The novel Wetlands—an international best-seller grappling with such timeless questions as "What is the nature of desire?" and "What's grosser than gross?"—first came to popular attention in this country 10 months ago. On June 6, beneath the headline "Germany Abuzz at Racy Novel of Sex and Hygiene," the New York Times ran a piece that—given the limits of euphemism, the durability of taboos, and the shortage of synonyms for the word sphincter—performed an admirable job of describing how first-time author Charlotte Roche had ignited a national conversation about feminism and filth. Special congratulations are due to reporter Nicholas Kulish for constructing a sentence most entertaining to read in the Imperial font of the International section: "A provocative female rapper in Germany, Lady Bitch Ray, who runs her own independent label, Vagina Style Records, grabbed headlines when she accused Ms. Roche of stealing her explicit form of empowering raunch."
Will readers of the U.S. edition of Wetlands, out this month from Grove Press in Tim Mohr's translation, discover empowerment in its tale of a feral trollop? Perhaps, though I somehow doubt it. With my vested interest in maintaining the patriarchy, it's really not my place to say. Beyond question, they will turn up lots of raunch.
It is difficult to write a proper consideration of a novel describing with a lavishment of detail the adventures of a distressed rectum. To begin with, one must, as is so often the case, actually read the damn thing, making all the usual checkmarks and notes-to-self. There is a particular challenge to accomplishing this with flecks of one's own vomit dotting the margins. No—no—that's hyperbolic: Though Wetlands offers, in its 229 pages, an encyclopedia of bodily secretions and a catalog of nonstandard ends for them, it threatens to trigger emesis on only four occasions.
First, there are the opening 65 pages, where 18-year-old Helen Memel, in discussing her teenaged libertinism, contrasts her corporal cleanliness with that of people "alienated from their bodies and trained to think that anything natural stinks." Helen likens her smegma, in its taste and texture, to a variety of products found on the shelves of your local grocer, just for instance. Reminiscing about drinking, drugging, menstruating, and slutting around in this opening act, Helen steadily gives you the sense that she is not the most suitable Mädchen for au pair placement. Our hemorrhoidal protagonist does this reminiscing from the hospital bed she landed in after suffering an "anal lesion" in the course of her "lady shaving" regimen. (Though Roche has said that "the feminist angle" here involves attacking the notion that women "have to have this clean, sexy, presentation side to their body," this part of Wetlands makes far more sense as a cautionary tale about entrusting private grooming to professional bikini waxers.)
Second, there is an extended riff relying on an eccentric interpretation of Freud's theory of the anal stage. Third, there is the thing with the barbecue tongs, after which the novel proceeds harmlessly for a while as the heroine recuperates from surgery and indulges Florence Nightingale fantasies about her male nurse. Then, fourth and worst, Helen decides that the best chance of reuniting her divorced parents lies in bursting her stitches, and the story reaches its grand guignol peak. I skipped my attention briskly across the climactic 40 pages, the readerly equivalent of covering the eyes at grindhouse gore.
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