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Notes on a Scandalous Novel

Adam Sternbergh
"If any hardy soul is still wondering, but should I read it?"
04/20/09 at 13:14

My first imperative with this post was to insure that no one could ever corner me, in person or online or elsewhere, and accuse me of having prodded them, in any way, toward reading Wetlands.

Thankfully, I think Ayelet’s post (“It’s just bullshit for bullshit’s sake”) and Jessa’s (“a total failure as a novel”) have gone a long way toward providing the proper disincentives. Even Sam’s weirdly feeble praise (i.e., alternating between moments “when I was 100 percent sure this was the worst thing I’d ever read” and moments when “I came somewhat close to maybe slightly respecting” it) should be a sufficient dose of “abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

But if any hardy soul out there is still wondering, “Yeah, okay — but should I read it?” I’ll offer this capsule review: Imagine a book that includes the sentence “I really like to smell and eat my smegma.” Now imagine if that sentence were 229 pages long.

That said, I’d like to move beyond the snot, smegma, jizz, pubes, barf, pus, anal fissures, torn sphincters, and menstrual blood that the book — and its marketers — would clearly like us to fixate on. You see, a book this willfully shocking presents a kind of critical briar patch. Its champions pronounce it “brave” (or, as one cover-blurber puts it, “brave and hilarious”) and so its critics are, by definition, prudish, un-hilarious cowards. Didn’t like the book? That’s because you’re part of the very problem the book is decrying!

And I will say, yes, insofar as the book is successful in any way, it does make you consider (at length) your — and our — reflexive aversion to bodily fluids, parts, and processes. But I found that the book was totally unsuccessful in providing, you know, any of the pleasures of reading fiction.

The writing is bad. It’s so, so bad. It’s bad in both its gross-out moments (“When the sandman leaves puslike crumbs in the corners of my eyes, I eat them in the morning, too” — and, yes, the “too” is as ominous as it sounds) and in its ostensibly emotional moments. (“Understood. He loves me. I didn’t know. Sometimes it happens that quickly.” I know it’s a translation, but would this kind of writing survive a rigorous edit in even the most borderline YA novel?)

Also: As Jessa points, out, you don’t care about Helen. You don’t care that she’s in the hospital and you certainly don’t care that she almost (SPOILER ALERT! Also, NAUSEA ALERT!) bleeds to death after purposefully tearing her spincter open on the pedal of her hospital bed’s wheel. (Oh, yes. You read that right.) You don’t care about her indistinctly drawn family, nor about the entirely underdeveloped male-nurse character who falls in love with her “that quickly.” You don’t care about the tragedy that supposedly haunts her and provides for a tidy, albeit ludicrous, ending.

Oh, and did I mention, IT’S SO BORING. Because it’s really, really boring. I had several weeks to finish this slim volume and carried it with me everywhere, yet reopening it filled me with dread every time. I mourned the hours lost during which I could have been reading better books. It’s not that I feared the parts about smegma — hell, the smegma was a blessed relief! The smegma jolted me awake! Bring on the jizz pizzas!

No, I feared the fact that this is a terrible, boring, badly written book that is also terrible and boring.

Here are just a few activities I chose to do rather than continue reading the book: Gaze out the window of a train. Nap. Check my e-mail. Check my e-mail again. Sit on the subway reading bunion ads. Stare into space.

I wanted to like it. Given the book’s reputation, I’d kind of hoped it would be a wild, guilty, giddy ride that smashed through our polite taboos like a runaway roller coaster. I’d imagined it might initially repulse me but then cunningly — shockingly! — win me over with its intelligence, wit, and, yes, bravery.

Instead, I found it’s a book that offers up passages such as “There are drops of liquid on the floor. A long trail. From the bathroom to the bed, with a detour to the wall. It’s drops of pee. I didn’t wipe. Never do.” (The “never do” just kills me.) If 229 pages of that sounds brave and hilarious to you then, boy, oh boy, do I have a fantastic new novel to tell you about. I will gladly give you my copy.

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