WEtlands by Charlotte Roche
April 19, 2009
By SALLIE TISDALE
By Charlotte Roche
Translated by Tim Mohr
229 pp. Grove Press. $17.95
The novel “Feuchtgebiete,” by the German television personality Charlotte Roche, was a best seller throughout Europe last year, at one time topping Amazon’s international list. The book has just been released in English — first in Britain and now in America — under the title “Wetlands.” (The original title could also be translated as “moist patches.”) As much as sales, “Wetlands” generated controversy and debate in Europe; critics described it as “taboo-busting,” “disgusting” and “deeply perturbing”; some dismissed it as pornography. Granta compared it favorably to “The Catcher in the Rye” and “The Female Eunuch,” two books that may never have been grouped together before. Whether the controversy — and the sales — will follow here is, I’m afraid, the most interesting thing about the novel.
Roche, 31, was born in England and raised in Germany. This is her first book; she told one interviewer that until now she had written “only the lines for my own TV show.” She considers “Wetlands” a feminist manifesto about society’s oppressive standards of female beauty and hygiene, a new literature of female empowerment: “I wanted to write about the ugly parts of the human body. The smelly bits. The juices of the female body. . . . I created a heroine that has a totally creative attitude towards her body — someone who has never even heard that women are supposedly smelly between their legs. A real free spirit.”
To that end, “Wetlands” is narrated by 18-year-old Helen Memel, who has been suffering from an anal lesion after an intimate shaving incident. The entire book takes place on the proctology unit as she recovers from surgery. Helen entertains herself by remembering varied sex acts, obsessing over bodily fluids and playing pranks on the hospital workers.
“I’m my own garbage disposal. Bodily secretion recycler,” free-spirit Helen says. “And so I come to one of my biggest hobbies. Popping zits. . . . I clench the blackhead on my upper arm between the thumb and pointer finger of my left hand and, with a squeeze, out comes the worm. It goes directly from my thumb into my mouth.” Helen eats her vaginal discharge, her own vomit as well as that of a friend, and pus not only from her pimples but from her anal wound. The book opens with a discussion of anal sex and hemorrhoids, then moves on to genital shaving, brothels, enemas and the nuances of sex during menstruation. (Helen trades used tampons with a friend and discards her homemade version in the hospital elevator.) “It’s like a sport,” she says, after taunting a male nurse. “In any room I have to be the most uninhibited of all those present.”
Yet the most unsettling part of “Wetlands” is its author’s belief that she is a pioneer. Roche seems to know nothing about the extensive literature of women’s sexuality, a genre broad enough to merit its own section in most bookstores. In interviews, she sounds like a long-secluded inventor who emerges to announce she has developed the wheel. “Men have this whole range of different names for their sexual organs,” she told one journalist, “while us women still don’t really have a language for our lust. . . . I think a lot of women still don’t masturbate, simply because they don’t know how to talk about it.”
Any casual few minutes on the Web uncovers a vibrant world of tampon art and anal sex advice and a brisk commerce in women’s shoes. Indeed, the topics Roche clumsily broaches — the sexual power of body fluids; the links between obsession and shame, pleasure and pain — have long been central to feminist and queer sex culture. Betty Dodson wrote “Liberating Masturbation” years before Roche was born. Pat Califia’s stories of transgressive sexual culture, the feminist defense of pornography in “Caught Looking,” the frank and funny essays by women like Susie Bright and Carol Queen: all of this is easy enough to find.
Part of the controversy over “Wetlands” has been whether it is pornography or literature. That sexually explicit writing can be serious seems long settled. There are really no taboo topics — good writing trumps such complaints. The problem is that “Wetlands” has all the nuance of Mad Magazine and less wit. Its descriptions are banal and repetitive, its vocabulary painfully limited. (The standards of The Times severely limit quotations here.)
Helen is meant to be a complicated character, but she is merely inconsistent. She spreads her effluvia about like confetti but worries that someone might see her chewing her fingernails — “that belongs behind closed doors.” She likes to “break into the public pool and go drunken skinny-dipping after a night out clubbing” but is embarrassed about being naked in the operating room. She is fascinated by anal sex, her wound and its discharge, yet mortified if she passes gas in a public toilet. All of this is supposed to be brave and disturbing, but “Wetlands” is simply and willfully aggressive. Helen’s a mess, and not a very interesting one.
Unsurprisingly, Helen’s obsessions turn out to be a reaction to her parents’ divorce, and to her parents themselves. Her mother is so averse to bodily function that she claims not to have bowel movements, while her father is unashamed to give her a get-well “hemorrhoid pillow.” Neither talks about her mother’s attempt to kill herself and Helen’s brother when Helen was a child. So we learn that Helen had herself secretly sterilized as soon as she reached majority, and now grows avocados instead of babies. She masturbates with the pits and simulates giving birth to them. “Eggs are a constant theme with me,” she says, before describing how one of her partners experiments with hard-boiled ones.
She hopes to bring her divorced parents back together at her hospital bedside. (Though after her descriptions of them, one has to ask: Why?) “I want so bad for my parents to be in a room together. I want them to visit me here in the hospital at the same time. I have a plan. . . . My goal is that they see each other and, years after separating, fall head over heels in love again. And get back together. Highly unlikely. But anything’s possible.”
Perhaps Helen is meant to seem pathetic, her story a study in loneliness — not exactly a manifesto of sexual empowerment. (The symbolism is not subtle; Helen describes her relationship with her parents as a “gaping abyss.”) Her character, such as it is, seems simply disturbed: so full of sex panic she can’t stop having sex, so busy avoiding painful memories she can’t think, driven by compulsive and ritualized behaviors. Self-confident Helen is just a lost little girl at heart.
I wondered at times if Roche was attempting a female version of “American Psycho,” substituting sex and fluid-play for the violence. Perhaps “Wetlands” is intended as a parody of narcissism and arrested development. After three days, having not managed to get her parents in the same room together, Helen deliberately tears her surgical wound open to stay in the hospital longer, in the process injuring herself seriously. Perhaps Roche means to connect this act with Helen’s obsession with eggs. She has sacrificed her fertility already; are we meant to believe that she wants to be their child again so much she will destroy the most specific emblem of adulthood, her sexual organs?
But I suspect such depths did not occur to Roche, who insists that “Wetlands” is a celebration of the female body. She does seem to have hitched a ride on the zeitgeist — the book is being translated into 27 languages. I can only wish that the young women who think “Wetlands” sounds intriguing will head to the erotica section of the nearest women’s bookstore first.
Sallie Tisdale’s most recent book is “Women of the Way: Discovering 2,500 Years of Buddhist Women.”
I shock, therefore I am
REVIEWED BY LISA CARVER
February 27, 2009 at 6:13 PM EST
Helen, 18, is about to go under anesthesia for repair of a cut she got shaving her bum. Afraid of dying, she makes a pact with the God she does not believe in: If He allows her to survive the bum operation, she will give up forever the game she and her friend play of Get drunk, snatch the glasses off someone's face and stomp on them, then run.
This isn't a very big sacrifice, as there are three things that bother her already about the game: 1. An occasional victim, despite being blinded and shocked, will pursue — and possibly catch and beat — his tormentors; 2. The adrenalin dissipates the booze buzz, and the pair of hoodlumettes have to spend more money on alcohol to re-get drunk; 3. Sometimes, later, she'll remember the look of the stranger's naked, glasses-less face.
Our Helen does survive anesthesia, and the entire 229 pages of Wetlands take place in her three-day recovery in the proctology ward, where she passes the time by remembering petty crimes and lewd sex acts (which seem to be the only two activities she engages in, besides growing and then molesting her avocado "family") and plotting to reunite her divorced parents.
The hospital environment is a brilliant vehicle for debut novelist Charlotte Roche to show what it's like to be young and female and damaged, to be both pitiless and powerless and on display. Everyone from candy striper to head surgeon walks into Helen's room without knocking; they examine her raised and exposed bottom, ask about her bowel movements and control her food intake and pain levels, while she knows nothing and does nothing about their bowel movements, their pain, their wounds, their diets.
But Helen is an inconvenient person. She doesn't behave as she should, lie there like a Gap model. She asks one male nurse to take a photo of her wound so she can see it the same as everyone else can. Startled by her request, he goes on to tell a friend of his, and then tells Helen that the friend called her an exhibitionist.
Helen doesn't deny it. In fact, she tells the nurse what she does when she goes to nightclubs with a boy: cuts the crotch out of her underwear. She does it "to prove that I'm the one who initiated … that night." So that after all the tentative games of words and touch are over, the play where the boy is pursuer, the sure one, and the girl the one to be conquered, wooed, penetrated, and the male hand reaches the place where the last barrier — underwear — should be, "boys all react the same way: the finger has a heart attack and pauses for a second."
The nurse is similarly unsettled. He "stands there with his mouth slightly ajar," his call buzzer going off non-stop in the hallway, completely unattended, his white scrubs bulging in one area in a telltale way. Helen has exposed herself more than the entire staff could do to her, and in doing so, reversed the relationship: She tramples other people's boundaries in order to repair (a little) the shambles of her own. Exhibitionism as a cure for shyness.
Helen does not believe in hygiene, in the erasure of secretions, smells, imperfections, aggression — what makes us alive. She thinks she remembers coming home from school early and finding her mother and baby brother lying in front of the open oven with the gas on. Yet her good-looking and successful parents have never once mentioned it. Why does she keep smelling gas that isn't there if it didn't happen? Is she just a hysterical and attention-hungry girl? She digs at this family secret as doggedly and destructively as she does her ingrown hairs (leaving scars all over her legs). She can't trust herself or her perceptions, because she lies. She lies to everyone else, so she must lie to herself too, right? But she does tell herself the truth, determinedly, untrustingly, self-loathingly.
She tells the truth about lying.
How many people do that?
She admits that she wants to have sex with her father. She admits that she wants her parents to hurry up and get Alzheimer's so she can "stick their new partners in nursing homes and then I'll look after [my parents] at home. I'll put them in the same matrimonial bed until they die." She seeks out and hangs onto any glimmer of truthful interaction, no matter how negative or weird. Trapped in her hiding spot under the hospital bed where she had gone to masturbate in private, Helen spies on the cleaning woman going through her (Helen's) drawer. The cleaning woman doesn't take anything.
Most people, having gleaned information under such sordid circumstances, would leave the whole ignoble affair at that. Not Helen. She is compelled to buzz the woman back in, purportedly to clean up the glass of water she spilled (while masturbating). Somehow the cleaning woman knows, knows Helen is a masturbator, just as Helen knows the cleaning woman is a spy — and each knows (or at least suspects) that the other one knows. They see each other. They give each other an evil, knowing glare. Which, because it's honest, is less unsettling than the weird non-reactions, the not seeing, of Helen's family. Despite Helen nearly dying from blood loss after purposely reopening her wound on the metal bed brake, she receives only three (brief and stilted) visits — mother, father, brother — which take place as if underwater, at a distance.
Roche, too, tells the truth about lying. And she is treated by the press much as the hospital staff treats Helen, asking over and over about her own sex life; we want to be titillated by demanding to know how much is "real." In our James Frey culture, that means: Which lies will we agree on? Roche responds the same way Helen did to the male nurse: She tells us that she looks exactly like Helen, has the same father (an engineer). She wears mini-dresses and used to flash her unshaved underarm on TV. She does not apologize, excuse or explain Helen.
I doubt, in the made-up world of Wetlands, that any of Helen's victims actually reached satori through her vicious antics. I doubt Helen even knew what she was doing or why. She's 18, after all.
But the reviewers are not 18. How could some of those who have commented on the book in other countries have called Wetlands porn? Helen is a child, a wounded person in a hostile environment, creating her own pride and boundaries. Without self-pity, without therapy. Just creation of self by any means necessary, creation of memory where shock and fear made the outlines of the event waver like a mirage. Because there is little precedent in literature for a pure female hero, our bad, skinny, lonely, aggressive Helen is difficult to recognize as such. She has no tenderness for herself, and so there is no guide for where or how to see what is true and fragile in this young, gross, criminal slut; it is up to us, the readers, to find our own tenderness.
I can think of only one literary predecessor: George Bataille's Simone (in Story of the Eye, 1928), though she was much more exaggerated and outwardly violent than our Helen. And Helen sticks avocados and grape monstrosity creations up her vagina instead of eggs and bull's testicles and a human eye. But the outcries of the protagonists, separated by 80 years, is startlingly similar: Look at me! I'm alive! I'm shitting and pissing and greasy and weird and dreamy and there's blood and there's boils and I'm here! Things that don't make sense, I will take them in me; I won't shuffle them off. I don't make sense, and I won't shuffle me off. Things have happened to my body and my soul that made me retreat so far up in myself I was not sure I was there any more and I have to look for external signs of my existence: in what leaks out of me, in brutal and incomprehensible sex acts, in the shock in others' eyes. I tear myself, I tear boundaries; I am a scientist of me, an alien anthropologist. A creator of totems. A thief and a smasher of things that cover eyes.
Lisa Carver was raised in, then escaped, then came back to, and may never get out again of, Dover, New Hampshire, U.S.A.
By ELIZABETH RENZETTI , TABATHA SOUTHEY and MICHAEL VALPY
Globe and Mail Update
February 27, 2009 at 6:03 PM EST
Elizabeth Renzetti Good morning, fellow eroticians. I sincerely hope that neither of you is eating an avocado for breakfast, because our discussion starts with the abuse of a fruit normally associated with guacamole rather than sexual ecstasy.
Helen Memel, the teenaged German heroine of Charlotte Roche's controversial new novel, Wetlands, uses avocados for her pleasure – as well as showerheads, toilet seats and handles of various descriptions.
What really sets Helen apart is the joy she finds in bodily secretions and effluvia – her own and everyone else's. When we meet Helen, she's about to have surgery on an anal lesion, the result of an unfortunate shaving accident. We are treated to an exhaustive tour of her hemorrhoids. As you both know, I'm scrimping on the details.
Those squishy, squelchy details are so lovingly examined that it was reported that some people in Germany fainted during Ms. Roche's readings, although I suspect that her publishers may be channelling the spirit of P.T. Barnum. Still, there's no doubt that this first novel by a 30-year-old former TV host sold half a million books in Germany and started loud debates about women, erotica and the idealization of femininity. And this week, it has been released in translation in Canada.
“It was just meant to be an honest book about the female body,” Ms. Roche recently told a British interviewer.
Every few years, a woman writes a book that reminds us that older women like sex (Jane Juska's A Round-Heeled Woman), that call girls like sex ( The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, by the pseudonymous Belle de Jour), that even French women get lonely and crave a bit of action ( The Sexual Life of Catherine M., by Catherine Millet).
Now, we learn that horny, proudly scabby German teens like sex. Should we be surprised?
Michael Valpy Milan Kundera said, “Eroticism is like a dance.” Wetlands is more like smut, and I can't say I wanted to get up and waltz after all that orificial minutiae. We should resist paddling in the waters of This Book Has Deeper Meaning – although, having said that, there may be one or two faint resonances from post-structuralist Third Wave feminism, sex-positivity, Riot Grrrl and Elizabeth Wurtzel. (My tongue is not entirely in cheek: The decision by Helen Memel to get sterilized at 18 has, I think, a Riot Grrrl cast.)
The question then is whether it's bad smut or good smut. Likening the penis – her father's – to a “club” is bad smut. On the other hand, I learned things about anal sex that I didn't know.
Charlotte Roche, on her second husband at 30, has said the book is 70 per cent autobiographical. That makes her a scary person.
Tabatha Southey I don't think we should be too quick to blame the Germans for this particular bit of pseudo-porn; Charlotte Roche is British by birth. This is just typical overcompensating expatriate behaviour. Germans love this kind of scatological thing and she's trying to out-German them, poor thing. If history has taught us anything, it's that no good can come of a foreigner trying to out-German the Germans. Not that she's Austrian or anything, but it's a pretty bad book.
I can't see this as belonging to the Riot Grrrl tradition, Michael. It's a step backward in writing about women's sexuality because there's little sexual joy or playfulness here, unlike in, say, The Sexual Life of Catherine M., where she just wants what she wants.
The sex in Wetlands is mainly retaliatory sex. The heroine, Helen, inflicts endless risks on herself – wounding herself until she nearly bleeds to death, various vile infections, toxic-shock syndrome, arrest, reckless drug use and, oh yeah, sex – pretty much without distinction. It's closer to being a morality tale than to smut. Sadly. Other than the nose picking, we're not covering much new ground here – she masturbates, gets her period. It's less a sex book than it is Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret 2.0.
Her sexual encounters are less about pleasure than a need to rebel against her mother, and she explains that they're also motivated by her nearly pathological fear of being alone. This fear of being alone stems ( o tempora, o mores, o enough already) from her parents' divorce. And so despite the titillating promise of a sexual-adventuress-as-heroine, Wetlands' message is actually very puritanical.
I'd rather she had taken her admittedly odd desires and posted them on the German version of Craigslist. There's a passenger for every train, after all.
Renzetti I agree that there's nothing here so new that it requires smelling salts – doesn't anyone remember Canadian writer Marian Engel's novel Bear? That gave me the vapours (odourless variety). Wetlands is deeply unerotic, but I do like what she's saying, however unsubtly, about the whitewashing of women's sexuality.
In cinemas this summer, we had Sex and the City – allegedly feminism's endgame – and what did it give us? Samantha shrieking at Miranda's untrimmed pubic hairs as if she had just spotted a deadly bubo.
In Katherine Ashenburg's history of hygiene, The Dirt on Clean, she tells us that cleanliness was not next to horniness throughout most of history: “There's no evidence that the birth rate ever fell because people were too smelly for copulation.”
We seem to be far from the days when Napoleon wrote to Josephine, “I will return to Paris tomorrow evening. Don't wash.”
Southey With all due respect for Katherine Ashenburg's excellent book, it just might not have worked out between me and Napoleon. I love soap, hot water, steam, good perfume and, yes, girlie shaving cream. I've never felt oppressed to live in a era of good hygiene. Fluid-wise, I'm happy to start from scratch, so to speak. (Maybe Napoleon just lacked skills.)
Honestly, had the book been funny or sexy, none of Wetlands' inconsistencies would've bothered me, but what with all the ripping and the polyps, it's about as erotic as What to Expect When You're Expecting. Meanwhile, Helen puts makeup on her vagina, shaves everything and is nauseated by her own leg hair. So the author's claims are pretty questionable, beginning with her stated premise: “What if there was a woman who had no shame?”
Remember when Spike Lee did all those interviews for She's Gotta Have It and he eagerly explained that his concept for the film was, “What if there was a woman who liked sex as much as a man?” The obvious reaction was, “Wow! Was that an Isaac Asimov plot? So very science fiction, Spike!”
Wetlands feels like a bit of a throwback to that to me. Girls today are ahead of this book, way ahead. It's slightly less frank and certainly less witty than a thread on the sex-and-gossip site Jezebel.com.
Valpy Given that adults with happily integrated personalities aren't likely to buy Wetlands, maybe all that's left is to look at it as a sexual guide to the culture. Tabatha, you say girls today are way ahead of the book. Define “ahead.”
Southey I would define “ahead” as being informed about all aspects of their bodies and their enjoyment of them. They go on the Internet or they talk to their friends and they ask, “Is this normal?” And then someone either says, “Yes” or, better still, “Who cares?”
This book is no more a sexual guide to the culture than the ubiquitous “teenagers hooking up” pieces that newspapers run on slow weeks. They are both meant to shock us and neither is really reflective of our culture.
Oh, and Liz, I so agree about Sex and the City, which is so deeply conventional, but I hardly see it as the feminist endgame. It's just shopping. I think women mostly know the difference between these two things and might even enjoy both.
Renzetti I think Roche at least deserves praise for sticking her real name on the jacket cover. We're supposed to be so hyper-liberated, writing blogs about spanking, reading books about wanking – but it's all under cover of night. The non-fiction memoirs of young women's sexuality – such as Confessions of a London Call Girl, Girl With a One-Track Mind and the new I-was-a-teenage-tart manifesto Scandalous – are written under pseudonyms.
There's a new collection of short erotic stories by top British women writers called In Bed With ... but you wouldn't know who the writers are, because they've written under pseudonyms such as Minxy Malone and Cassandra Bedwell. Apparently many writers were approached to contribute but declined, even though they were given the protection of pen names (or should that be peignoir names?).
And the covers of these books are painfully coy, all wistful line drawings of backsides clad in cute ruffled panties. God forbid that anyone on the subway should know you're reading smut.
Doesn't that suggest that we're all still a little Victorian at heart, no matter what our mouths say? The Victorians, after all, were the great purveyors of anonymous porn. They also knew that shame has an erotic power of its own, a lesson we pretend we've forgotten.
Valpy Yes, praise for Ms. Roche for using her real name. I Googled her photo; she looks elfin, as I expected.
One inevitably is drawn into considering what cultures produce what sorts of pornography. Here you have athletically secular societies like the Germans and the Brits producing Wetlands and spanking blogs – kind of giggling send-ups – while the religious Americans flood the Internet with solemn photos of two, three or four people boinking. You don't hear much these days about the French and Italians, although the most erotic painting I‘ve ever seen is Parmigianino's Madonna of the Long Neck: It's the endlessly long, bare leg of a teenaged angel stretching up to a wisp of cloth at the groin.
Which brings me to our own culture in Canada. If you accept Harold Innis's theory of the significance of the voice at the margin of empire, we should be producing some of the world's most creative, out-of-the-box pornography, of which I've seen no indication. But I did look in the paper this morning to find an article about a pre-op transsexual in St. Catharines, Ont., filing a human-rights grievance over the rejection of her application to join a women's-only gym.
Southey I sincerely wish her the best of luck. What she's asking for has nothing to do with the gratification of a fetish. It's entirely different from a spanking – or an avocado.
Valpy I wasn't equating them. My point is that Canada is a rights culture – you look for international public statements on sexuality and you get Wetlands from Germany, spanking blogs from Britain, truckloads of Internet porn from the U.S. and human-rights action from Canada. (Oversimplified, I know, but I like contributing to our national mythologies.)
Southey As for Charlotte Roche – look, she's a very pretty, well-known German TV personality and this is her first book. I don't think her publishers would have touched Wetlands without her very-household name on it. Certainly it wouldn't have received the attention and the sales it's generating.
So yes, she deserves credit for putting her name on her book and a cute dress on her “elfin” frame and then doing a million interviews – for not being an idiot. On the other hand, she also deserves credit for the relentlessness of her book. Sure, it reads like a writing exercise. But as writing exercises go, it's a committed one, and I respect her for that.
Valpy As for pornographic anonymity, Liz, it could be that the authors just don't want to be identified with a spent genre. I was telling a young woman friend this morning about our discussion, and she replied: “Pornography is so Nineties. … Enough with Bridget Jones and her dildo.” Maybe that's part of what Tabatha meant by young women being ahead of Wetlands.
Southey Recently, I sat for a while in the Musée d'Orsay, watching the faces of the people as they came around the corner and found themselves in front of Gustave Courbet's The Origin of the World. The painting is hung, possibly deliberately, so that one can almost sit behind it, reviewing the ways in which the gallery strollers react as they're brought abruptly in front of Courbet's work – that is, in front of his model's mound of dark hair, her wanton yet exhausted spread legs and the lips of her vagina, beautiful and explicit. Even her left nipple, high up where her face might have been, were this a classic portrait, is one hell of a shocking nipple.
At nearly 150 years old, this painting still has immense power. It unsettles me. Some viewers approached it more closely, trying to look at it studiously; some stepped back; all of them had to make some effort toward composing themselves.
Periodically, a few nine-year-old boys rounded the corner, shrieked and ran away. And then glanced back. These boys probably have access to the Internet, yet this oil painting is still shocking to them. It's actually pornographic. It's intended to provoke us and it does. It feels like a victory for mankind. It's so open-ended that it demands a response from the viewer and in that demand lies the rather delicious confusion that makes a work genuinely erotic.
In a work like Wetlands, there's no room for the viewer. That room is something that pornography requires to be effective. Therefore, I think it fails as porn. We've already agreed that it fails as literature. It's not the explicitness of a work that crowds the viewer out. Most very hard-core works allow room for the viewer, but that is not a wavelength on which Ms. Roche is yet able to write. She lacks empathy – something I think Courbet must have had.
American film scholar Linda Williams, in her excellent book Hardcore, writes of pornography that “this most maligned and scapegoated of cultural forms is in desperate need of defence.” I agree. Show me some actual porn and I'll defend it.
Renzetti Michael's question about the lack of Canadian pornography is interesting: We certainly have enough kinky filmmakers and visual artists – perhaps that's the problem: We're too twisted. Erotica demands a certain adherence to form. Or maybe it's out there and we just don't know it – maybe there's a whole subculture devoted to maple-flavoured body lotions and candy panties in the shape of Wilfrid Laurier.
Of course, we did have one famous volume, written by Lisa Kroniuk and called Masquerade: Fifteen Variations on a Sexual Fantasy. It didn't even crawl off the shelves until Pierre Berton admitted that he, in fact, was Lisa Kroniuk, and then it became a bestseller. That might be my favourite Canadian story of all time: People wanted to own pornography written by Pierre Berton.
Southey Actually, Montreal and also Toronto and, I believe, increasingly, Calgary now produce a fair amount of video porn. Although of course the overwhelming majority of the world's filmed porn is still made in the San Fernando Valley in California.
I wish I could say that it was made in Europe – that way I could say that it's because they have so many great daycare programs there, and then what we're talking about might be connected to an actual, vital feminist issue.
Renzetti Ah, there are so many vital feminist issues out there – like, what am I going to read in my 10 free minutes? I think we've agreed that it probably won't be Wetlands, especially if you plan to eat that day. But there are so many other places to turn – luscious pictures, lascivious blogs, lewd classics. I'm going to take Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint off the bookshelf to remind myself that there is a proper way to combine smut, humour and making love to food.
Elizabeth Renzetti is a member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau, Michael Valpy is a Globe writer based in Toronto and Tabatha Southey writes the Tart column each week in Focus.
Published 05 February 2009
Fourth Estate, 229pp, £12.99
A warning: do not, as I did, start reading this book in your lunch break. The writer introduces the protagonist's haemorrhoids in the very first sentence, and by the second page some lucky man has his nose in them ("I call this position 'stuff your face'"). The gross-out genre, happily bestowed upon us by the Farrelly brothers and Chuck Palahniuk, has a new star in Charlotte Roche, an elfin, English-born, German-bred television presenter whose fictional debut, Wetlands, has sold half a million copies since its publication in Germany last year. It is interesting to see how differently this kind of subject matter is received when it is written by and/or about a woman. While Palahniuk and the Farrellys are filed under "comedy", the jacket of the English translation of Wetlands announces that this novel has the "feminist agenda of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch".
Such a reception in itself lends weight to the book - it is clearly still political, rather than funny, for a woman to write about shit, piss, slime and other entertaining bodily functions. But the focus on gender diverts attention from what Wetlands actually does well: it is a sharply written, taboo-busting black comedy, both gross and engrossing. If you are looking for a manifesto for 21st-century feminism, on the other hand, you will be disappointed.
The novel is set in a proctology ward (or "ass unit") where 18-year-old Helen Memel has been admitted, following an unfortunate accident while shaving her bum. (Roche said in a recent interview that the book had originally been conceived as a non-fiction tirade against hair removal. She also maintained that bum-shaving is a common practice among females. At the risk of giving away far too much information, I have to ask - really?) In between the various agonising medical interventions to which she is subjected by the sinister Dr Notz, she flirts with a male nurse, ponders her colourful sex life and lets readers in on some of her choicest grooming habits. "Hygiene's not a major concern of mine," she announces, and she's not kidding: from deliberately wiping her "lady fingers" on the seats in public toilets to fashioning her own tampons from whatever happens to be lying around, this girl is Florence Nightingale's worst nightmare.
I can't help but find it depressing that Helen has been understood as some kind of feminist icon. Far from being liberated, she is imprisoned by her preoccupations with sex, dirt, blood and hair. She has rebelled against her prim-and-proper mother's obsessive cleanliness ("Her dying thought at the scene of an accident would be: How long have I been wearing these panties?"), only to construct her own set of obsessions, many of which are more damaging to herself and to those around her. She is promiscuous and sexually adventurous - we are treated to several pages on her preparations for anal sex - but surely we have progressed beyond mistaking these for sexual empowerment? Roche makes the point neatly by allowing Helen to be "rescued" in traditional knight-on-a-white-horse fashion by Robin, the male nurse.
There is an interesting argument to be made against hygiene fascism, and many times during the course of her narrative Helen hits the target: "If you find cocks, cum or smegma disgusting you might as well forget about sex"; "What [well-kept women] don't know: the more effort they put into these little details, the more uptight they seem . . . those type of women would never let themselves get all messy fucking". However, after 229 pages in her company, I was just as tired of the tyranny of uncleanliness, and probably more drawn to obsessive-compulsive hand-washing than ever before.
None of these is a criticism of Helen as a character. She is charismatic and full of contradictions: obsessed with mascara and curling her eyelashes but pathologically opposed to washing her face; proud of her pussy yet ashamed of her ass; strong and independent-minded, but still reliant on men to bolster her self-esteem. For all her tough talk she is, by her own admission, "neurotic, deranged and depressed", the product of a broken home and a suicidal mother. Wetlands, in the tradition of Plath's The Bell Jar, is a remarkable novel about mental illness that has been mistaken for feminist literature.
Back to basics
Wetlands, by Charlotte Roche
What an odd mix of distinguished residents High Wycombe has had! Fern Britton, Benjamin Disraeli, Dusty Springfield, Karl Popper, Jimmy Carr: it’s a list that reads like a game of Celebrity Consequences in freefall.
There is not much in common between those listed above. Yet a subsection of the list displays an almost obsessive interest in sexual and gastronomic experimentation. The goggle-eyed chef Heston Blumenthal, brought up in High Wycombe, has become famous for off-beat dishes such as Snail Porridge and Egg-and-Bacon Ice Cream. Ian Dury, who went to school there, is best-known for the song ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, a jaunty, multi-lingual (‘je t’adore, iche liebe dich!’) hymn in praise of sado-masochism. That fine artist, Eric Gill, who set up his workshop in High Wycombe, is now notorious for secretly conducting an incestuous relationship with his sister and his daughter; he was also on intimate terms with his dog.
And to these odd-bods may now be added Charlotte Roche (b. High Wycombe 1978), who combines the town’s twin areas of experimentation — sex and eating — in a singularly bizarre way in her first book. Wetlands has already sold over half-a- million copies in Germany, where the young Charlotte emigrated, and where she is a famous TV presenter. It is the first book in German to reach the Number 1 spot in Amazon’s global bestseller list. Now published in English, it is dividing our literary chatterers, some maintaining that it is a frank and liberating exploration of female sexuality, while others argue that it is a load of old filth. In Germany, its title is not the soppy-sounding Wetlands but the infinitely harsher Feuchtgebiete. If you say Feuchtgebiete out loud, its ugly, gobbing sound will give you a much better idea of what the book is like.
Carrying Wetlands around with me over the past few days, I have bumped into quite a few people who imagine, from all the publicity, that it is a steamy sex-romp of the type few of us can resist. But I have had to disappoint them. Steamy it may be, but the steam comes from something less attractive than sex; in a characteristic phrase, Roche describes the smell coming from her bowels as being ‘like warm pus mixed with diarrhoea and something acidic’.
The very first sentence reads: ‘As far back as I can remember, I’ve had hemorrhoids.’ This puts it in the running for the most unsexy first sentence ever written. And this modest selection of first sentences from the next few paragraphs will give you some idea of what you’re in for: ‘My hemorrhoids look strange . . . ’, ‘Back to shaving my ass . . .’, ‘Perhaps not everyone knows what an anal lesion is . . .’, ‘The swollen hemorrhoids are also pushing with all their strength against the razor wound . . . ’, ‘Back to my bum . . .’, ‘And they talk about pus and an engorged blister that’s hanging out of the wound on my . . . .’
Whoah! Suffice it to say, most of Wetlands could have been written as a starter- manual for anyone toying with setting up a Pornography Aversion Clinic. Or is it a practical joke by anti-porn campaigners — a book with a bright pink cover, marketed as lewd and sexy, but designed to put anyone who reads it off sex forever?
For centuries now, Germans have taken a particular interest in bodily emissions. Visitors to Germany will have noticed that their toilets are fitted with interior platforms, there to catch each stool for the purposes of examination prior to flushing. In this respect, Charlotte Roche is far more representative of her adoptive country than of the people of High Wycombe.
Wetlands reads like an inventory of all the revolting things that come out of the body: blister-fluids, pus, farts, scabs, bogeys, urine. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if, in a few months’ time, it turned out that it was written not by the fashionable German TV presenter Charlotte Roche but by two giggling ten-year-old schooboys, spurring eachother on to find out who could be the most disgusting. It certainly reads like the yucky games we used to play at my first school. ‘And so for the first time in my life I drank someone else’s puke’ reads a representative passage. ‘Mixed with my own. In big gulps. Taking turns. Until the bucket was empty.’ Small wonder that the German newspaper Der Spiegel has summarised the book’s philosophy as ‘I stink, therefore I am.’
Wetlands is set entirely in a hospital room, with occasional flashbacks. The 18-year-old narrator, Helen, is, as we have already discovered, being treated for hemorrhoids. ‘We’ll make a wedge-shaped incision to cut out the infected tissue’, the doctor informs her, helpfully. After the operation, she encourages a male nurse to take a photo of the afflicted area. Later, she asks to see what has been removed: ‘I wanted to see the wedge of skin after they cut it out’. She is disappointed to find that it is lots of little bits, rather than one large one, but she picks them all up nevertheless. ‘I lick my fingers off one at a time’ she writes, adding, ‘I’m always proud of myself when I come up with an idea like that.’ Other patients may prefer to pass their time in hospital with needlework, or a good book, but Helen enjoys other things. ‘And so I come to one of my biggest hobbies’, she reveals on page 133. ‘Popping zits.’ Those looking for conventional erotica, or even not-so- conventional, will be gravely disappointed. All in all, Wetlands is to sex what the Bush Tucker Trial is to eating out.
Anthony Powell’s belief that self-pity is the mystery ingredient of every bestseller is amply born out. On the surface, Wetlands is an anti-bourgeois, no-holds-barred, mould-breaking etc, etc exploration of the female body; but dig a little deeper, and it is clichéd, sentimental and trite, a handbook on how to feel sorry for yourself.
‘What can I do now to divert my attention from my numbing loneliness?’ Helen asks herself, after doing everything possible with her own body short of eating it all up. At this point, the reader begins to realise that what has been billed as sexual liberation is in fact our dull old friend, a cry for help. There is in fact a weird strain of Victorian priggishness running through the entire novel, the suggestion that any interest in sex must be due to neurosis, and anyone too interested in it must need their head examined.
As the book goes on, it turns out that, for all her talk of sexual and bodily liberation — and, let me assure you, no orifice remains unexplored — Helen is spinning out her time in hospital in the vain hope of bringing her divorced parents together. ‘My goal is that they see each other and, years after separating, fall head over heels in love again. And get back together.’ So what we have here is yet another poor-little-me novel, written for teenagers with bad skin and ‘issues’: it’s Jacqueline Wilson with Tourettes.
Helen’s original scars seem to be clearing up well, but her parents still haven’t got back together, so — in the most singularly rebarbative scene among many — she sets about damaging her surgeon’s good work, and reopening the original wounds:
If I’m to have any chance at all of bringing my parents together, I need a lot more time here . . . All because of my messed-up family. I have nowhere to go. I have to stay here. Forever.
Ladling on the misery, Helen goes on to reveal that years ago, her mother attempted suicide, and tried to kill Helen’s younger brother at the same time. The last sentence of the book is ‘I throw back my head and scream’. Oddly enough, this is exactly what I felt like doing too. Well, Wetlands was big in Germany, and though I can’t see it being big in Britain, I imagine it might enjoy bumper sales in High Wycombe. Perhaps it’s something in the water.
San Francisco Chronicle
Anis Shivani, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, May 3, 2009
By Charlotte Roche; translated by Tim Mohr
(Grove; 229 pages; $17.95)
Every once in a while, the novel, which keeps defaulting to its genteel, overmannered self, needs a purgative, and Charlotte Roche's "Wetlands" is it.
German literature, with that country's history of authoritarianism, abounds with scatological tracts, and Roche follows in the admirable footsteps of Brecht, Böll and Grass.
Never was there a more corporeally articulate heroine than 18-year-old Helen Memel, who finds herself in a hospital because of an anal lesion from rough shaving and stays there until almost the end. Helen loves every manifestation of "uncleanliness" associated with the body, and gives detailed descriptions of her endless experiments, often brutal, with bodily secretions. These are infinitely more fascinating than any number of psychologically authentic characterizations in traditional novels. The real pornography might well be of politeness.
No experiment in subjecting herself to bacterial "danger" is too extreme. Her exhibitionism extends to all the censored, "filthy" parts of bodily existence. What others repulse, she intakes ecstatically.
Helen is eventually healed, but she doesn't want to go home. She wants to stay as long as possible to have her parents reconciled. She can never get them to be together, however, even when she bleeds a lot after reopening her wound. The mother is into hygiene (like all mothers), but she once tried to kill herself and Helen's brother by turning on the oven gas.
The narrative of the dysfunctional family is overwhelmed by Helen's roller-coaster spin with bodily pain and ecstasy (the two go together, contrary to bourgeois reasoning). The same applies to Helen's crush on Robin, the helpful nurse who listens to her tales of sexual experimentation and witnesses her exhibitionism.
Roche reorients our senses to the kinds of stories we should be hearing, the very manner of their telling. We have been returned to the primitive base of fiction, and other modes seem somehow profoundly trivial.
Novelists, germ-phobics all, sell us ethical narratives, as clean as hospital rooms. We need the Helen Memels to mess up the joint.
Anis Shivani's collection, "Anatolia and Other Stories," will be published by Black Lawrence Press in September.
The Guardian, Saturday 25 July 2009
Wetlands, by Charlotte Roche, Harper Perennial,
On many levels, Wetlands is extraordinary. At one point in 2008 the original German novel was the world's bestselling book. It has triggered a global debate about whether it is art or porn, and contains descriptions so disturbing that people have fainted at readings. It is narrated by Helen, an 18-year-old girl, from a hospital room where she is being treated for an infected anus after a shaving accident. Is Helen, obsessed with sex and bodily excretions, determinedly holding out against the apparent fascism of the feminist hygiene industry by neglecting to wash her lady parts? Or is she a young girl, distraught at the break-up of her family, suffering from a mental illness so severe her account could bear comparison with The Bell Jar? Sadly, the reality is less interesting. Helen is two-dimensional - a cartoon. Everyone else in the novel is a cipher. Parts of the book are affecting, but it doesn't take an articulate voice to make a description of reopening a wound in an anus nauseating. Not funny, not moving, not provocative and certainly not titillating, Wetlands is just extraordinarily gross.