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Literature to lose your lunch by

Upon completion of Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, two major questions remain unanswered for me. First, what is it exactly about this book that made it the first German-language book to ever become the number-one Amazon.com bestseller, worldwide? And second: What in the name of Mary Wollestonecraft does a one-joke grossout book have to do with feminism? The UK literary journal Granta described Wetlands as having "the feminist agenda of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch". But Wetlands' runaway success (rights sold in 26 countries, a million copies sold in Germany alone) has a lot more to do with the machinery of hype than with feminism.

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First a little background: author Charlotte Roche, 30, was, until recently, best known as a former host on the German music video channel Viva. Her shy, cute-'n'-brainy sweetness contrasts profoundly with the content of Wetlands, which amounts to an exercise in bodily disgust. I don't doubt that many of the reviews in mainstream papers simply summed up the book's plot in the same way the New York Times did, giving no specifics but merely noting that the narrative is "hard to describe in a family newspaper." Combine that kind of coy description with rumors that audience members regularly fainted at Roche's public appearances, and an entire continent will soon be running all over town to get their hands on a copy.
The plot of Wetlands is simple. Eighteen-year-old Helen Memel is in the hospital, having just undergone surgery to remove infected tissue from her hemorrhoid-stricken rear end. It's a result, Helen tells us, of frequent anal sex combined with a shaving accident. She spends most of the novel alone in her hospital room, trying to think of ways to keep from being discharged—her hope is that the longer she stays in the hospital, the greater the chances that her divorced parents will show up there at the same time, and just maybe get back together.


I've been moved to countless different emotions and physical states by fiction in the past: hunger, sadness, anger, sleeplessness, arousal. But it took Wetlands to provoke me into actually vomiting. If you are easily disgusted, or if you are eating, just ate, or are just about to eat, do yourself a favor and stop reading right here.

Helen's mission in life is to prove that most fear of contamination and infection is overblown. "Why should I be disgusted by my own blood and pus?" Helen says, after she has handled her surgically excised anal tissue and licked her fingers. "I'm not squeamish about infections. When I pop pimples and get pus on my finger, I happily eat that. And when I squeeze a blackhead and the translucent little worm with the black head comes out, I wipe that up with a finger and then lick it off." There is not a single bodily fluid or excreta that Helen does not gleefully enjoy eating. After vomiting up a combination of wine and pills, she decides not to waste it and knocks it back; at another time, she smears a bloody tampon across the buttons of the hospital elevator. I can't bring myself to revisit the barbecue tongs scene, but if you're truly curious, the strong-stomached Anna North of Jezebel can fill you in here.

Helen's obsessive insistence on decorating the world (including less privileged people) with her infectious secretions is something only a bored, privileged kid would think to do. The press attention focused on Wetlands seems to presuppose that the book is some kind of call to arms, a message to girls that they should be less ashamed of their bodies. But as obsessed with probing her own body as Helen is, she does absolutely no probing of her psyche. In contrast, think of the works of the late Kathy Acker, author of Blood and Guts in High School among many other truly transgressive books. Acker laid bare the depths of female desire, with a healthy heaping teaspoon of TMI confession and some bodily fluids splashed in. There's more truly terrifying and soul-wrenching writing (as well as more thought provoking feminist theory) on any random page of the Acker oeuvre than in Roche's entire book. See also Samuel Delany, the queer African-American science fiction author who penned another infamous stomach churner, his S&M erotic opus, Hogg. In a grossout throwdown between Wetlands and Hogg, Hogg will win every round. But unlike Wetlands, it reads like a highwire act, a confession, an expression of emotions and desires so hidden that it is both exhilarating and horrible to read.

Roche can be better compared to Chuck Palahniuk, an author more interested in making you puke than making you think. (Palahniuk's short story "Guts", which is also about a really disgusting sex-related accident, has also allegedly caused scores of faintings at his readings.) Helen is never explained, she just exists, spewing fluids and tossing off deep thoughts like this: "Since I learned that black women have the reddest pussies, I only go to black hookers. There are no other black women in my world—not in school, not in my neighborhood. Prostitution is my only chance. I'm sure plenty of men understand my problem." In another scene, she spits water into a cup, then offers it to a candy striper to drink. Tell me again: Who is supposed to be empowered by this book? What status quo is allegedly being challenged? Helen's alleged empowerment never extends past herself to any of the sex workers or hospital employees who get paid to service her body.

Where Acker and Delany focused a spotlight on the psychological dimensions of queerness and self- hatred, Roche never even comes close to explaining or understanding the monstrous creature of Helen. Instead, Wetlands is the literary equivalent of a grossout viral video: "2 girls 1 cup" in book form. (And I'm not the only one who thought of this: see also Troy Patterson's take at Slate.) If there's anything feminist about Charlotte Roche and her book, it's that she's proved the unclean female body still has the power to provoke total revulsion. But unfortunately, that's as deep as it goes.

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Comments

12 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I was living in Germany when

I was living in Germany when the book became such a huge success, and I want to add some observations I made, that maybe make the hype around 'wetlands' a little more clear.

First of all, I want to mention that Roche was famous before she wrote the book. I mean, it sounds not very impressive if you read that she was a VJ of a music channel, that sounds as if she has been 'a good-looking doll announcing video clips'. But that's not true. First of all, she had a really unique, intelligent style, you can say she 're-invented' VJing and became a muse to a lot of national artists. I can't give a nice example, it's too long ago, but I remember that she was showing the hair onder her armpits once proudly - I don't think you see that on Mtv. All in all, I think she became a role model of an 'other feminity' for a lot of young German girls (and all the hetero boys were in love with her). She also invented other show concepts, switched from one TVchannel to the next, because she wanted to work under HER conditions and always left if someone told her how TV has to look like... She was a little bit like a rebell. Nevertheless, 'Wetlands' surely would never have been published if it would have been written by a no-name.

Secondly, I want to make clear that Roche never claimed that she wrote a feminist book, she never even brought it into connection with feminism. This happend by only by the media. And she also does not define herself as a writer...

And of course,the book is disgusting, but I see the disguting elements only as stylistic devices (Btw, it's funny how these elements are received in different cultures. I never heard before that someone could vomit from it; and in the Netherlands, newspapers raised the question: What's so gross about it? Come on, don't be square). I think the messege behind it is only: No one needs exaggerated hygiene, especially your vagina is fine if it smells like vagina and not like some perfumed vaginal lotion or something.

In one scene of the book, the I-narrator tells how her Mum used to tell her that she has to clean herself more intensively than her brother has to, because as a girl you always have to be clean (for example, you must not have any spots in your undies...) so I think Roche's message is mainly to accept your body and all it's liquids as it is/as they and to resist clean, stereotyped beauty of the body.

In this sense, I have to say, I liked the book very much, although Roche is using extreme stylistic devices, but why not? Bret Easton Ellis is also doing that, but in a misogynist way.So I think it's a good thing if a female writer breaks taboos too.

Absolutely! I haven't read

Absolutely! I haven't read the book but if this was written by a guy about guys, there wouldn't be any fuss at all - we'd all be thinking, ah, boys! or boys will be boys! The stereotyped role women are expected to play of being "proper" and "feminine" and "pleasing" to the eye/nose/ear/touch/taste/whatever is disgusting and I'm glad SOMEONE is doing something to break the "feminine" socializing and stereotyping. Enough with boys/men bragging about farting and burping and being absolutely stupid (as in the show Jackass - which by the way i can't believe they show on national cable tv).

Checkout porn and you'll see nasty cum being forced into women's mouths (or women being told that they like it) - it's high time someone challenged the notion that menstruation blood should be hid while men's excretions should be celebrated.

"Checkout porn and you'll

"Checkout porn and you'll see nasty cum being forced into women's mouths (or women being told that they like it) - it's high time someone challenged the notion that menstruation blood should be hid while men's excretions should be celebrated."

150 million dollars per annum, and that is merely the gagthatbitch style stuff that took the transaction processing to Switzerland. so call it about a billion as a round figure.

The credit card companies don't like the KKK, because the sheetboys, don't make enough money. It is that 'big tobacco' genre, of continuing.

The thin end of the wedge was the (federal) postcard ban on lynching photos, and municipal ordinances, obliging folks to do it outside city limits, like a bridge two miles out of town, and no picnic franchise.

Eventually, they lynched black people at night, it just wasn't as respectable as baseball, and so it was incrementally banned, even in Jasper County Texas. It is for example, illegal to chain black people to a pickup truck.

a knew a girl who...

...vomited twice in one reading of this book. She kept trying to read it, but couldn't finish it. I think the feminist theory in this book is overshadowed by its overwhelming nastiness. By the way, I wanted to share this with anyone pissed off about that ridiculous "opposite marriage" comment at the Miss USA contest last week.

http://hateonme.com/2009/04/22/opposition-to-opposite-marriage-at-miss-usa/

Puking because of a book!?

Puking because of a book!? I am SO glad I don't live in the states, I'm with the Europeans on this, big time. Americans are so squeemish, it's absurd, stop codleing yourselves and be a fucking human, we are apes afterall, grow up. I live in Canada, and though we're no where near Europe when it comes to this stuff, there's still no comparison to the US. I laugh, and sometimes want to cry, at how often I see something like "ew, don't talk about that, I'm eating!" in American movies and television, it's rediculous. Get with it, horror movies are funny, and gore and bodily fluids are a natural part of life, and also, on occasion, funny.

I agree!

Bodily fluids and gore can definitely be funny. It's even funnier, maybe, that I couldn't stop myself from puking. I knew it was ridiculous even while it was happening.

Not all Europeans are "with" this book ...

... I have some intellectually-pursuasive friends in a quite liberal European country that read the book to see what all the fuss was all about (It really is a sensation over there). I was expecting them to convince me that I was ridiculously uptight and had no real reason to repulsed by it, and that perhaps I needed some psychotherapy to help me get over my hang-ups. Well, guess what? They AGREED with me about it and were downright repulsed themselves! They thought it was low-brow egocentric drivel garbage that did not deserve to be even recylced. I was stunned.

Bodily fluids are a part of life that can be useful in some film and literary situations, and are indeed a fetishistic turn-on for many. But they not a turn-on for me, personally, and even most of my liberal-progressive friends. To each one's own.

Really? You consider

Really? You consider menstrual blood on barbecue tongs to be grosser than eating one's own vomit?

what's grosser than gross?

I do actually, and for this carefully considered reason: the people who used those barbecue tongs later did not make a conscious decision to eat some else's menstrual blood. Helen decides to drink her own vomit, it's her decision: gross. She spits in the candy striper's water without her knowledge: grosser!

It's all gross! The degree to which any scene is grosser than any other is splitting hairs. I'm entirely content to be squeamish.If squeamishness makes me wrong, I don't wanna be right. It's why I'm a bookstore clerk and not, say, a gastroenterologist.

All I could think was hospital-acquired infections...

I work in a hospital and infections, especially the superbugs (ie. MRSA) are a really big deal. And for legitimate reasons. I haven't read the book, and I'm not generally an anal person about hygiene, but I do think there's a certain level of basic hygiene that people need to adhere to, especially in hospitals.

If she were in any other setting, I probably wouldn't think about it, but I just find the idea of someone deliberately spreading their bodily fluids all over the place to satisfy their teenage angst or something equally trite, to be morally abhorrent. Women used to die in childbirth b/c when obstetrics first arose, doctors would go from morgue to deliver, bringing all sorts of infections with them.

I know there are lots of issues around bodily acceptance here, but from a strictly health care perspective, this girl is sick/twisted, and it's right up there with knowingly spreading an STD in my books.

"Fluid" narratives...

As a writer myself, as well as a voracious reader, I believe in the right of expression (barring the physical harm or oppression of another person, as a proviso) belonging to all artists. I try also to recognize a diverse range of literary works as possessing their own worth, in whatever fashion - though this may be outside my ideological, stylistic, or personal preferences, even to the point of disgust.
"Wetlands" sounds quite frankly outside my taste as a reader; it just doesn't sound, well, interesting or inspiring to me. I acknowledge, however, that there may be some value - however perverse - in what Roche has to say. As it's described in this post, it doesn't sound that empowering to women or to people in general, which is important as it might very well have had the potential to be. One of my favorite authors - Jean Genet, a mid-twentieth century queer poet, playwright, novelist, activist, thief, and prostitute whom I highly recommend, himself explored the theme of otherwise "abhorrent" bodily functions and substance in his beautiful works.
If Roche's work really is as it's summarized here, it sounds as if her book doesn't so much explore these as exploit their gross-out influence. Genet used his experimentation as an eloquent device to shake a bourgeois reader from a comfortable position of power over the narrative and into a new perspective of life from a deeply carnal stance. (Check out "Our Lady of the Flowers," following the blasphemous descent of a transvestite queer prostitute, or "The Balcony," a play about political/symbolic revolution out of a marginalized whorehouse.)
Since I haven't read "Wetlands," I can't attest as an expert, but it sounds as if the book brushes against the possibly empowering themes of the female body but doesn't plunge beyond the superficial shock of it, and I'd hate to think that in the worst case it in fact exploits and reinforces the broadscale cultural perceptions of female corporeal experiences as something repulsive to be concealed. I don't know, but this would be disappointing if indeed it is the case.
But I do think that the central conceit and plot of "Wetlands could have a potentially powerful message - in the hands of the right author. From this post's depiction, it sounds as if the narrator speaks and indulges in a deeply egocentric and self-indulgent position. The vital thing for a work like this, in my opinion, would be a willingness to explore the *ambiguities,* in individual, political, cultural, and physical terms, of this scenario. There could be a wealth of contradictions and questions to investigate here, disquieting ones, if the writer is prepared to do so; as a teenager I know I had my own set of inner conflicts over my bodily experience. But in order to interest me, at least, and for me to find it really impactful, a book regarding this would need to examine these ambiguities, not merely profit from their general image as it stands.

Interesting comments...as I

Interesting comments...as I read them you make me think about Zoe Heller. She's been doing media lately for her new book The Believers. She keeps mentioning this beef she has with modern writers and readers who want characters to be likable and relatable. She questions the value of creating a character that the audience can cheer for, if this is the only pleasure that a reader can draw from a book.
I've haven't read Wetlands either, but it seems like its defenders want to cheer for its main character, Helen. I don't know if this is because Roche wrote Helen to be relatable, or if readers are just tuned in to respond to main characters in this way. I wonder if a more interesting version of Wetlands would have explored the ambiguities of personal and political statements that Helen is making, or even their down-right selfish, adolescent nature. Do we have to like Helen for the book to be interesting and readable?
Europeans and Americans are fascinated by post-enlightenment ideals about individuality. But what are the limitations of personal freedom and expression? Is Helen entitled to her poo-smearing liberty? When does Helen's personal freedom become a limitation on the personal freedom of others to say, not get a bacteria infection while in the hospital? Does the expectation of liberty itself in some contexts become gross?