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The ick frontier: ‘Wetlands’ and ‘Crust’

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The Complete Review gets the jump on ‘Wetlands’ by Charlotte Roche -- the German blockbuster, which was Amazon’s worldwide bestseller in March, won’t be out in the U.S. until next spring. ‘Wetlands’ -- which has also been translated as ‘moist patches’ and ‘damp parts’ -- is, among other things, awash in bodily fluids. From the review:

The story proper begins with the eighteen-year-old narrator, Helen Memel, noting that, for as long as she can remember, she has had hemorrhoids. Then she describes what that involves. And it’s pretty much all downhill from there. Hygiene is not a top priority for Helen. She could be described as an anti-hygienist; more to the point, she likes to describe her anti-hygienic way of life. She positively wallows in the muck -- preferably her own muck, as she revels in her various bodily excretions: among other things, she describes herself as a Körperausscheidungsrecyclerin (‘bodily-secretion-recycler’), happily gnawing on her scabs, consuming her pus and snot, and worse. Much worse. Much, much worse.

Inside of all this goo, the review makes clear, is a tender, cheerfully-voiced story of Helen’s disconnection from her broken family. But I don’t know if I could make it through gross-out scenes like the one in which Helen uses food-encrusted barbecue tongs to fish out a lost tampon and then returns the tongs, unwashed, to their place. This is some serious, cringe-inducing yuck.

And maybe that’s the point. Could it be that familiar literary tropes -- sex, murder, betrayal, booze, isolation, love, war, warlocks, aliens -- have become too worn at the edges? Is it that, as Jane’s Addiction posited, nothing’s shocking? To evoke a visceral reaction, or the hyper-awareness that comes with surprise, must an author go beyond what they’ve found on the page? Is ick the last literary frontier?

Maybe there were icky books before now. But I do know that this question made me think of the new, well-wrought satire ‘Crust.’ Author Lawrence Shainberg writes of a man who changes culture by picking his nose. In our Oct. 12 review, Tod Goldberg wrote:

Soon, he has his wife Sara picking too, and her revelation is both sickening (she vomits from the intensity of the experience) and arousing, as she finds herself revisiting her nose with a more private result. And of course the need to explain his experience -- known afterward as Nasalism -- and to give voice to the consciousness he calls ‘the Founder’ that now exists in him cause Linchak to start blogging about it all.

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No matter how well the book lampoons New Age movements, I’m still grossed out by the title and the premise. Nosepicking as a central metaphor sounds ridiculous and amusing -- but it also makes me go ‘ewww.’

My reaction to these books -- from what I know of them -- may signal my dull sense of humor, my uptight New England upbringing, or, quite possibly, both. What do you think: Is going grody the new edgy? Or is it just gross?

-- Carolyn Kellogg


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