Thursday, 6 November 2014

Hygiene porn: a new genre?

Full title: Wetlands
Author: Charlotte Roche; translated by Tim Mohr
Genre: Fiction, novel, erotica
Attributes: 230 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Grove Press (2009)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

What’s interesting about this book that pretends to be pornographic is that it sheds its layers of porn gradually, like an onion. Charlotte Roche is a clever young writer in this regard. The novel starts off abruptly, shockingly, attention-grabingly, and she acquires the desired effect from page one.

“As far back as I can remember, I’ve had hemorrhoids. For many , many years I thought I couldn’t tell anyone. After all, only grandfathers get hemorrhoids. I always thought they were very unladylike.”

What novels start this way? Where else have you seen (apart from Etgar Keret who, with his dedication to storytelling, would make a subject for a ‘short’ out of almost anything) a piece of fiction concerned with hemorrhoids? An entire novel, no less? When has literature indicated that there may be room in it for such subjects?
This is the point, at the very beginning, when the first clarifications are being made, when the reader decides: is this for me, or is it not? The ones who decide to go on will go on. Some will find awful things in the novel, the way ugly things are expected to be found in forbidden lands. Some will cover their mouths in disgust. Others will rejoice at the encounters with the human body like they've never seen before. Since it keeps in line with the genre of pornographic literature, Wetlands is a book full of bodily exposures and descriptions of intimate organs, functions, fluids, solids, smells, tastes, touches, sounds, sights, ejaculations, masturbations, excitations, orgasms.

A book said to have sold more than one million copies was very likely
to inspire some film adaptation, Set to be released in 2015, Wetlands,
the film, has big boots to fill. At least in terms of popularity.

Simply put, this is a narrative about a young woman who goes through a surgical procedure for the removal of her hemorrhoids. Given the topic, there must be no surprise. You've been worn, dear reader, from the very first page! You’ll have to put up with a protagonist who calls herself an “ass patient,” and who gives it her all to describe every single detail that can make a puritan’s reading experience a nightmare: not only things of sexuality but also things of religion (yes, she’s an atheist, and one with a very strong disgust for religious symbolism) or things of risky adulterous inclinations (there’s an Oedipal complex alright – how could there not be one?).

And so, along with a seemingly compromised narrator, the story advances. Little they know, though, the puritans and the handkerchiefed, how much more there is to be found in Wetlands. There is, for instance, a sense of claustrophobia, whose strong cultural roots are easily made apparent. The action takes place exclusively is an urban setting, in the enclosure of a hospital room, where lives are dictated by functions rather than proper relations. Helen, the protagonist, leaves the room for the first time at page 139. Her real task is not to come out of the operation rejuvenated, but to fix a problem: to reunite her separated parents. The theme may sound familiar. It has been used millions of times in fiction. But there’s something that stands out in this type of porn whose justifications are moral: the text poses questions; the reader is invited to ponder. Wetlands speaks of false idols. It speaks, for instance, of hygiene in order to expose the fabricated symbols of the discourse:
“This idiotic notion of washing pesticides off fruit and vegetables is the biggest joke there is. My dad taught me. These days you learn it in schools too. In chemistry. The chemicals that are sprayed on produce to keep away vermin and fungus are so strong that they penetrate the skin of tomatoes and grapes. You can wash them until your fingers shrivel. Nothing comes off. If you don’t want to eat pesticides with your fruit and vegetables, you shouldn’t buy them at all.”

With a passage like this the entire discourse of public hygiene, with its civic connotations and its educational strongholds, is placed under an enormous question mark. The point is highly significant in a novel that claims its descent from good old pornographic literature. Cleanliness opposed to filth, obedience opposed to revolt, language opposed to bodily fluids, a hospital opposed to the patient, a family opposed to its own unity – all these things come to the surface one by one; a series of binary oppositions that cannot go unnoticed. And as they do so, the glaring pornography in the text loses ground. Wetlands becomes a moral novel, a text calling for ethical readjustments in the name of a protagonist that’s so individualizes she cannot possibly fit into standards. I like to think about this novel like this: not by pointing out the unceremonious treatments of the human body, but by seeing in it a text where a little emancipation takes place with every single irreverence.

With a little bit of philosophy and attention to similar details,
Slavoj Zizek touches on something very much present in Wetlands:
the suspicion that beyond hygiene there must be something else.

Of course, there are pleasures to be gained by the reader who expects to enjoy a text from the species Erotica. Of course, there are taboos, banned topics, prohibited body parts. It would be unfair not to have them at all. But what’s more important is that Wetlands manages to call into question even its proper genre. At the end of the day, let’s be honest: what respectable pornographic novel has ever discussed hemorrhoids?