I just read Charlotte Roche's much-read and more-discussed novel Wetlands as a bit of light summer fun, and it came through on that account: it is a lively page-turner that will repeatedly gross you out (as every review has promised), but keep you coming back for more.


What mystifies me, however, having read it, is the reviews I read before I read it. Most of them describe Wetlands as taking feminism to a new, grittier, grosser level. A couple of them then slam the book for including irrelevant and meaningless details about her parents' divorce.

Then I read it and discovered a gross-out novel that has nothing to do with feminism and everything to do with divorce.

So I knew I had to add my review to the blog-o-webs, because it might be that people aren't quite getting it: this book is not a study of feminism; it is a study of the emotional retardation of a woman who never got past her parents' divorce.

It's actually a page torn right out of Freud (I've heard no one reads Freud anymore): a daughter who, though 18, is trapped at the age when her parents divorced, who developed, in response to an especially squeamish mother, an anal-expulsive tendency, who fantasizes about sex with her father and seeks out lots of men to have sex with because she feels the absence of "dad" after the divorce.

There's a big whopping hint to this prior to the first page (one page before the title):
I place a lot of importance on the care of the elderly within a family. I'm also a child of divorce, and like all children of divorce I want to see my parents back together. When my parents eventually need to be taken care of, all I have to do is stick their new partners in nursing homes and then I'll look after the two of them myself--at home. I'll put them together in their matrimonial bed until they die.
But that's not the only hint you get: the 18-year-old narrator speaks of her being 18 like a 4-year-old speaks of being 4, with defensiveness and simplistic sense that the age means something. She revels in her skinny breast-less body. She gets herself secretly sterilized so that she can never be a mother. Her hobby is growing avocado pits in windowsills using toothpicks and glasses of water (a decidedly elementary-school activity). And of course, she finds her own body endlessly fascinating: she's always got her hands down her pants, likes to eat her own boogers and other secretions, and to say that she's a bit anal-fixated is to understate things in the extreme: The novel takes place in the proctology ward of a hospital, where she's quickly identified as an exhibitionist because she lies with her big, gaping anal surgery site facing the window and door: she's basically an infant trapped in a high bed playing and thinking while people come and go checking up on her anus and asking her if she's pooped yet.

You could, I supposed, interpret it as a feminist novel because she likes to have sex. But each description of her sex life seems to me like just another paradigm of infantilism: she has sex with a very old man who wants to teach her things, like a father figure. She likes to go to prostitutes because she's curious what pussies look like, and can't see her own. She wants to have sex with a particular man who only wants to shave her entire body hairless and clean as a child's and then tells her she's "too young" for him. (She responds by masturbating on his couch -- he leaves the room.) And of course while I hate to give away the end of any novel (look away now if you don't want the spoiler!), the end of this story involves her breaking down and crying like a teeny weedle baybay in the arms of her strapping male nurse and telling him she can't go home to mama, she can't go home to dada.... can I go home with yooooou? She sounds just like an unhappy child asking to go home with uncle instead of mom and dad. The difference being of course that the nurse who agrees to take her home (on his bicycle! ha!) wants to fuck her -- but not in the ass, he says, at least, not until she's healed up from her surgery, of course.

Throughout the novel the narrator tries and (spoiler, look away!) fails to get her parents back together. She doesn't regard her parents as individual people at all, but as extensions of herself -- parents ONLY, not people -- who make her angry because they do not do what she wants. In many ways the novel is an extended temper-tantrum, or worse, a small glimpse into what will be a life-long temper-tantrum. And you can't say these traits are unusual or irrelevant to 21st C society: every kid's a narcissist nowadays, or so "they" say, and lots of parents are divorced. If you haven't heard about gross-out culture or the mainstreaming of porn you've been living under a rock. Wetlands is, I think, a glimpse of things to come.

At least, it is if Freud had any merit.

It's ugly, but it's true.


Newer Post Older Post Home