Gag Order: Wetlands by Charlotte Roche

When I found myself with a few hours to kill last week, I wandered into a bookstore and checked out the new paperbacks table. There I found Wetlands by German author Charlotte Roche. Skimming the reviews on the book jacket ("A sharply-written, taboo-busting black comedy, both gross and engrossing"; "...a surprisingly accomplished literary work, which evokes the voice of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the perversion of J.G. Ballard’s Crash and the feminist agenda of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch..."), I thought, "Feminist fiction with a dose of black humor? Awesome!" That and it's compact size (I was carrying a small purse, you see) sold me. I bought the book and found a nearby coffee shop, where I settled in to read.

A few days later, I'm two-thirds of the way through Wetlands...and dreading picking it up again.
I consider myself a good feminist, an open-minded reader, and definitely not one to shy away from things other people might consider vulgar. And Wetlands is definitely a hit: First published in German, the book will be translated into 27 languages and has sold over a million copies worldwide. So why can't I get behind this novel that some are lauding as a new feminist manifesto?

Well, it's not because the content is incredibly gross. (Which it is. REALLY gross. I won't get into it here, but I encourage you to read some other reviews or the book itself if you're interested in the gory details.) It's that, mostly, Wetlands is not that interesting. Helen (the main character), talks freely about sex and bodily fluids, but doesn't explore any deeper thought than the (cliched!) ambition to reunite her divorced parents. It seems like Roche is being gross for grossness' sake, and in fact she has in uncertain terms acknowledged this, saying of her debut novel, "It’s not feminist in a political sense, but instead feminism of the body, that has to do with anxiety and repression and the fear that you stink, and this for me is clearly feminist, that one builds confidence with your own body."

Still, I think Sallie Tisdale said it best in her Times review:
Part of the controversy over “Wetlands” has been whether it is pornography or literature. That sexually explicit writing can be serious seems long settled. There are really no taboo topics — good writing trumps such complaints. The problem is that “Wetlands” has all the nuance of Mad Magazine and less wit. Its descriptions are banal and repetitive, its vocabulary painfully limited.
With that, I feel a little more justified in leaving the final 60 pages of Wetlands unread.

Wetlands []
Graphic Novel [New York Times]
On Grossness: Wetlands Tries to Make Filth a Feminist Issue [Jezebel]
Germany Abuzz at Racy Novel of Sex and Hygiene [New York Times]