By Charlotte Roche
Five years ago Charlotte Roche, a minor television personality in Germany, scored a major success de scandal with her first book, Wetlands. It’s hard to be controversial in our jaded age, especially when it comes to sex, but Roche’s raunchy tale of eighteen-year-old Helen Memel’s one-woman war against personal hygiene managed to ruffle many feathers on its way to blockbuster bestsellerdom. Was it a feminist liberation manifesto wrapped up in a Rabelaisian celebration of the body and all of its earthiest functions? Or was it the neurotic nightmare of an autophagous narcissist afflicted by a host of anal and oral obsessions?
If you were leaning toward the latter position after reading Wetlands, Wrecked should confirm your suspicions. Elizabeth Kiehl is Helen fifteen years later, still stridently atheist, preternaturally juicy, and preoccupied with nagging problems down there (the hemorrhoids and lesions replaced by worms this time out). Now, however, she is the married, semi-domesticated mother of a little girl, and riven by so many neuroses, anxieties, and complexes that she’s in daily therapy.
Most of all, Elizabeth wants to be a good, boring, bourgeois mom — unlike her own mother, who she blames for messing her up. This antagonism naturally ensures that she will in fact become her mother, and in her emphasis on “Manners, manners, manners” and a “strictly regimented” dinner table we can see the seeds of further generational rebellion being sown.
Then, once the kid’s been sent to bed, Elizabeth has to quickly switch “between mother and whore” in order to satisfy her insatiable sugar daddy of a husband by playing his “sexual servant.” And he has a thing for back door action as well.
It’s no wonder Elizabeth has her head stuck you-know-where. She even imagines her apartment as “a giant, subterranean colon.”
Roche obviously has some hang-ups she’s trying to work through. And I say Roche because, while it’s always tricky seeing authors in their narrators, if Elizabeth is Helen she is also Charlotte Roche. They are the same age, and both married with a daughter who is not the child of their husband. But most significantly, Elizabeth is haunted by a car accident that killed all three of her brothers while they were en route to her wedding, a spectacular tragedy that actually befell Roche in 2001. There’s a lot of therapy going on between these covers.
Then there is the sex. Wrecked begins with a long set-piece bedroom scene between Elizabeth and her husband Georg, but it seems like something both Elizabeth (and Roche) are only trying to get through. Despite being explicit with the hydraulics the book is rarely pornographic. Elizabeth is too self-conscious to let herself go (especially with the voices of her mother and a prominent German feminist whispering in her ears), and while she experiences multiple orgasms we rarely get the sense that she’s having a good time. Instead, she does what she does mainly to please her husband Mr. Big, who she frankly adheres to for his money. Dirty DVDs help get them in the mood, and on special occasions they attend brothels together to engage in steamy threesomes.
Alas, the image of a fifty-something German guy prepping for sex by shaving his pubic hair so he can get into a G-string with a golden pouch out front for his family jewels will likely kill any buzz the book’s admittedly pretty good purple parts may engender. In lieu of arousal, the reader may choose to take notes on things like Elizabeth’s helpful tips on how to enjoy (what else?) anal sex (here’s the crib: watch and learn how the porn stars do it and don’t try to use spit as a lubricant because it grabs).
The erotic adventures of Momzilla and Goldmember notwithstanding, Wrecked isn’t as fresh or as funny a book as Wetlands. Where Helen was a train wreck waiting to happen, Elizabeth is wrecked. But still you can’t help rubbernecking at her personal horror show and all its gruesome revelations, or miss the feeling that the book is saying something important almost in spite of itself.
It’s not hard to see why feminists have problems with Roche. Even if you accept all the sex as having a positive, liberating message, her heroines remain mental and emotional cripples. Elizabeth isn’t just a basket case, she’s a borderline psychopath, and it’s unclear whether Roche finds her at all exceptional in this. The madwoman on the couch has become our contemporary Everywoman, a pure product of her culture who has gone crazy.
Review first published in the Toronto Star July 14, 2013.