Posted on Thursday, April 16th, 2009 at 3:47 pm
Author: Feature Writer
Gc contributor: Dan Shvartsman
This is a review of Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, with translator Tim Mohr (Fourth Estate Ltd., 2009).
Please note that in keeping with the subject matter, this review contains graphic language. If you can’t deal, you have several options: 1) Don’t read. 2) Put your hands over your eyes during the scary parts. 3) Open CuteOverload.com in an adjacent tab to soothe yourself.
Yes, what you heard is true: Wetlands is fucking gross.
It’s supposed to be. Charlotte Roche’s debut novel, a #1 best seller in Germany, is about Helen Memel, an 18 year-old with an anal lesion. Hard for the book to be anything but disgusting if you start out with a premise like that.
As she’s laid up in the hospital bed, facing surgery – “We’ll make a wedge-shaped incision to cut out the infected tissue,” her proctologist Dr. Notz tells her – Helen asks for a diagram of the procedure. This is a girl who dreams about licking the asshole of the friendly male nurse most responsible for her, schemes ways to get her divorced parents to reunite, grows avocado trees, and reminisces about her physical self-exploration to take her mind of the huge pain in her ass
Each chapter works as a new layer into Helen’s experimentation. The first chapter revolves around her hemorrhoid problem and it gets even more interesting from there. The second chapter discusses smegma (female come), filling her pussy with water to aid masturbation, saving come from sex for snacks later, and so on. Helen tests Robin (the nurse) by sharing her habits for showing who’s in charge of imminent club hook-ups (it involves cutting a hole in her underwear), she recounts her experiences in brothels (good and bad), she brags of making and reusing her own tampons, and mentions eating the pus that comes from her body.
This explicit, frank writing does a few things. It challenges hygienic norms in a refreshing way (for example, an early rant on the superiority of natural smells to perfumes and modern cosmetics is spot on). It tests the reader (disclosure: as a male, I’m less affronted, but my liberal girlfriend declared the protagonist a liar by page 2, and, after compulsively reading the first couple of chapters, decided that was enough grossness for her). It grabs your attention and stirs debate. And it obscures the rest of the novel.
Beneath her desire to know everything about her body, Helen Memel is not a liberated modern woman, but, more interestingly, a strong yet damaged young girl. She has major issues with both of her parents. Her mother is a religious, controlling nut who may have once tried to kill herself and Helen’s brother by leaving the oven gas on and overdosing on sleeping pills. Many of Helen’s personality traits (her unique hygiene, her atheism, her lying, her fear of gas leaks) arise from a direct rejection of her mother.
Meanwhile, her father is emotionally impotent, and Helen’s connection with him is mostly nostalgic and distant. He buys her an inflatable pillow for hemorrhoid sufferers, only to find out that might tear open her wound. She confesses to the reader that she can “definitely imagine having sex with my father,” and that it’s best to begin mourning his death now, so it won’t hit so hard when he actually does die.
She also admits that one of the results of her parents’ divorce is that, “I’ll go to bed with any idiot just so I don’t have to be in bed alone or spend a whole night sleeping alone. Anybody is better than nobody.” Helen has channeled the pain inflicted unto her into the choices she makes about her life, and Roche doesn’t brush away the hurt underneath her actions.
The big development in the book comes when Helen realizes that the imagined return to a nuclear family, with she and her family all together again, is not only unlikely but also not what she wants. All of a sudden Helen looks for an escape, and she suddenly reminds one of a Carson McCullers’s heroine, and Wetlands begins to resemble John Kennedy Toole’s Neon Bible – covered in smegma.
Pull back the controversy, the secretions, and the dewflaps (that would be Helen’s name for her outer labia lips), and Wetlands is a coming of age novel about a girl unsure if she wants to retreat to her youth or strike out into independent adulthood. Roche doesn’t handle the classic themes with tremendous subtlety, hammering the reader over the head with them in the same way she hammers the body issues in (unless you want to claim that the lack of subtlety is a literary conceit that shapes the narrator’s voice, in which case Roche pulled off some postmodern genius shit here).
Ultimately, what makes the book work as a novel rather than a manifesto is the breeziness of Helen’s narration. She is a funny, brash, in-your-face protagonist who readily admits to her own vulnerability. She is, despite all the posturing, grossness, rudeness, and desire to shock, likable.
Wetlands is important as a concept, because of how it grapples with femininity. Clearly, Western culture still has strides to make in the full liberation of all its citizens, so if this book breaks down any barriers, it’s for the good. Roche also reminds us that two of the most vital truths in writing are that the writer should be free to approach whatever topic interests them, and that, to paraphrase the earlier quote, anybody reading is better than nobody reading.
If you can stomach the grossness, Wetlands is a decent little book, too – a fact that shouldn’t get lost in all of the publicity its subject matter has generated.
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