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Notes on a Scandalous Novel

Sam Anderson
"In defense of Wetlands."
04/23/09 at 14:21

Whoa there, everybody.

I believe that we, along with the rest of the English-speaking world, have now officially reached the end of the "Wetlands is terrible" road. Please, let's not feel too proud of ourselves: It's a very short and easy road—a cul de sac, really—and there's hardly any good scenery on it at all, and nothing really going on. I'm kind of ashamed, in fact, that we've all spent so much time milling around here. Where's our sense of critical adventure?

Yes, Wetlands is—by mainstream bookish standards—demonstrably aesthetically terrible. Roche is a black hole of literary talent who has very likely set back the art of fiction by 200 years. Novelists are going to have to reinvent everything: plot, dialogue, flat characters, round characters, prose style, the omniscient narrator, free indirect discourse—everything. It's possible that the complete works of Jane Austen have already ceased to exist because of the once-in-a-generation canon-warping force of Wetlands’ total wretchedness. True, very true—all indisputably, obviously, boringly true. Shame on every single one of us.

(And really, Ayelet: "a loathsome little TURD of a book"? Really? Are you sure we want to use critical language that reproduces centuries-old pejorative judgments about basic natural bodily functions—in the middle of a discussion that's all about the social repression of those functions? That's almost like saying Wetlands is "as messy as an unwaxed pudendum" or "as gross as a lady who doesn't use Dove Natural Curves Extra Strength antiperspirant before she goes to the tanning salon.")

It is time, people, for the pendulum to swing back. It is time for a defense of Wetlands.


1. Helen is an interesting character.
Most of the characters in Wetlands, as we know, are not really characters at all. But in all the crazy hubbub about smegma, I think we’ve lost track of what makes Helen actually worth paying some attention to. She's contradictory, engaging, and sometimes even sympathetic. Her shamelessness, which she's so proud of, actually has all kinds of surprising limits—she's terrified of people knowing she's gone No. 2 in a public bathroom, and (outside of sexual situations) she’s afraid of anyone seeing her naked body. She wears 8,000 layers of mascara, brushing a new layer on every day and never washing it out (in fact, she invents a systematic method of showering in "stages" so she never gets her face wet). And she's developed this tender, elaborate, meticulous, extremely time-intensive process of caring for avocado pits.

My favorite thing about Helen—the source of most of my positive notes in the book—is her almost crippling power of observation, which she seems unable to turn off, and which sometimes yields really impressive results, e.g. when she describes water droplets sliding down the side of a plastic container, or light playing on drops of urine across the floor, or her mom cooking Christmas dinner, or her crazy grandmother ("My grandmother has been so tense for her whole life that she doesn’t have any shoulders at all anymore. Her arms come right out of her ears"). She has this crazy ethic of attention that I found myself really enjoying. In those moments, I liked Helen quite a lot. If you could airlift her out of this terrible plot and plunk her down in a good one, she might be a really amazing character.

2. It's legitimately, intentionally funny.
Please watch this video of Roche doing some kind of adorable Björk impression while talking about Wetlands:

Pay particular attention, please, to 3:22–4:33, where she talks about how the book is supposed to be funny, and how she almost died laughing while writing all the grossest scenes. And it is funny—the ultimate proof of which is that everyone, including all of you, is laughing at it. Your laughter might not be the exact same flavor as mine, or as Roche’s, or as an actual 18-year-old German girl’s might be, but you are indeed laughing. (Please don’t try to deny this. The Vulture Reading Room knows when you are laughing.) The whole public spectacle of this book is hilarious: the prudes getting angry, the polite publications forced to find 34 clever synonyms for "vagina." My friends and I were howling for twenty minutes reading passages aloud. And I’d say the wide range of humor we’re all getting out of it—even the humor we get out of making fun of it—Roche put in there for us to get.

3. It's not supposed to be Great Literature.
Readers across the world are not buying Wetlands because they're stupid, or because they can't tell the difference between it and Faulkner. This is a genre novel. The genre is: a crazy book that might shock you into thinking about your life differently. Like all genre novels (except the amazingly great ones, which then cease to be genre novels), Wetlands sacrifices "literary" texture and gravitas and subtlety in order to achieve some other end. It wasn't written for people who relish the sophisticated moment-by-moment pleasures of Philip Roth. It was written by an admitted non-reader to (a) make people laugh and then (b) to start, on the wave of that laughter, a big giant global conversation about our totally messed-up relationships with our bodies. Its real subject is not Helen or her parents or her tampons: It's the culture's public discourse about the body. The fictional window-dressing is incidental, and (as we might have mentioned somewhere above) not very good. But I think you could argue, in all seriousness, that the non-reading experience of Wetlands—the public-discoursing experience—is at least as important as the actual reading experience of it. The payload is the thing, not the delivery system.

It's like a big truck that's horribly front-loaded, so it wobbles on the highway and can't go over 30 mph without tipping over, and it's causing traffic jams and blowing out big clouds of black exhaust and all the good drivers hate it and are honking and flipping it off when they pass. But it's full of (let's just say) delicious avocados! And it's going to Saskatchewan, where people haven't had delicious avocados for almost three years: They're going to make vats of guacamole and revel in it for months. They're already standing out on their lawns, chanting for the truck to get in—and they don't care what it looks like, or how it gets there. And they do realize that avocados aren't the world's most nutritious food, nor do they constitute a nutritionally well-balanced meal in and of themselves, but they are exotic and delicious and a total blast to share at parties.

Wetlands (for those who don't follow the allegory) is the novelistic delivery truck hauling the avocados of explicit sexual discourse to the repressed citizens of Saskatchewan (i.e., civilized middle-class Western culture). We don't care that the truck was packed wrong, drove badly, and didn't also come loaded with celery and nonfat yogurt. We are having lots of fun at our hilarious guacamole party. We hope you'll consider joining us.

Sorry I had to smite you all so fiercely like that, in front of everyone, with the Critical Shame Stick. Please know that it hurt me more than it hurt you.

You Are Forgiven,