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Notes on a Scandalous Novel

Wallowing in Charlotte Roche’s bodily-fluid-obsessed Wetlands.

Sam Anderson
"Welcome to the Vulture Reading Room"
04/21/09 at 12:59

We’d like to introduce a new feature: the Vulture Reading Room. The idea is to assemble a pod of four or five enthusiastic, creative people (critics, poets, novelists, bloggers) and have them go to town, in whatever way they see fit, on some inherently fascinating literary object.

Our inaugural session, on Charlotte Roche’s scandalous novel Wetlands, may turn out to be the most obscene book club in the long history of book clubbing. For those who have managed to steer clear of the hype, Wetlands is an international bazillion-seller about an 18-year-old girl named Helen who is obsessed, above all, with her sexuality and bodily fluids. It's hard to describe the full mind-blowing extent of its raunchiness: Helen puts, among many other things, dirty barbecue tongs, avocado pits, and a hard-boiled egg in her vagina; she leaves a used homemade tampon in an elevator; and once a week she gets her entire body shaved, with a straight razor, by a total stranger she met at a fruit cart. (There are reports of European people fainting out of shock at Roche’s public readings.) Over the course of the novel, we learn that these fixations apparently stem from Helen’s traumatic childhood: an unstable mother who denies the basic realities of the human body (she says she never defecates or is flatulent—she holds everything in until it disappears) and who once tried to kill Helen’s young brother in a murder-suicide; an emotionally distant father who will only talk to her about science. Helen spends the entire novel recovering from (graphically described) anal surgery in a hospital, trying haplessly to get her parents back together, and—like a repulsive, obscene, half-literate Proust—reveling in the unseemly details of her life.

Some critics have greeted Wetlands as a heroic feminist document, others as trashy shock lit. We’re going to collectively roll around in the filth, gauge our various levels of offense and/or empowerment, see if we’re willing to share any shocking details with each other about our own bodily fluids, and discuss whether this counts as “literature.” We hope you'll join us in the comments with your own opinions, questions, objections, and all manner of inappropriate oversharing.

The Reading Room members are:
Kate Christensen, 2008 PEN/Faulkner winner for her novel The Great Man
Jessa Crispin, founder of the literary blog Bookslut
Ayelet Waldman, novelist, essayist, lawyer
Adam Sternbergh, New York Magazine editor-at-large
Sam Anderson, New York Magazine book critic