Saturday, April 25, 2009

Wetlands by Charlotte Roche

This is a very smutty, deliberately offensive novel, translated from the German (where it was a bestseller). It's another one of those novels about a disaffected teenager -- in this case one obsessed with physicality, and with using the body to shock others.

What makes it different is that teenager is a girl -- teenager Helen Memel, in the hospital for an operation on an anal lesion. She's the first-person narrator, and she's one of those compulsive explainers and sharers -- the tenth-generation spawn of Holden Caulfield -- who just has to tell us everything about herself. (By the second page, she's not only talked about the lesion, but segued from that to a deep discussion of her hemorrhoids and the fact that "I've had very successful anal sex for many years -- from the age of fifteen up to now, at eighteen....")

All of the things she wants to tell us have to do with her body, particularly about the usually-untalked-about parts of her body. Helen is desperately trying to shock, with all of her talk about aggressively poor hygiene and ingestion of bodily wastes and marking of her territory in quite animalistic ways. Wetlands is, above everything else, a detailed look at several days in the life of the region between Helen Memel's legs. Smegma, ear wax, snot, and other bodily secretions do also get their shout-outs, but the focus remains in the vaginal-anal region.

If you read Wetlands, something will shock you -- that's its point. There isn't much else to Helen Memel besides the shocking; she's empty otherwise. There's a bit of psychobabble about her divorced parents, and a time when her mother may have tried to commit suicide (and kill Helen's younger brother along the way) when Helen was young. But, really, that's all an excuse for her behavior -- Roche put that in to have a reason to have Helen act out, rather than starting from Helen and moving out to her behavior.

I can't recommend Wetlands; at first, it's refreshing to find a female character this crudely and rudely physical -- she's starts to seem like a female version of the unwashed, drinking-till-he-vomits frat boy -- but she quickly becomes tedious in her thin obsessions and relentless, dull self-centeredness. It's always dangerous to extrapolate from character to author, particularly on a first book, so I won't engage in any of that. But I do hope Roche, if she writes another novel, tones down the self-indulgent first-person narration and works in a bit more story.


SWILUA said...

Eeek. I had a rant recently about shock = not a story. But this book sounds worse than even some of the ones I read!

moonrat said...

Yeah, I did a similar review of this book over on my blog a couple months ago. I know people were complaining about the NYT review for not focusing on the story, but I kind of agree with those criticism.

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