So I just read Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, hailed (on the back cover at least) as evoking “the voice of JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the perversion of JG Ballard’s Crash and the feminist agenda of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch”.
It’s a book that’s had a lot of attention in the press already – so I thought it’d be fun to compare the UK media’s hype about the book and my interpretations, rather than a traditional review.
The book begins with protagonist Helen in hospital; she cut her anus while shaving and got infected – she has to have an operation. It’s been described repeatedly as taking the reader on a journey around her body (and I would add, bodily fluids)… The first line is: “As far back as I can remember, I have had hemorrhoids.” By the end of the first page, Roche has treated us to a description of using zinc cream to pacify them:
Before I had the salve I would scratch at my butthole in my sleep so much that I’d wake up in the morning with a brown stain in my underwear the size of the top of a cork. That’s how much it itched, and that’s how deep I’d stick my finger in. So yes, I’d say it’s very ladylike.
So, yes, the general gist is that the novel pulverises the idea of women as untouchable ladies.
“A female-penned novel so pornographic that it has reportedly caused people to faint at public readings is to go on sale in Britain.” – The Telegraph.
“The book certainly requires a strong stomach, discussing, as it does, the narrator’s sexual preferences in minute detail, but is it cleverly packaged pornography or an erotic classic?” The Times
Other than the tangental fact that the book was translated from German to English by “Tim Mohr… a staff editor at Playboy magazine”, I don’t get the description of this book as pornographic. There’s some frank descriptions of sex, but not… well… in a sexy way (or I didn’t think so anyway).
People may have fainted at readings (joining Chuck Palahniuk readings and screenings of the Blair Witch Project in the annuals of ever-so-slightly hard to believe report of public fainting). But, if they did, I suspect that would have more to do with the gross-out descriptions of, for example, “pissing out your ass”, rather than any of the passages related to sex.
It’s quite revealing that the reviewers focus in on the idea of this being porn, though. You could read this as a the antithesis to (mainstream, made-for-men) porn in many ways, as it is absolutely centred on a woman’s experience of her own sexual desires and living in her body to the maximum, rather than women’s bodies existing ultimately for men.
However, the character’s attitude to the sex industry is to embrace it – she reminisces about hiring a series of (only) black prostitutes, for example.
For some, the apparent celebration of women using sex workers, and, at that, with the exoticisation and othering of black “hookers”, will immediately rule this out as a feminist book. But even if that’s not you, this problematic passage might:
At one of my numerous brothel visits a hooker told me that some men get off coming in with their cocks dirty and making a hooker suck them off. She said it was a power game. Those are their least favourite clients, the dirty ones. The purposefully dirty ones. They don’t have anything against inadvertantly dirty ones.
I wanted to try that, too. I didn’t wash myself for a long time and then had a hooker go down on me. For me there was nothing different about it from having someone go down on me when I’m clean. Power games aren’t my thing.
Which is, to my mind, a pretty troubling description of purposefully treating a sex worker/prostitute like dirt, just to experiment.
“This may well be a revolutionary idea in Germany, where Roche lives, but in
Britain anybody who sees drunken young women on the pull in city centres knows that, for that generation, feminine mystique is already well nigh extinct.
“Roche and others from the new wave of women shock-jocks tell us that baring their fantasies, or recounting their love lives in lurid and exhaustive detail, is uniquely emancipating.
“While I would fight tooth and claw for women’s right to sexual freedom, I’m not sure the sisterhood has gained much if it sees that freedom as a chance to brag about sex and conquests in the same kind of tedious and lewd manner that made the new lad so obnoxious back in the Nineties.” Rowan Pelling, in the Daily Mail
Hmm, so, Helen is sexual, she has sex, she masturbates. But it’s clearly not meant to be erotica – it’s a story in which the main character is sexual. Pelling’s perspective – that women should maintain a “feminine mystique” in order to be sexy (rather than sexual) seems to have missed the point of the novel by twenty miles.
Here’s an interview with Roche which puts the novel, and its apparently feminist intent, into perspective:
The feminist context of the novel is easier to understand after watching this video. It’s like she took the famous line of Germaine Greer’s:
“If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood – if it makes you sick, you’ve a long way to go baby.”
And ramped the idea up to 1,000. For me, the idea of tasting menstrual blood isn’t a big deal. But wiping your vagina around the toilet seat specifically in order to wipe up other people’s piss? Yeah, that’s too much for me – although I’m not sure if it’s strictly necessary to be OK with that in order to be liberated. Obviously Roche is exaggerating for effect – as she says in the video, she took her own squemishness about all things bodily fluid and created a character who was absolutely the opposite.