Cleanness by Garth Greenwell, copy from Definitely Books

Just a minute or two ago I turned the last page on Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, the title story, not the collection; the title story which is located somewhere in the middle of the book, and gasped. As I was reading I remember holding my breath, mouthing the words, tracing them over with my tongue and pen, just stunned, astonished at how beautifully woven his words were, how precise, soft, clear. Stunned, I said it before, but must say again, I finished, and immediately exhaled, all the wind that had been stored up in me rushing out at once, whistling between my teeth. When the air was all gone I inhaled again and said, to an empty room, oh.

I could not bring myself to continue to the next story, I had some other things that needed to be done, a shelf to be built, a few submissions to review for the Journal’s Spring Contest, a housemate to talk to, exchange words with, something we previously took for granted but recently formalized due to extenuating circumstances, other things, as I said, that needed to be done, but I could not do them. It seemed a small violence to allow new words or actions to enter, to dissolve the temporary bubble that the story had spun. I was still in the space of Cleanness, which I had only just joked about a day before (to myself, only, but still) as being thematically appropriate for our times.

In the space of the last week my life has allowed tremors to take hold, what’s the point of using euphemistic language, here is what it is: i have drained my life savings and put my life on pause to be here in new york city, to attend my dream school, pursue my dream tribe, and crisis has wrapped the city up in its little finger. Everything is over and we are all staying home. Or perhaps it is not over but it feels like it is: how can it not, when half the city and my house is fleeing, if they can afford it, the other half is aggressively sanitizing, campus is locked down, i am communing only with paper and through the screen, Am I in quarantine, no, but i might as well be. Quarantine! I am not quarantined so much by a sickness i do not have but by a bittersweetness, a lack of foresight into even the week after, a fear of the turbulent finances that this whole situation has thrown us into. It’s too bad, my friend said, about your school, i’m sure youre disappointed, and i thought to myself, disappointment, what is disappointment, some people can afford it, not I.

I want, more than anything, i think, but i have thought wrong before, so maybe this time too, who knows, but I want to be proven wrong, to look back in a month and think: aha! an overreaction, your melodramatic side resurfacing, as usual. But I kept calm before and look where that got me. For the last week i have had to force myself to slow, enact and enforce a new metronome to move through my day. I made a checklist – every day i would try to do at least four things from a category of five, here: write, read, exercise, errands, assignments. If i am to be stuck at home the least i can do is be productive, but the truth is you really only value isolation when you have chosen it, made time for it, not when it has been thrust upon you. I suppose that is true of most things. Anyway, Cleanness had been on my list for a long, long time, and i slipped it in my bag out of habit, then took it out, because what for, i am not going anywhere, i dont need a bag.

And it was good, very good, and i thought, oh, this quarantine is not so bad, im making progress on a variety of things i suppose, and then i got to the middle of the book, to the center of Cleanness, and stopped short.

I sometimes wonder if I make a bad book reviewer, etc, because i find it so hard to talk about the beautiful, I don’t want to break it apart and analyse it, i want to hold it in my hands and just make the sound the protagonist’s lover makes in Cleanness the story, the unnameable sound of homecoming and pleasure. I will have to move on, at some point, i know, and quite soon too, if I don’t want to roast in regret tonight at having let hours slip by unproductive, I will have to do the things: build the shelf, reply emails, edit work. But it is in this moment now, just after the reading, that I sit at present, with it in my hands, turning it over, trying to hold on to it, draw the moment out. It is in this moment that i tap these words out, from my end of an isolation which has so easily slipped into a more serene solitude, on my screen, to yours.