Charlotte Roche’s controversial novel, Wetlands, is an uneven yet adventurous catalogue of filth, a feminist critique of what cultural theorist Lauren Berlant calls “hygienic governmentality.” In the case of Wetlands, this means a politics housed in the anarchic, messy body of German teenager Helen Memel. Narrating from her hospital bed after hemorrhoid surgery, eighteen-year-old Helen sees herself as a sanitary terrorist, rallying against the deceitfully liberational promises of tampon ads and shaving commercials and of a fascist regime of douching and wiping from front to back.
One can’t help but compare Helen’s explicitly detailed hygienic transgressions with those of the adolescent libertines of Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye, whose young man and two young women commit a similar litany of blissful expulsions of bodily fluids and creativity with groceries. (Substituted for Bataille’s eggs in Wetlands are avocado pits, whose plants Helen grows and nurtures like children—“Besides fucking, it’s my only hobby.”) Yet Roche’s polymorphously perverse heroine hooks up, mainly with men, seemingly in order to obliterate herself, not to reach a higher consciousness, as do Bataille’s teenage transgressors, who copulate in masochistic rituals approaching mysticism. Unlike Bataille’s riotous poetry, Roche’s synonyms for body parts are disappointingly euphemistic, considering her attack on the whitewashing of women’s bodies: Helen calls her hemorrhoid a “cauliflower,” the clitoris a “pearl trunk,” the labia is (shudder) “ladyfingers.”
Perhaps partially at fault is the translation from the German by Tim Mohr, an editor at Playboy, a magazine that generates countless synonyms for breasts alongside soft-core photographs of shaved, airbrushed Lolitas. Mohr is a surprising choice for a work that is ostensibly about a woman hijacking back her own body and pleasure. But herein lies the most significant weakness of Wetlands: Helen is not really a woman but a traumatized girl with a self-destructive impulse that winds her up in the hospital, for cutting her “cauliflower” while shaving, and is later rushed to emergency surgery after further injuring herself in the deluded hope of getting her divorced parents back together. Yet this character who plucks and picks at herself is far too glib, and this creates a disjointed tonality, often more Secret Diary of a Call Girl than Story of O. Roche has called her Helen a “free spirit,” but there’s an unmeditated falseness to this damaged Ophelia’s cockiness, more traumatized runaway in denial than gleeful debauchee. Helen exposes her anal wound to the hospital public and documents it obsessively, while reminiscing with relish about her past escapades going home with strangers and visiting brothels. The author doesn’t seem fully conscious that her character is severely wounded—not liberated but broken, telling herself Ibsen’s “vital lies”—and any insights are incongruous with the pages of braggadocio.
For a better taxonomy of a toxic girl, think Janey Smith with her pelvic inflammatory disease in Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School or the angry pseudo-anarchist Austrian teenagers, especially the self-mutilating, Bataille-reading Anna, in Elfriede Jelinek’s Wonderful, Wonderful Times, a novel that puts Wetlands to shame in its searing analysis of pornography’s clichés and class and gender stereotypes. In “The Pornographic Imagination,” Susan Sontag writes that a work of pornography can be considered art through “the originality, thoroughness, authenticity, and power of that deranged consciousness itself.” Wetlands has the makings of a complex psychological portrait of the “dark continent” of female sexuality that Freud feared to tread, a case study of Dora from her own perspective, but this potential is never fully realized.
Kate Zambreno's first novel, O Fallen Angel, will be published in Spring 2010 by Chiasmus Press.