Well, at least they do in Wetlands, the very controversial German novel that has caused women to faint and carry sexually meaningful avocados. Author Charlotte Roche, a television host in Germany, says she was inspired by a douche discovered in a friend’s bathroom: “I began to think—my God, am I the only person left who doesn’t use pussy soap?”
Probably not. But women are so loathe to discuss their own bodily functions that anything is possible. Wetlands is Roche’s attempt to demolish such polite conventions. Her battering ram is Helen Memel, an 18-year-old high school student stuck in the hospital for anal surgery after an accident involving intimate hemorrhoid shaving. Helen espouses a cheerful promiscuity and a confident, casual attitude towards her body. Lying in pain on her recovery bed, she recalls the sexual escapades of her short life.
There’s a lot to recall. In an era of coy, sexless Twilight fantasies, Helen’s brazen (and bloody) seduction methods are invigorating. Instead of agonizing over, or even ignoring, her various flaws, she uses them to her advantage. Her favorite position, which she’s named “stuff your face,” puts the man’s nose in direct contact with the inflamed skin on her ass. “It’s a good way to test whether someone is serious about me,” she says.
Helen challenges herself to be the least inhibited one in the room, and likewise Charlotte Roche is engaged in a verbal one-upmanship with herself. She’s obviously having fun, and some of Helen’s filthy behavior is laugh-out-loud funny. The author picks away at taboos like scabs, and delivers the same mix of pain and satisfaction. Wetlands tenderly exposes the oozy, weird reality that most females keep to themselves—I’ll bet most readers will feel a pang of recognition at one or two of Helen’s disgusting habits—and then, when your guard is down, Roche sticks the knife in with something truly revolting.
Readers who pick up Wetlands thinking it’s trendy porn will be sorely disappointed, and nauseated. While the narrator maintains that lax personal hygiene goes hand in hand with sexual satisfaction, her gross-out antics are not limited to the romantically motivated. She drinks vomit and infected ass-blood; she eagerly swallows the pus out of her blackheads. “I’m my own garbage disposal,” she explains. “Bodily secretion recycler.” While Helen herself is aroused by ingrown leg hairs, the average reader probably isn’t.
Helen is also hard to admire because she’s hastily drawn, full of inconsistencies that suggest lazy writing more than character depth. She gets upset when blood stains her hospital gown hours, despite having left a used tampon in an elevator. She strips for a dude she met at a fruit cart, but hides behind her bed to change. Her shallowness only makes her faults more apparent. Most questionable is Helen’s relationship with her family—we’re meant to understand that she’s obsessed with reuniting her divorced parents, but she despises her mother and has nothing to say to her father.
In interviews, Roche has presented her work as a straightforward manifesto against the excessively tweezed and trimmed, a “cri de coeur against the oppression of a waxed, shaved, douched and otherwise sanitized women’s world,” as the New York Times put it. But unless she’s being sly, this narrow self-interpretation is mystifying. Helen quite obviously has issues beyond the medical. “What can I do now to divert my attention from my numbing loneliness?” she asks herself. “As soon as I don’t have anything to do, I panic.” A vague childhood memory gives her troubling dreams and hallucinations. One German review compared the novel to The Catcher in the Rye—like Holden Caulfield, Helen has an unbending worldview built on a deeply flawed foundation. How could (or should) anyone see this mentally damaged woman as an inspiration?
Maybe Helen’s traumas are just Roche’s sick practical joke: repulsive mental territory to complement physical filth. Maybe the bad writing in Wetlands is irrelevant—maybe it’s meant to be taken as performance art, not literature. Maybe the feminist role model isn’t Helen but Charlotte Roche: a woman who dares to be vulgar and strange. Good on her for pulling it off, I guess, but readers expecting a novel and not a PR stunt will be left feeling kind of dirty.