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Notes on a Scandalous Novel

Sam Anderson
"My critical faculties, they are a-stymied. "
04/17/09 at 21:59

Dear gang,

Someone is going to have to help me out here, because I have no idea what to do with this novel. My critical faculties, they are a-stymied. There were moments—a whole gaping anus full of moments, in fact—when I was 100 percent sure that this was the worst thing I'd ever read. Other moments, I came somewhat close to maybe slightly respecting the daringness of Roche's crazy taboo-hurdling.

Somewhere in there, between the avocado ("my organic dildo") and the part about eating pizza covered with the sperm of five different men—or possibly between the toilet scene ("I've turned myself into a walking laboratory of pussy hygiene") and the showerhead scene—or, really, maybe it was around the part where she masturbates on the hospital floor or when she drinks her friend's vomit or—anyway, at some point I was reminded suddenly of one of my favorite passages from Don DeLillo, a paragraph from Mao II in which The Don, in slightly more elevated language, makes the case for a book exactly like Wetlands:

He lay in bed open-eyed in the dark. There were intestinal moans from his left side, where gas makes a hairpin turn at the splenic flexure. He felt a mass of phlegm wobbling in his throat but he didn't want to get out of bed to expel it, so he swallowed the whole nasty business, a slick syrupy glob. This was the texture of his life. If someone ever writes his true biography, it will be a chronicle of gas pains and skipped heartbeats, grinding teeth and dizzy spells and smothered breath, with detailed descriptions of Bill leaving his desk to walk to the bathroom and spit up mucus, and we see photographs of ellipsoid clots of cells, water, organic slimes, mineral salts and spotty nicotine. ... This was the man he saw as himself. The biographer who didn't examine these things (not that there would ever be a biographer) couldn't begin to know the catchments, the odd-corner deeps of Bill's true life.

And I thought: well, maybe Roche is onto something here. We all spend a giant percentage of our days and nights dealing with these things; we have a deep, affectionate, profound intimacy with them; they are us; yet we rarely speak about them publicly. So, insofar as Roche is trying to advance some kind of Whitman-esque acceptance of the total human body, I'm down with her project. (My next post, by the way, will be a lyrical micro-description of one of my hemorrhoids. Stay tuned.)

But the novel does so much else, so weirdly, that I'm really not sure what to think. It's made me laugh more than a book has in years—but is that because it's the funniest novel of the 21st century, or because it's an unintentionally hilarious train wreck? Is Helen a complex, half-insane literary character? Or is she supposed to be some kind of heroic ideal—a foot soldier in the noble war against fascistic feminine-hygiene products? If so, though, hasn't Roche gone too far? Isn't the insatiable liberated fluid-slurper every bit as false as the prudish, proper, fluid-denying fifties housewife? Is Roche really advocating this over-the-top reactionary position? Or does she want us to take up some middle way? In other words: What am I supposed to do with my bodily fluids? I've been saving them in jars until we figure this out.

Someone help me.
BBQ Tongsly,
Sam


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