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.
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.