Smut with substance?

If you haven’t heard anything yet about the book Wetlands – written by a German pop TV show host Charlotte Roche – hear this: it’s probably the most graphic and squeamish novel I’ve ever read. It beats J. G. Ballard’s Crash for shock value, it makes you blush more than Anais Nin, and (I’m told) it makes The Vagina Monologues look tame. But for all its boundary-breaking, the jury is out on exactly where the value is in reading Wetlands. Think you’ve read it all? Seen it all? Heard about it all? (Done it all?). Think again…

The story of Wetlands follows 18-year-old Helen Memel whose botched attempt at shaving her pubic hair lands her in hospital. There, she concocts a fanciful idea that her hospitalisation might help get her parents back together, and while passing time in the boring ward she explores the limits (or lack thereof) of her body’s sexual possibilities, pleasure and power. Through a series of anecdotes and monologues, her views on sex and hygiene become clear: that the body and all its fluids and functions are to be enjoyed and not disguised with perfumed sanitary pads or suppressed by the Western world’s moral conservatism.

The problem with the book is that its subject matter makes a promise (by default) that the novel will have a feminist agenda; but then it disappointingly reneges on that in a couple of ways. Firstly, Roche tries to transmit these ideas through a character who, while she is sexually liberated, is also a little bit unhinged, which has the effect of devaluing what she stands for. And secondly, Roche crosses freely over the ‘line’ between speaking out about  female truths and deranged sexual storytelling that seems to have no value other than to seriously gross-out the reader.

Controversial author... Charlotte Roche

Roche, via Helen, then has to keep one-upping her tales of hygienic horror to get a rise out of her audience. Sometimes that rise is cracking up with laughter, sometimes it’s wincing with distress at this girl who is putting herself in compromising situations. In the end, you’re left wondering – was the ride with Helen through her adventures of tampon-swapping and vomit-swallowing and semen-eating really worth it? Or is Roche feeding us, in Ayelet Waldman’s words, “bullshit for bullshit’s sake”?

What you believe depends on what you think the book was trying to do. It’s only a let-down if you go in hoping it’s going to be a cover-to-cover feminist work of art, which it isn’t. The fact that it deals with the sexual liberation of women immediately puts the pressure on it to deliver something along those lines, and when it doesn’t, it causes confusion, because you can’t just ignore what it says about female sexuality.

Journalist for The Guardian, Decca Aitkenhead, addressed the issue in her article:

“A feminist critique might question why Roche has created a character who seems to conform to the old notion that sexual liberation always comes at the price of instability. “But I would say everybody is damaged,” Roche responds.

A fair defence? My inner jury is still out on that.

Even though the feminist intent was sketchy, I did like that Roche revealed some secrets to the world about the female body – secrets that every girl could relate to, to a certain extent. I think it’s important to not let these things get hidden in literature.

But if we judge the book on whether it hits its intended targets – which include sheer entertainment (Roche has said in interviews the book was meant to be funny), turning readers on, and satirising the “hygiene hysteria of the modern world”, as the blurb puts it – then I think it succeeds. It made me laugh, even though my laughter was sometimes laced with sympathy (but that’s black comedy, right?), it  definitely made be blush, and it made me and other readers squirm – and in doing so Roche shines a light on our laughable distaste for our own bodies, and our prudishness towards something that is essentially – us.

Have you read Wetlands? What did you think? Is it just smut, or smut with substance?

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7 thoughts on “Smut with substance?

  1. Carla Hackett May 19, 2009 / 12:38 am

    I’m going to have to read this!

    • Jodie McLeod May 19, 2009 / 12:54 am

      I’ll lend it to you when Pete’s finished… I’ll do you a swap for Revolutionary Road!

  2. Brent May 21, 2009 / 3:27 pm

    I always tend to feel anxious approaching things like Wetlands, in the regards that I’m not sure whether to approach it as something with real depth, or more as an exercise. Is the work meant to reflect the words inside, or is it meant to reveal more about the response that you, the reader has?

    Challanging works sometimes seem to ‘dare you’ to read them, and I’m not sure how that reflects on the work itself. Of course, that could just be due to modern marketing processes.

    • Jodie McLeod May 24, 2009 / 11:41 am

      @Brent – It is hard when the media hype sets you up for a particular kind of reading, which in Wetlands’ case is that the book’s only virtue is to shit-stir readers. It’s hard not to agree, too. You can’t help getting the feeling in Wetlands that all these stories are just flashes of light, trying to distract you from the fact that there might not be much beneath the surface. You’ll have to read it! I dare you…

  3. Jamie June 10, 2009 / 4:24 am

    Shit-stirring is the exact impression that I got from this novel. While I did enjoy it, and laughed out loud a few times, it seemed to keep trying to ‘one-up’ itself in terms of shock value. I’m all for the demystification of taboos but… y’know.. have something to SAY while you’re at it.

    I think Brent has a good point too: in the age of internet shock sites (2girls1cup, et al), so much of the marketing and hype surrounding a novel like this is concerned with whether you can make it to the last page. A mental endurance race is hardly the point of a good novel, is it?

  4. treraKedtoort December 13, 2009 / 10:16 am

    It looks like you are a true specialist. Did ya study about the issue? haha

    • Jodie McLeod December 14, 2009 / 9:25 am

      Ha ha – being a woman is study enough!

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