‘Cleanness’ by Garth Greenwell

Garth Greenwell is one of the best writers of sex, desire and emotion working today. He imbues each moment of intimacy between his characters with contrasting feelings of admiration, disgust, control and oblivion, which feel true to life. ‘Cleanness’ examines what it means to be clean, pure, debauched or dirty, what it means to want another person and the insubstantiality of both relationships and our own lives. His use of language is sharp and charged with feeling: “I thought, however slowly, nothing was solid, nothing would stay put, and I held on more tightly to R…I wanted to root into him, even as the wind said all rootedness was a sham, there were only passing arrangements, makeshift shelters and pearl harbours.” It is a masterful piece of short fiction that reminds me of the feeling of possibility that good writing creates.

Published in Cleanness, Picador, 2020

‘Gospodar’ by Garth Greenwell

Greenwell’s Cleanness is a really a novel, not a collection of short stories, but many of the sections were previously published as such. Either way, it’s a sensational book, probably my favourite of the decade so far. I wasn’t sure if I should include this one, as its impact comes, in part, from its place in the sequence. Out of context, I fear it may present as too unrelentingly intense; even so, it contains the most brilliant sex writing you’ll find anywhere. Considering the skill it takes to render any sexual encounter with narrative clarity, never mind this level of emotional insight, Greenwell’s achievement here is off the scale. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

First published in The Paris Review, Summer 2014 and available online here – in full for subscribers, with an extract for free. Collected in Cleanness, Picador, 2020