Another dirty book
Fourth Estate, 229pp, £12.99
A warning: do not, as I did, start reading this book in your lunch break. The writer introduces the protagonist's haemorrhoids in the very first sentence, and by the second page some lucky man has his nose in them ("I call this position 'stuff your face'"). The gross-out genre, happily bestowed upon us by the Farrelly brothers and Chuck Palahniuk, has a new star in Charlotte Roche, an elfin, English-born, German-bred television presenter whose fictional debut, Wetlands, has sold half a million copies since its publication in Germany last year. It is interesting to see how differently this kind of subject matter is received when it is written by and/or about a woman. While Palahniuk and the Farrellys are filed under "comedy", the jacket of the English translation of Wetlands announces that this novel has the "feminist agenda of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch".
Such a reception in itself lends weight to the book - it is clearly still political, rather than funny, for a woman to write about shit, piss, slime and other entertaining bodily functions. But the focus on gender diverts attention from what Wetlands actually does well: it is a sharply written, taboo-busting black comedy, both gross and engrossing. If you are looking for a manifesto for 21st-century feminism, on the other hand, you will be disappointed.
The novel is set in a proctology ward (or "ass unit") where 18-year-old Helen Memel has been admitted, following an unfortunate accident while shaving her bum. (Roche said in a recent interview that the book had originally been conceived as a non-fiction tirade against hair removal. She also maintained that bum-shaving is a common practice among females. At the risk of giving away far too much information, I have to ask - really?) In between the various agonising medical interventions to which she is subjected by the sinister Dr Notz, she flirts with a male nurse, ponders her colourful sex life and lets readers in on some of her choicest grooming habits. "Hygiene's not a major concern of mine," she announces, and she's not kidding: from deliberately wiping her "lady fingers" on the seats in public toilets to fashioning her own tampons from whatever happens to be lying around, this girl is Florence Nightingale's worst nightmare.
I can't help but find it depressing that Helen has been understood as some kind of feminist icon. Far from being liberated, she is imprisoned by her preoccupations with sex, dirt, blood and hair. She has rebelled against her prim-and-proper mother's obsessive cleanliness ("Her dying thought at the scene of an accident would be: How long have I been wearing these panties?"), only to construct her own set of obsessions, many of which are more damaging to herself and to those around her. She is promiscuous and sexually adventurous - we are treated to several pages on her preparations for anal sex - but surely we have progressed beyond mistaking these for sexual empowerment? Roche makes the point neatly by allowing Helen to be "rescued" in traditional knight-on-a-white-horse fashion by Robin, the male nurse.
There is an interesting argument to be made against hygiene fascism, and many times during the course of her narrative Helen hits the target: "If you find cocks, cum or smegma disgusting you might as well forget about sex"; "What [well-kept women] don't know: the more effort they put into these little details, the more uptight they seem . . . those type of women would never let themselves get all messy fucking". However, after 229 pages in her company, I was just as tired of the tyranny of uncleanliness, and probably more drawn to obsessive-compulsive hand-washing than ever before.
None of these is a criticism of Helen as a character. She is charismatic and full of contradictions: obsessed with mascara and curling her eyelashes but pathologically opposed to washing her face; proud of her pussy yet ashamed of her ass; strong and independent-minded, but still reliant on men to bolster her self-esteem. For all her tough talk she is, by her own admission, "neurotic, deranged and depressed", the product of a broken home and a suicidal mother. Wetlands, in the tradition of Plath's The Bell Jar, is a remarkable novel about mental illness that has been mistaken for feminist literature.