The literary sex book dates back to D.H. Lawrence, although today, instead of asking: “Is it a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?” a more likely question is: “Is it a movie?” Ever since Stanley Kubrick figured out a way to make a movie out of Lolita, directors have regarded high-end porn as possible Oscar bait. Whether it’s Robert Zemeckis circling an adaptation of Nicolson Baker’s The Fermata, or Curtis Hanson saying “maybe” to Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, the literary sex book is hot property. When I read recently that Charlotte Roche’s loony sex book Wetlands had been optioned, I can’t say it came as a surprise.
In the novel, a mentally disturbed young woman called Helen Memel recounts her crazy life from a hospital bed. Helen has a fascination with body fluids that happily skips into mania. She is also a sex addict. Unfortunately, the former preoccupation tends to overlap with the latter, so Helen’s accounts of her sex life are far more icky than they are erotic. Scarcely a page goes by without Helen lovingly describing the taste of one secretion or other. That is, when she isn’t fixated on her divorced parents, or a possible suicide attempt by her mother which may or may not explain everything. Helen is the kind of girl who puts the “kink” in the word kinky.
The main reason the book has attracted such attention in the literary world is that its author looks a bit like Kate Beckinsale. In terms of prose, it’s more like Dan Brown. Roche’s standard sentence has a subject (Helen) a verb (sex) and an object (anyone). With a formula like that, she barely even needs joined-up handwriting to get a book deal. It’s like Roche sat down and thought: if I write a book about a woman’s body, it might arouse some prurient interest, but if I write a book about a woman’s body (plus kinky sex), I’ll sell more books than J.K. Rowling! To talk about Wetlands as a serious attempt to probe society’s attitudes towards womanhood is like saying Rambo III was a serious attempt to understand the Cold War.
If anyone does attempt to make a movie of this book, I’d say there are two possible directors who spring to mind. Either you go the low-brow sensationalist route and hire Paul Verhoeven, or else you go the high-brow sensationalist route and hire Catherine Breillat. Either of them would make an appropriately shocking version of the text, although Breillat, the woman who once wrote a scene (in Anatomy of Hell) where a woman slits her wrists “because [she’s] a woman”, is second-to-none when it comes to pretentious feminist smut. Verhoeven is more likely to make Wetlands into another Showgirls, with Helen challenging our puritanical ideas about sexuality by cavorting naked with a flurry of strangers (possibly in a hot-tub).
There are almost no scenes in the book that could be filmed without controversy. Maybe the bit where Helen buys a coffee from the hospital cafeteria, but even then there’s the thing she does with the homemade tampon while riding down in the lift. In print, you can just about get away with the scatological jamboree that is the protagonist’s mental landscape, but in a movie, there’d be riots in the aisles. That’s partly why a loony showman like Verhoeven might edge ahead of Breillat in the ideal director stakes (for me), because only Verhoeven would be fool enough to try to sell this madness to a mainstream Iowa shopping mall crowd.
As an example of the literary sex book genre, Wetlands lacks the necessary “horny professor” character who lends phoney gravitas to much of Philip Roth and J.M. Coetzee’s work. The novel is about the same subject that Roth and Coetzee write about (i.e. sex), but Charlotte Roche isn’t interested in aggrandizing her libido. Sex in her book is like the reality of child birth. You’re more likely to wince while reading than you are to think happy thoughts. And so, while even the word “sex” is enough to get funding for a movie these days, I wouldn’t recommend Mr. Time Warner invest in Wetlands. There’s no suitable role for Reese Witherspoon here.