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Notes on a Scandalous Novel

Adam Sternbergh
"Wetlands is like the Fat Man and Little Boy of oversharing."
04/27/09 at 13:07

Dear Sam et al.: I'm glad to see an effort to make the critical pudendum swing back.

Sorry. I meant pendulum. The critical pendulum swing back.

A funny thing happened while I was reading everyone's highly entertaining but relatively uniform denunciations of the book. I kept thinking that, if I had stumbled on this conversation as an innocent, the book itself would sound quite intriguing to me.

All these outlandishly shocking sentences, quoted out of context, seem to promise something bracing, like a hard slap or a cold splash. Something more enticing, in other words, than if the book club had focused on a new novel called, say, Landscapes of Stone, or Memories Like Rivers Run, about an elderly woman reminiscing from her deathbed about the one great romance she had during the war.

Though I will say, Sam, that your points of defense don't sway me. I laugh at poo and farts and piss and everything else that emits like little comic gifts from our collective nethers, but I did not crack a single smile, not once, while reading this book. I notice that in defending it as a comedy, you distract us with author-interview videos rather than, you know, quoting the hilarity. So I say: Quote the hilarity.

As for the suggestion that my — or our collective — expectations are too high, or that we're using too gold-plated a critical yardstick to measure this book's meager merits, I'll say this: My tastes are not, as demonstrated above, particularly high-toned. I've spent way more of my life feeling super-guilty about bailing on The Savage Detectives than I ever have feeling smug because I never read Twilight. (Give me a good zombie novel over Bolaño any day. There. I said it. A good Bolaño zombie novel would be the ideal, obviously.)

That said, I am sympathetic to Jessa's argument: This book does make you think about snot and sputum and smegma, no doubt. And it does not gift wrap those thoughts in the comforting insulation of high-toned language, in the way that, say, a Martin Amis riff on snot or sputum would.

Moreover, in prodding those thoughts, Roche makes you squeamish — and then further succeeds in making you think about why you are feeling squeamish. I did, on several occasions, return to the idea that these are our own bodies we're delving into (sometimes literally): So why then are we so grossed out?

However, is that enough to redeem the book? Oh, no sir. No way.

Roche doesn't have to be Roth. But there are certain pleasures that I think, as a reader, you have a right to expect from a novel and that, as a writer, you are obligated to provide. What ultimately turned me against Roche was the sense of being held hostage, then slowly starved. It was like I was tied in a chair and a little girl was shoving her snot in my face. Okay. Got it. Snot is icky. Makes me feel funny. Any other tricks on the agenda, my captor?

And as to the book's place in our oversharing culture, I don't buy that the antidote to this overshare epidemic is to write a book that doesn't have a thought in its head, but that gladly out-overshares everyone. And Wetlands is like the Fat Man and Little Boy of oversharing.

Which brings me to this, which struck me as aggressively wrong-headed, Sam, and yet a perfect summary for the whole back-and-forth: "The non-reading experience of Wetlands is probably more important than the actual reading experience of it."

For me, with a novel, it's mostly about the actual reading experience. In fact, I'll say it's all about the actual reading experience. So once you're arguing for the primacy of "the non-reading experience," you've lost me. In other words, Mr. Anderson: [FART NOISE, ACCOMPANIED BY TWO THUMBS DOWN.]


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