Wetlands, by Charlotte Roche
What an odd mix of distinguished residents High Wycombe has had! Fern Britton, Benjamin Disraeli, Dusty Springfield, Karl Popper, Jimmy Carr: it’s a list that reads like a game of Celebrity Consequences in freefall.
There is not much in common between those listed above. Yet a subsection of the list displays an almost obsessive interest in sexual and gastronomic experimentation. The goggle-eyed chef Heston Blumenthal, brought up in High Wycombe, has become famous for off-beat dishes such as Snail Porridge and Egg-and-Bacon Ice Cream. Ian Dury, who went to school there, is best-known for the song ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, a jaunty, multi-lingual (‘je t’adore, iche liebe dich!’) hymn in praise of sado-masochism. That fine artist, Eric Gill, who set up his workshop in High Wycombe, is now notorious for secretly conducting an incestuous relationship with his sister and his daughter; he was also on intimate terms with his dog.
And to these odd-bods may now be added Charlotte Roche (b. High Wycombe 1978), who combines the town’s twin areas of experimentation — sex and eating — in a singularly bizarre way in her first book. Wetlands has already sold over half-a- million copies in Germany, where the young Charlotte emigrated, and where she is a famous TV presenter. It is the first book in German to reach the Number 1 spot in Amazon’s global bestseller list. Now published in English, it is dividing our literary chatterers, some maintaining that it is a frank and liberating exploration of female sexuality, while others argue that it is a load of old filth. In Germany, its title is not the soppy-sounding Wetlands but the infinitely harsher Feuchtgebiete. If you say Feuchtgebiete out loud, its ugly, gobbing sound will give you a much better idea of what the book is like.
Carrying Wetlands around with me over the past few days, I have bumped into quite a few people who imagine, from all the publicity, that it is a steamy sex-romp of the type few of us can resist. But I have had to disappoint them. Steamy it may be, but the steam comes from something less attractive than sex; in a characteristic phrase, Roche describes the smell coming from her bowels as being ‘like warm pus mixed with diarrhoea and something acidic’.
The very first sentence reads: ‘As far back as I can remember, I’ve had hemorrhoids.’ This puts it in the running for the most unsexy first sentence ever written. And this modest selection of first sentences from the next few paragraphs will give you some idea of what you’re in for: ‘My hemorrhoids look strange . . . ’, ‘Back to shaving my ass . . .’, ‘Perhaps not everyone knows what an anal lesion is . . .’, ‘The swollen hemorrhoids are also pushing with all their strength against the razor wound . . . ’, ‘Back to my bum . . .’, ‘And they talk about pus and an engorged blister that’s hanging out of the wound on my . . . .’
Whoah! Suffice it to say, most of Wetlands could have been written as a starter- manual for anyone toying with setting up a Pornography Aversion Clinic. Or is it a practical joke by anti-porn campaigners — a book with a bright pink cover, marketed as lewd and sexy, but designed to put anyone who reads it off sex forever?
For centuries now, Germans have taken a particular interest in bodily emissions. Visitors to Germany will have noticed that their toilets are fitted with interior platforms, there to catch each stool for the purposes of examination prior to flushing. In this respect, Charlotte Roche is far more representative of her adoptive country than of the people of High Wycombe.
Wetlands reads like an inventory of all the revolting things that come out of the body: blister-fluids, pus, farts, scabs, bogeys, urine. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if, in a few months’ time, it turned out that it was written not by the fashionable German TV presenter Charlotte Roche but by two giggling ten-year-old schooboys, spurring eachother on to find out who could be the most disgusting. It certainly reads like the yucky games we used to play at my first school. ‘And so for the first time in my life I drank someone else’s puke’ reads a representative passage. ‘Mixed with my own. In big gulps. Taking turns. Until the bucket was empty.’ Small wonder that the German newspaper Der Spiegel has summarised the book’s philosophy as ‘I stink, therefore I am.’
Wetlands is set entirely in a hospital room, with occasional flashbacks. The 18-year-old narrator, Helen, is, as we have already discovered, being treated for hemorrhoids. ‘We’ll make a wedge-shaped incision to cut out the infected tissue’, the doctor informs her, helpfully. After the operation, she encourages a male nurse to take a photo of the afflicted area. Later, she asks to see what has been removed: ‘I wanted to see the wedge of skin after they cut it out’. She is disappointed to find that it is lots of little bits, rather than one large one, but she picks them all up nevertheless. ‘I lick my fingers off one at a time’ she writes, adding, ‘I’m always proud of myself when I come up with an idea like that.’ Other patients may prefer to pass their time in hospital with needlework, or a good book, but Helen enjoys other things. ‘And so I come to one of my biggest hobbies’, she reveals on page 133. ‘Popping zits.’ Those looking for conventional erotica, or even not-so- conventional, will be gravely disappointed. All in all, Wetlands is to sex what the Bush Tucker Trial is to eating out.
Anthony Powell’s belief that self-pity is the mystery ingredient of every bestseller is amply born out. On the surface, Wetlands is an anti-bourgeois, no-holds-barred, mould-breaking etc, etc exploration of the female body; but dig a little deeper, and it is clichéd, sentimental and trite, a handbook on how to feel sorry for yourself.
‘What can I do now to divert my attention from my numbing loneliness?’ Helen asks herself, after doing everything possible with her own body short of eating it all up. At this point, the reader begins to realise that what has been billed as sexual liberation is in fact our dull old friend, a cry for help. There is in fact a weird strain of Victorian priggishness running through the entire novel, the suggestion that any interest in sex must be due to neurosis, and anyone too interested in it must need their head examined.
As the book goes on, it turns out that, for all her talk of sexual and bodily liberation — and, let me assure you, no orifice remains unexplored — Helen is spinning out her time in hospital in the vain hope of bringing her divorced parents together. ‘My goal is that they see each other and, years after separating, fall head over heels in love again. And get back together.’ So what we have here is yet another poor-little-me novel, written for teenagers with bad skin and ‘issues’: it’s Jacqueline Wilson with Tourettes.
Helen’s original scars seem to be clearing up well, but her parents still haven’t got back together, so — in the most singularly rebarbative scene among many — she sets about damaging her surgeon’s good work, and reopening the original wounds:
If I’m to have any chance at all of bringing my parents together, I need a lot more time here . . . All because of my messed-up family. I have nowhere to go. I have to stay here. Forever.
Ladling on the misery, Helen goes on to reveal that years ago, her mother attempted suicide, and tried to kill Helen’s younger brother at the same time. The last sentence of the book is ‘I throw back my head and scream’. Oddly enough, this is exactly what I felt like doing too. Well, Wetlands was big in Germany, and t
hough I can’t see it being big in Britain, I imagine it might enjoy bumper sales in High Wycombe. Perhaps it’s something in the water.