[12 April 2009]
Charlotte Roche’s debut novel Wetlands begins with an excruciatingly detailed description of the narrator’s hemorrhoids, and only gets grosser from there. Eighteen-year-old Helen Memel has landed herself in the hospital after giving herself an anal lesion in a rushed and careless attempt to shave her own asshole.
Confined to the proctology ward, she reflects explicitly and at great length upon a number of subjects that rarely find their way into works of literature—such as the aphrodisiac properties of snot, the joys of anal sex, and her deeply-felt love of smegma. Meanwhile, she schemes to reunite her divorced parents, and ponders how she might seduce a male nurse even while suffering from copious anal leakage.
Since its release in Germany last year, Wetlands has sold well over one million copies, and has made its author, a former VJ on a German MTV-style network, an international celebrity. Astonishingly profane and self-consciously designed to shock, the novel has provoked an enormous amount of controversy in Europe. Some readers have dismissed it as pornographic drivel written by a celebrity-seeking provocateur. Others have hailed it for its humor, its feminist politics, and its fearless transgression of taboos.
In Tim Mohr’s English translation, Wetlands offers the queasy intimacy and whip-smart, laugh-out-loud raunch of a Margaret Cho routine. Although more-or-less plotless and undeniably sensationalistic, Roche’s also novel mounts a highly intelligent and effective assault on the commonly held cultural ideas about women’s bodies. Along the way, Roche makes pointed jabs at the lack of consideration and respect given to patients during the course of medical treatment, and tells a moving story about the emotional fallout from divorce. The novel also has the inestimable virtue of being genuinely funny.
Fair warning: the prudish or squeamish definitely need not apply. Wetlands contains a truly astounding volume and density of filth—most of it quite literal. For all its abundant sexual frankness, the novel’s primary focus is not on the erotic, but on the scatological. Roche not only treats readers to lengthy and detailed descriptions of Helen’s bowel movements and the various disgusting side effects of her anal lesion surgery, but also takes obvious pleasure in piling on the gross-out gags involving her narrator’s willful and outspoken aversion to hygienic behavior.
One example: Helen eschews tampons as a matter of principle, and when the need arises, she instead jerry-rigs a substitute out of toilet paper, gauze, or whatever else might be close at hand. At one point, she relates how much she enjoys removing these makeshift tampons using her father’s “nice barbecue tongs,” preferably “with charred bits of meat and fat on them”—which she then returns to the grill unwashed. “I always have a broad grin on my face during barbecues with friends of the family,” she says, clearly very pleased with herself.
Passages like that are par for the course in Wetlands—and in some respects, the one above is relatively mild. If Roche’s novel had consisted of nothing more than a long series of vile scatological set pieces, it would have quickly become tedious. Fortunately, Wetlands has a great deal more to offer, and even the most blatantly revolting passages work in service of the compelling set of themes at the novel’s heart.
“When a woman wearing perfume passes me on the street,” Helen narrates, “it makes me sick.” Helen’s unhygienic practices do not have an origin in laziness or ignorance; instead, she’s self-consciously opposed to the cultural idea that women’s bodies must be “sanitized” in order to be beautiful. As her proclivity for homemade tampons would suggest, for Helen this aversion goes well beyond eschewing deodorant or leaving her armpits unshaved. Rather, it’s a matter of consistent resistance to the expectation that a woman’s body must be artificially smooth, clean, and antiseptic in order to be sexually appealing.
Roche makes no bones about the idea that the body’s various functions and excrescences can be disgusting; but she also stresses the ways in which supposedly disgusting aspects of human anatomy can also be arousing. As Roche’s narrator Helen puts it: “Everything that’s sexy—mussed hair, straps that fall off the shoulder, a sweaty glow on the face—is a bit askew.”
Roche also indicates the seriousness of her intentions via the development of some Freudian themes involving Helen’s love-hate relationship with her parents. Throughout the novel, Helen repeatedly expresses both great displeasure toward her mother and an unusual amount affection for her father. It’s more than a bit heavy-handed—but fortunately Roche has the sense to make a knowing joke of Helen’s Electra complex by bringing it right up to the surface. “I can definitely imagine having sex with my father,” Helen says flatly, with her usual (and charming) utter lack of self-consciousness.
The tremendous appeal of Helen’s narrative voice—with its boldness, good humor, youthful naïveté, and utter lack of shame—is central to the novel’s overall success. For all her fearlessness and worldly experience, Helen still struggles to forge an adult identity for herself in the wake of the emotional trauma of her parents’ divorce. Her high spirits and devil-may-care attitude sometimes lead her to make outright foolish decisions, but her vulnerability makes her that much more empathetic as a character.
Readers who manage to wade through the prodigious grossness of Wetlands will find much to like about Helen—and the fact that she is such a sympathetic and singularly memorable character is the best proof that Wetlands has considerably more going for it than shock value alone.