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.
In order for Wetlands to succeed as a novel, it must make readers align their discomfort with Helen's sexual morality with their revulsion at the literal dirtiness of her dirty bits. She supposes that there's a close relationship between the two, while reality indicates that it's wholly possible to accept the omnivorous appetites of a liberated woman while asking her please not to wipe her hoo-ha on the toilet seat. Only a relative Puritan—only the type of person who would never pick up a book featuring an avocado pit as a marital device—would swallow that jive. (Never mind that there's always room for a controversy around a book like The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell's porny Nazi epic; the low-stakes literary controversies of today are cuter than hamsters.) And in an age where the word empowering has modified every sexual activity short of crack-whoring, the novel's debased spume of third-wave feminism ain't worth much.
Of course, there is no need for Wetlands to succeed as a novel, only as a succès de scandale. Roche, whose résumé includes a stint in a band that neither rehearsed nor played out and a tenure as a music-channel VJ, is not really a novelist or a pornographer but a performance artist. One of her kind comes skanking our way once a year or so, most by way of the fine firm of Grove/Atlantic, which dared to publish the Marquis de Sade, The Story of O, and Tropic of Cancer in the days of Grove publisher Barney Rosset and has now developed a subspecialty in highbrow smut by European women.
Looking in the most obscure corner of the Grove/Atlantic library, you might notice that the publishing house has imported such hits as 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, an "erotic coming-of-age novel" crafted by a Sicilian authoress of jailbait age; The Sexual Life of Catherine M., a French art critic's Foucauldian analysis of having many trains pulled upon her; and Baise-Moi, a revenge thriller that is somewhat an odd duck in this subgenre as it boasts an actual plot. While studies have shown that every boat on the sea will be floated by something, even Helen's grill tools, these books don't rate as erotica; seldom does anything like an Anaïs Nin fever shiver through them, except perhaps Catherine M., which is kind of hot. On the whole, these books do not intend to arouse but to titillate, and, in this respect, Wetlands is the epitome of the form.
Though it is a literary analogue to "2 Girls, 1 Cup," its shock art might have a sell-by date. On March 19, beneath the headline "A Campaign That Erases a Layer of Euphemisms," the Times reported that "a new campaign for Tampax uses elements that were once unheard-of in ads for tampons and sanitary napkins: candor and even humor." When nothing human is alien to the mass media, this kind of avant-gardism will be revealed to have its head up its own ass.