Wetlands, Charlotte Roche (Fourth Estate, 2009)You ought to feel good about your body. Everyone wants you to, from the women’s glossies who promise you an arbitrary number of amazing tips to boost your self-esteem, to the cosmetics companies who have braved the raw frontiers of science to find new ways of hydrating and smoothing you so you’ll disgust yourself a bit less. Helen, the heroine of Charlotte Roche’s body, feels just fine about her body. Her first-person narrative is freakishly appealing (and pretty repulsive) because of the pleasure she takes in every protrusion and emission of her body: the earwax, the discharge, the infected hairshafts. The novel relies on the same mismatch between the ideal and the reality of the female body as Swift’s ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’, only instead of being passively spied on in the act of shitting, this Celia is smashing her chamber pot in the street and daring you to complain.
Prematurely festooned with hemorrhoids at 18, she views her “cauliflower” as a test for the many, many men she fucks – “they have to really like me to get their nose in there,” she brags. It’s a test for the reader too, but in the end the rewards of the novel aren’t really enough to make up for the physical nastiness in which your face is rubbed. Set entirely in the proctology ward of a hospital where Helen is recovering from an operation on an infected anal fissure, caused in part by her idiosyncratic approach to hygiene and cleanliness (she seems to view herself as a one-woman germ-theory terror unit, dispersing blood and slime with a hideous zeal), this foray into the existential adolescent has some obvious antecedents. Helen is a perpetually wet Holden Caulfield and Wetlands is The Bell Jar with knobs (and vegetable matter, and ad-hoc tampons, and hospital furniture) in every orifice.
There’s a story of a fractured family peering from between the shock sections, but as Helen is the only character with any breath in her, it matters very little. And while the story diverts from its heroine’s aims for an attempt at an emotionally satisfying resolution, it essentially trades off one form of wish-fulfillment through self-mutilation for another. Wetlands has the same alarming streak as those fictions which star an anorexic as a self-sacrificing beacon of frail beauty: just because Helen has a smart mouth and eats her own pus doesn’t make her any less of a poster girl for self-harm.