him how he looks back on that time. The reaction, he says, “was the biggest surprise of my life”, and he feels “immensely lucky” as “the success of a book has as much to do with chance as anything else”. Its success has allowed him to have a career as a writer and teacher in a way he wasn’t able to in his previous 20 years of writing. He feels relieved, though, that the writing process itself, “the struggle”, just him alone with his notebook and “the pit of doubt and despair”, hasn’t changed. “I wouldn’t know who I would be without it.”

Hands-off editor

Cleanness proves that Greenwell hasn’t suffered “difficult second album syndrome”, but I wondered if the success of What Belongs to You had placed weight on his words. Did he meet any resistance to Cleanness returning to the same narrator and setting as his debut, which, I know from experience, is not usually encouraged for a second novel?

“Luckily for me, I was deep into the project of Cleanness by the time What Belongs to You had come out, “ Greenwell says. “I knew the shape of it, and what I was writing into.” Also, while a book is gestating, his agent and editor are the “hands-off” kind. For a time, while on his fourth editor at his US publishers, FSG, he felt, if anything, “moorless”, that there wasn’t anyone waiting for the next book.

“I think that if I’d had anyone waiting, I’m pretty sure I would have been told that writing Cleanness was a mistake because it was so much in the world of What Belongs to You and some of my writing friends had already raised red flags.”

That, somehow, he should act strategically and not go wherever his words took him is alien to his way of exploring his creativity. “Some writers map out their writing career, Virgil and Zola, but that’s totally foreign to my idea of making art. My whole life has been a series of zigs and zags and I think my writing life will look like that too.”

My model for Cleanness, and I know this sounds pretentious, is a song cycle

“Making art” is not often how we hear a writer refer to their process, this side of the Atlantic anyway, but perhaps comes from his varied background in the arts. “My first education in the arts was as a singer, and in some ways, it was the strongest experience.” He was also an acclaimed poet before exploring prose.

When I ask Greenwell about form and genre, whether Cleanness is a novel or a linked story collection, he recognises the critical debate but the topic holds no interest for him: “Critics can call it whatever they like.” He’s grateful that both his UK and US publishers resisted labelling the book “Cleanness, a novel” or “Cleanness, a story collection”.

His background in music provides the most apt form to describe the book, he says. Music is where he first learned “how pieces can be made into wholes, in art”, he says. “My model for Cleanness, and I know this sounds pretentious, is a song cycle. Everything I think about beauty comes from music and comes from having been a singer for a long time, at the most formative moment of my development as an artist. In an ideal world, it would be called ‘Cleanness, a song cycle’.”

Greenwell confesses to enjoying “the Victorian novel, full of incidents and heavily plotted”, which gives him “great pleasure and solace, especially in our time of quarantine”. But it’s far from where his writing takes him. When I discuss the forward thrust of plot-based novels and that I’d describe his work as having more like a downward trajectory, he agrees that this is most prominent in his work.

He talks about drilling down, “navigating his way through the abyss, writing clause by clause, feeling my way. This navigation works like a sentence were a heat-seeking device, constantly turning towards the points of greatest emotional heat.”

However, there is also ascent. “In fiction, we often have access to that ecstatic realm through epiphany. I’m interested in epiphany in art, in life. I think Cleanness has that but also has a scepticism about the portability of that knowledge, or ecstatic revelation. These epiphanies aren’t necessarily carried into the next chapter. They are honoured for that experience.” His unthreaded approach is his artistic intention.

I mention the Joycean epiphany-style short story, and absence of cause and effect from chapter to chapter and the book reading like a linked collection as a consequence. Greenwell informs me that arias are also epiphany based, chiming with the “song cycle” description. Also, “my second education, in art, was in poetry. In lyric poetry, juxtaposition is one of the primary ways of generating meaning. I do think it’s much more powerful to put things next to each other and allow that proximity and juxtaposition to create meaning. As opposed to spelling it out in a discursive way.”

This I find illuminating and resonates not only in Cleanness but also in What Belongs to You, whose middle section reads as a stand-alone story between the connected sections book-ending it, while at the same time feels revelatory.

Cleanness is a development of Greenwell’s voice; there are more notes he can hit, he has expanded his range. It’s certainly a more ambitious book. There is a widening, an opening out, in style and subject matter. Decent People, a story that follows a protest on the streets of Sofia, is a good example.

Greenwell says, “I think Cleanness is a better book because it is much more open to the world, much broader. Not just in politics and history and number of characters but also emotionally. There’s no way I could have written something like Decent People back then. What happened was, in the intervening years, I had read a dozen novels by Zola, who is the greatest writer of crowds. It gave me the equipment to write that chapter.”

Graphically sexual

A lot will be made of the two chapters that are graphically sexual and explore the gay S&M dynamic from both perspectives. Indeed, a lot should be made of them, but they are only two of many stories in the book. I wanted to talk to Greenwell about the broader concept of cleanness and his intention.

“One of the driving tensions of Cleanness, that manifests itself in many ways across the book, is this idea of a double bind. There is something in us that desperately wants us to be clean and there’s something in us that wants to bathe in filth. And there is no resolving that double bind, that is just part of the make-up of the human. I think life is just a series of these double binds, and the desire for a solution is disastrous. The determination to resolve that situation is disastrous.”

Greenwell talks about how his work is in conversation with strands of theological thinking, of moral thinking. He likes to “take a single quandary and look at it from as many angles as possible”, again, this lack of desire for a solution, of plot resolution, but a wading in the waters of uncertainty, a hand reaching into the abyss.

I remind him that in our previous interview he said he found the writing of the middle section of What Belongs to You a frightening, intensely emotional experience. Did he feel similarly writing sections of Cleanness? He did. He mentions, as you would expect, Gospodar and The Little Saint, the exposing, challenging, sexual sections.

He also, more surprisingly, mentions The Frog King, a tale he describes “of very ordinary happiness”, as having the same feeling of intense fear.

In a world where the gay experience is most often recorded in its extremes, where his book will most often be referenced and critiqued in terms of the two chapters out of nine that explore complex sexual dynamics, perhaps the fear he felt writing The Frog King comes from the fact that, when it comes to the depiction of gay life, the most dangerous exploration of all is that of the very ordinary happiness of a gay man.

Greenwell, alone with his notebook, alone with “the struggle”, in “the pit doubt and the despair” he cherishes, now approaches the abyss with more tools to help him venture deeper, further, wider. We are the luckier for it.

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