Every season in the world of literary fiction there is some author who gets all the attention, who gets all the breaks, who gets excerpted in The New Yorker, who gets love on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, who seems to be on the lips of everyone who reads serious literature and wants to talk about it.
Right now that person is Garth Greenwell. It's exciting when that person actually deserves the attention, as Greenwell does. His first book was the novel What Belongs to You. His second book, Cleanness, is either a novel or a short story collection or some hybrid of the two; it is a genre the cool kids call "autofiction" because it's something akin to a blend of autobiography and fiction.
In it he writes about desire, about shame, about the urges and worries that propel us through the world. His sex scenes are so hot that you have to put the novel "down upon trivets to protect your table from heat damage," according to one New York Times review.
In the second chapter—or is it the second short story?—the narrator goes to the house of a man who forces him to strip before entering his place, forces him to drink his piss, forces him to submit to being beaten, and then tries to force his way into the narrator's ass without a condom. What begins as consensual S&M tips into non-consensual violence. Cleanness "reaches into the relationship between masculinity and violence with more depth than any book I've read in a very long time," says the novelist Adam Haslett in a blurb on the back cover.
“If there is a gay ghetto, then that’s where James Baldwin is, and Thomas Mann is, and Virginia Woolf is, and that’s the only place I would ever want to be," Greenwell said recently. "And that’s not on the margins of the literary tradition: That’s right at the heart of it.”
Woolf was on my mind as I read Cleanness, because both authors are enthralled by intensity, in all its forms. On Saturday night at Elliott Bay Book Company, I will probably ask Greenwell about:
• Having a book glowingly reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review
• How he writes such hot sex scenes
• Why he doesn't write dialogue like most other authors do
• Why he doesn't write out character names like most other authors do
• His previous life as an opera singer
• Elizabeth Warren (he's a fan)
• Pete Buttigieg (having a moment)
• His experience of the Iowa caucus (Greenwell lives in Iowa and teaches at the Iowa Writer's Workshop)
• Whether we should get rid of the Iowa caucus
• Whether we should get rid of Iowa
What else? What else should I ask him about? Put it in the comments, or just come out to the event and ask him your question yourself, during the audience Q&A. It's at 7 pm on Saturday, and it's free.