[22 May 2013]
Author Charlotte Roche is a well-known German celebrity whose accomplishments include singing, television presenting, writing, and behaviors intended to shock the public. Her first novel, 2008’s Wetlands, is an exploration of bodily fluids alternately hailed or excoriated as erotica or pornography. Her second novel, Wrecked, appeared in Germany in 2011, again to mixed reviews. Some find Roche’s descriptions of graphic sexual acts repulsive and demeaning to women, while others celebrate them as liberating to both sexes. Regardless of your stance, reading Wrecked is certain to disturb.
Protagonist Elizabeth Kiehl is age 33. Her husband, Georg, is 50. Elizabeth prefers the age disparity, confessing she has a father complex, which draws her even to men like Georg, who isn’t especially attractive. The couple met in Georg’s gallery, where Elizabeth hoped to show some photographs. Both were with other people at the time. Both have children aged seven: Elizabeth has Liza, Georg, Max. When they fall for each other, they leave their relationships, move in together, and share a life by turns disciplined and orgiastic.
Roche brings an autobiographical element to Wrecked: the title refers to a catastrophic 2001 automobile accident that killed Roche’s three brothers, who were en route to her wedding. Roche brings this tragedy to bear on Elizabeth, who also loses three brothers en route to her wedding. Her overbearing feminist mother survives the wreck, albeit with serious injuries.
The accident has shattered Elizabeth’s life. She is enraged at the invasive, sensationalist media and wracked with survivor guilt. Despite her love for her daughter and husband, she mentions her suicide plans repeatedly. She is only waiting long enough for Liza to manage without her. To Georg’s irritation, she constantly tinkers with her will.
Elizabeth exists in a state of high anxiety alleviated only during sexual encounters. Hers is a life divided. On one side, she is a good mother, a committed environmentalist strict to the point of austerity: no meat, no use of the clothes dryer. She rarely washes bedding, even when necessary, and is guilty over the minimal use of her car, which she hopes to get rid of. Yet when Liza and Max are with their father and mother, the couple seek out sex with prostitutes, watch stacks of pornographic DVDs, and engage in long bouts of loud, intense sex.
Roche revels in describing bodily encounters of all kinds: besides graphic sex, there is the case of worms Liza transmits to the family. The reader is treated to an in-depth examination of the symptoms and even the worms themselves. Whether Roche’s intention is to titillate or repulse, I cannot say. I found Elizabeth’s deep mental disturbance far more upsetting than her sexual behaviors, which at least seemed to temporarily alleviate her suffocating anxiety.
After the accident Elizabeth begins therapy with Frau Drescher, a calm woman unfazed by her patient’s exploits. Once again Roche chooses to focus conversation on the taboo; the two discuss bathroom use at the doctor’s office and Elizabeth’s arrival at an appointment, post-coital and unwashed. Frau Drescher is a sympathetic character, professional yet kind. If she finds her patient’s behaviors shocking, she never says so, gently trying to nudge Elizabeth toward mental health.
Elizabeth and Georg’s marriage is an odd one. Elizabeth readily admits that her behavior during their early years—intense jealousy, poor treatment of Max—led the couple to therapy, where it was determined all fault lay with her. Georg remains a shadowy figure throughout. While he appears to care for Elizabeth and Liza, cleaning house, doing laundry, managing finances, he isn’t emotionally supportive. He does as he pleases, even when his behaviors make Elizabeth unhappy.
His love of prostitutes is a case in point. He enjoys visiting high-quality brothels, where he carefully selects women, then brings Elizabeth in for threesomes. Elizabeth faces these encounters with nervous jealousy: Georg is fond of large-breasted women, driving the more delicately-endowed Elizabeth into an envious frenzy. Yet by Elizabeth’s own admission, once in the bedroom, she relaxes completely, losing herself in bodily pleasures.
After years of catering to Georg’s desires, Elizabeth is beginning to have her own. Specifically, she wants partners outside the marriage. She views these as pure dalliances, diversion. Yet she cannot bring herself to ask Georg’s consent.
Elizabeth recognizes herself as a woman divided: the nervously rigid wife and mother, the sexually liberated being. She blames her mother, a feminist free spirit who changed men the way others change clothing. Elizabeth’s mother discouraged her daughter from enjoying men or sex while constantly dragging her five children wherever her current romance dictated. Elizabeth adored her father, a wealthy businessman whom she saw infrequently. Her stepmother hated her, and did everything possible to interfere with the father/daughter relationship. Now, eight years after the accident, Elizabeth has severed contact with her parents. She wants Liza to have what she did not: a calmly bourgeois, “normal” childhood.
Wrecked is the kind of book that depresses you even as you cannot stop reading it. The setup is stark: an accident, a dysfunctional family, an unbalanced marriage, an unbalanced narrator. There are a couple of holes: we never learn Elizabeth’s profession, even as her work takes her away overnight, inciting a critical incident. And though she mentions the couple’s many friends, we see no social life. Elizabeth and Georg appear to live a closed existence, tightly bound by children and sexual adventures.
Wrecked lacks conventional narrative structure; Roche gives an accounting of a few days in a woman’s life. Those few days are distressing enough to make the reader wonder how Wrecked could possibly end. There is no classic denoument. Instead, Wrecked ends abrutly. Loose ends are left hanging. Nothing is resolved. Elizabeth may well decide to die earlier rather than later. An unstable childhood and unthinkable loss have permanently unmoored her: she is not going to recover. She doesn’t want to. Until the day she decides to end her life, it will be a closed circuit of domestic life, therapy, and sexual release.
Much will be likely be made of Wrecked’s blunt sexual directness and whether or not books like this damage feminism. For all her trepidation, Elizabeth is a consenting adult: she has the power to refuse Georg’s wishes, opting instead to act on them. And once past her initial distress, she enjoys sex with Georg and other women. Whether or not Wrecked’s frank sex is a paean to feminism, it risks distracting readers from the book’s real trauma: Elizabeth’s overwhelming unhappiness, her destroyed selfhood, the fact that she herself is wrecked beyond repair.