Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mistaken Identity

My husband recently ordered a book called simply “Wetlands”. He, of course, was expecting a treatise on our favorite ecosystem, but instead got a novel that has nothing whatsoever to do with swamps and marshes. The amusing part of this story (besides the fact that my husband orders books without checking to see if their content is what he’s looking for) is that the book is actually a novel about an 18 yr old female who is fascinated with her bodily functions and just about everything that polite people avoid discussing (and even thinking about).

The novel opens with the main character, Helen, entering the hospital for anal surgery necessitated by a “shaving mishap”. She is the child of divorced parents and fantasizes about getting them back together, which leads to some of her more bizarre actions in the novel. To keep her mind off the intense pain from her surgery, Helen muses about her anatomy, past sexual/physical encounters (that leave nothing to the imagination), and various personal hygiene practices. Charlotte Roche, the author, proceeds to describe in increasingly disturbing and shocking detail Helen’s sexual adventures and personal habits. At various points, the reader cringes and thinks, "Oh, no. She's not going to do (say) that!"

Just to give you an example, Helen, after her surgery, convinces one of the male nurses to take some photographs of her rear end so she can see exactly what was done to her. She is totally unembarrassed, reasoning that he knows why she’s there on the Proctology ward and has seen it all before. He obliges, and then Helen uses the photographs to quiz her surgeon when he makes his rounds. She takes no prisoners.

The book is apparently causing an international sensation, having sold over 1 million copies in Germany and is being published in 26 more countries. Reviewers are comparing it to "The Catcher in the Rye" and "The Female Eunuch". Others (mostly male) are calling it pornography and disgusting. I found the book to be a hilarious condemnation of Madison Avenue and their vision of women as perfect (we don’t smell, excrete, etc.) and who sell female products to mask our bad odors, leaking bodies, excess fat, and all other features that are natural but somehow repulsive (the underlying message of these advertisements).

My husband hated it. I loved it. Which seems to be the gender pattern among other readers.

I read it in one sitting, marveling at how the author (this is her first novel) created such a complex, interesting, and memorable character. There is an interview with Roche here that is quite good. Notably, Roche, who is the antithesis of Helen, apparently wrote the novel to explore the psyche of a woman who is totally immune to the repressive hygiene industry and to what has been deemed “civilized behavior” by women.

“Wetlands” was a much more effective argument against the misogynistic visions of Madison Avenue than the sanitary, intellectual book I just read: The Beauty Myth (see previous post).

Oh, the original title, in German, is Feuchtgebiete, which translates roughly as ‘wetlands’ or ‘moist patches’, is the fictional town where the novel takes place. It also clearly refers to other types of 'damp areas'.

Wetlands is available as an e-book on Kindle for $9.99 and also on Amazon. Warning: this novel is not for the squeamish.

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