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Notes on a Scandalous Novel

Sam Anderson
"I’m amused by the thought of having made all of you read this book."
04/30/09 at 09:05

I asked you all, explicitly, not to try to deny that you laughed at Wetlands. I informed you that the Vulture Reading Room has ways of knowing whether or not you’ve been laughing. (Obviously I can’t reveal proprietary secrets, but it’s sort of like the powder test police use to see if someone has fired a gun in the last 24 hours.) And then both Adam and Kate make claims that they “did not crack a single smile” at the entire book. If this is true (which we’ll know as soon as the lab results come in), then I must say I’m totally baffled.

Adam, you challenged me to “Quote the hilarity.” I just went through the book, page by page, looking at my notes, and I’m not sure how to handle this. If I tried to quote all the hilarity in Wetlands, I’d be quoting literally 90 percent of the book. It’s thoroughly hilarious. Maybe we have, in this case, irreconcilably different definitions of funny. I’m not talking precisely engineered madcap gags funny. I’m not talking Marx Brothers, or Farrelly Brothers, or Animal House. I’m not talking wit. You would never hire Charlotte Roche as a comedy writer. There’s a different kind of comedy working here: a relentless, clumsy, blunt-force assault that — for me, at least — produces a kind of involuntary, awed laughter.

Let me try to taxonomize the levels of funniness I feel at Wetlands:

1. I’m amused, occasionally and mildly, by the book’s intentional humor—like when Helen is bleeding to death in her hospital bed and can’t get anyone to come help her:

they could use a more clever system for communications between the patients and staff. One buzz: I need a little more butter for my whole-grain bread. Two buzzes: please bring a flower vase with water. Three buzzes: help, blood is gushing out of my ass so fast that I hardly have enough left in my brain to think straight and I’m stuck here thinking up stupid ways to improve the hospital.

Not out-of-the-park funny, obviously, but worth a smile.

2. More often, I’m amused by the over-the-top-ness of the gross-out stuff. It’s funny to watch Roche exert herself so hard to try to shock me, and it’s funny to find myself genuinely shocked:

I always put makeup on the inside of my pussy when I have a date to fuck. … It makes the pussy and rosette more dramatic, deeper, more beguiling. Since I learned that black women have the reddest pussies, I only go to black hookers.

Are you really not shocked into at least some flavor of laughter by this stuff? I keep trying to imagine reading that passage aloud to someone else—my wife, my friends, a crowd of strangers, you guys—and not laughing uncomfortably. There’s no way I could do it. It’s a deep, complicated, uncomfortable social laughter that I wish we’d spent a little more time dissecting.

At this point my humor spirals down into ever-deeper circles of meta-humor (which I do, by the way, consider to be legit forms of hilarity).

3. I’m amused by the critical response to the book, especially the way critics at polite publications are forced to "talk around" its grossness by gathering endless euphemisms for genitalia—hoo-ha, pudendum, etc. (This is an offshoot of the uncomfortable social humor described above in 2.)

4. I’m amused by how aesthetically bad much of the book is, in the same way I’m amused at the aesthetic badness of soap operas—and, by the way, I think that both Wetlands and soap operas are more canny and self-conscious about their badness than we highbrow disdainers might originally like to believe.

5. I’m amused by the fact that I’m legitimately amused by such a bad book—that genuine amusement can leap over aesthetic boundaries so easily.

6. I’m amused—so very deeply it’s hard to even describe in human language—by the thought of having made all of you read this book and participate in this Reading Room about it.

I’m sure there are further levels of hilarity, but that’s as far as I can trace it at the moment.

I believe I’m on record saying that Wetlands might be the worst novel I’ve ever read. That said, I’d much rather read it again, twice, than read a handful of self-important, humorless, mediocre "literary" novels by authors who’ve managed to work up low-wattage reputations by following all the rules but whose work generates no real immediacy. It’s the same reason I’ll always turn the channel from a middling episode of, say, Grey’s Anatomy to watch something truly, unambiguously wretched: a soap opera or a dysfunctionally bad sitcom or one of Pat Robertson’s Christian news broadcasts in which the anchors spend 45 minutes insinuating, in perfectly rational-sounding news voices, that Obama has no birth certificate and is supported mainly by terrorists. Bad art is unrivaled in its ability to stretch a form to the absolute limits of its capacity. (Or, probably, rivaled only by great art.) I think Wetlands, as a phenomenally bad work of art, has all kinds of deep pleasures to offer, as well as all kinds of things to teach us about what we like and dislike, what we need from novels, how not to write dialogue / metaphors / plot / characters, where to find our thresholds of offense, etc., etc.

That’s all I am going to say about it—hopefully ever. I would like to officially announce my retirement from the position of Supreme Defender of Wetlands. Way too exhausting.

And with that, I’d like to say farewell to the Wetlands Reading Room. Thank you all very much for your service—for your playlets, your fart noises, your outrage, your terrible puns, and your good-natured sniping. You’ve been exemplary club-mates, under extremely difficult circumstances, and I look forward to reducing you all to straw men in my mind and trouncing you in mental arguments for months to come.

I hereby release you back into the smegmaless wild. May you flourish like lovingly watered avocado pits.

S


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