Wetlands, Charlotte Roche's tale of anal trauma, will finally be available in the US this week. Follow the jump for one editor's take (spoilers — of both the plot and your appetite — included).
Yes, Wetlands is pretty gross. (And most of us are difficult to gross out.) Some examples, in roughly ascending order of grossitude:
— The protagonist, 18-year-old Helen Memel, eats her own boogers [who hasn't?].
— She also eats her own smegma [who ... um ...].
— Helen also likes to rub her vagina all over public toilet seats, picking up "all the pubic hairs, droplets, splotches, and puddles of various shades and consistencies."
— After an anus-shaving accident, Helen needs what my best friend in ninth grade used to call "open-butt surgery," in which doctors stretch her anus out, stuff their hands in, and cut out a big wedge of tissue. This leaves Helen's anus temporarily huge and loose, meaning it constantly emits farts and a liquid-y shit that Helen dubs "ass piss."
— Helen disdains tampons, so she just shoves balled-up toilet paper up her vaginal canal to stanch the flow. Not that gross, right? But sometimes the toilet paper gets lost in there, at which point she gets her dad's barbecue tongs, still covered in char and meat drippings, roots around in her vagina until she finds the offending item, and then puts the tongs back on the grill, now marinated in menstrual blood and assorted lady-juices.
Much of Wetlands is authentically stomach turning, but that last item is also kind of silly. And really, although the novel has been hailed as a feminist battle cry against hygiene by Granta and The New York Times, the tongs incident reveals that ultimately, Roche just wants to gross readers out.
Sure, at first Helen's screw-hygiene message is liberating, especially if you're sick of being expected to smell like a flower all the time, or if you did all the things they said would prevent a yeast infection (like wearing cotton underwear and changing it five times a day and showering before sex and after sex and during sex and whatever) and you totally got one anyway. It's good to remember that being too clean can be bad for your brain and your body, and a little blood/sweat/smegma can actually be hot. But Helen's hygiene-hate goes well beyond the laissez-faire and into the pathological. At one point I found myself asking if everything she ever dropped on the floor had to wind up in her vagina.
Roche does want to make you think, a little, but she really wants to make you barf. Which, in its way, is also a noble thing. We tend to assume that gross-out humor — and grossness for pure grossness's stake — is the province of boys. But any girl who ever wanted one of those squishy bloody eyeball toys, or who whiled away the hours with her girlfriends discussing ways to sneak body fluids into common household products, will know that being totally gross can be empowering for anybody. Gross stuff, in addition to just being fun, also relieves the pressure of pretending that our bodies are odorless, secretionless, effortlessly attractive social-interaction machines, a pressure which still lies much more heavily on women than on men. The truth is, women can be just as gross as men can — they just don't get as much opportunity to do it [heh, I said do it] in the outlets of mainstream culture. So if Charlotte Roche wants to make everybody puke with her story of smegma meals and anal leakage, that's cool. And, okay, maybe a little feminist.
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