S**t Happens in the Great American Novel: Scatological Literature
I have a little theory that all of the new contenders for the title of ‘Great American Novel’ are required to include an episode of scatological humor. Think of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010), in which a young man must sift through his own excrement to find his wedding ring. Or of the filthy Calcuttan latrines encountered by Jeffrey Eugenides’s ascetic wanderer character in The Marriage Plot (2011). One of my favorite novels of recent years, Curtis Sittenfeld’s 2008 American Wife (a roman à clef about George W. Bush and his family, told from the perspective of the Laura Bush figure), makes a key scene out of the heroine’s horrible bout of diarrhea on her first visit to the family retreat on Martha’s Vineyard. Another gem, Shalom Auslander’s fiercely funny Hope: A Tragedy (2012), sees the protagonist seized with intestinal distress on his town’s main street after consuming a whole bag of Ezekiel bread. And in Big Brother by Lionel Shriver (2013), which I reviewed last week, main character Pandora has to clean up after her older brother Edison after he takes an enormous dump that blocks the toilet and sends turds overflowing all over the floor.
The potty-prone content is even more noticeable in A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven (2012), which recently won the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction. Main character Harry Silver takes his makeshift family on a morale-building trip to South Africa, where a medicine man brews him a special tea that gives him instant, violent diarrhea. This, compounded by the fact that Harry has been cleaning up after incontinent pets for much of the book (some of whose output possibly gets into his eye), as well as dealing with the kids’ and his own dodgy digestion, indicates a more than usually scatological interest. In fact, one of the reasons for the Africa trip is to create a pseudo-primitive rite of passage out of his nephew’s bar mitzvah – a celebration the family members inevitably come to refer to as “Nate’s Big BM.”
A brief history of scatological literature
Of course scatological realism is nothing new in the canon of world literature. In fact, one of my favorite but little-known incidents in the Bible falls into this category. It’s the small story of Ehud and Eglon from the Old Testament book of Judges. Ehud was one of the book’s judges, or prophet-leaders, sent to Eglon, king of the ruling Moabites, to deliver the Israelites’ yearly tribute. But instead of handing over the gold, Ehud assassinated the overweight king in his private chamber. The New International Version glories in the physical grotesqueness of the scene:
“Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly. Even the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it.” (Judges 3:21-22)
But the awkwardness doesn’t end there; after Ehud flees, the servants find Eglon’s chamber door locked and wait for him, presuming he must be on that other throne:
“They said, ‘He must be relieving himself in the inner room of the palace.’ They waited to the point of embarrassment, but when he did not open the doors of the room, they took a key and unlocked them. There they saw their lord fallen to the floor, dead.” (Judges 3:24-25)
The Good Book is just the beginning: throughout medieval and Renaissance literature you’ll find bawdy scenes and jokes, in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, poems by John Skelton, the writings of Martin Luther (he denounced the devil in shockingly base terms), any number of plays by William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift’s poetry as well as Gulliver’s Travels, the works of the Marquis de Sade, and especially François Rabelais’s raucous 16th-century tales of the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel.
After a prudish ban on (or at least the pushing underground of) all this obscenity during the Victorian period, the tradition of scatology in literature flourished with modernist writers such as D.H. Lawrence, Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, and James Joyce, who seemed to have a particular obsession with bodily functions. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce asked rhetorically, “Can excrement or a child or a louse be a work of art? If not, why not?”
Joyce clearly believed that defecation formed a suitable topic for literary discussion, and his influence runs through the works of Great American Novelists like Philip Roth and John Updike (who even wrote a poem entitled “The Beautiful Bowel Movement”) and on to the new class of up-and-coming American writers I’ve mentioned above, whose scatological musings have appeared over the last five years. But now it is not just male writers who can write boldly and humorously about excretion; female novelists are just as likely to take part. In fact, I would argue that it is almost imperative for women who want their books to be in the running for the title of Great American Novel to employ all the tricks their male counterparts have exploited, including a frank treatment of the body and its secretions.
All literary trends have underlying reasons, so for a while now I’ve been wondering what contemporary fiction’s insistence on portraying bodily functions might mean. Why all the obligatory gross-out poop scenes? Perhaps they are a way of ensuring that novels don’t get carried away with high-flown metaphor and philosophizing, but instead remain rooted in gritty human realism. Or maybe they are meant to affirm our animal origins and instincts, reminding us that we, too, are organisms that must eat and excrete in order for life to continue.
British anthropologist Mary Douglas theorized, in Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), that although traditional cultures normally avoid impurities like feces, in times of crisis they will in fact seek it out for ritual uses: “in the face of death itself they give up everything, they even claim to have eaten filth as madmen do, in order to keep their reason.” If Douglas’s hypothesis can be applied to contemporary Western society, it might indicate that scatological realism is one method of dealing with grief and insanity – and perhaps with our existential angst about existing as mortal creatures that will decay and rejoin the dust. A coarse sort of memento mori, if you like.
In any case, a little toilet humor never hurt anyone.
Have you also noticed this scatological trend in contemporary American literature? To what do you attribute it, and what other participating authors have I missed?
 Works of literary criticism devoted to the scatological are surprisingly plentiful and include: Between Two Stools: Scatology and Its Representations in English Literature, Chaucer to Swift (Peter J. Smith, 2012), Fecal Matters in Early Modern Literature and Art (ed. Jeff Persels and Russell Ganim, 2004), and Scatology and Civility in the English-Canadian Novel (Reinhold Kramer, 1997). For specific works of literature plus popular studies, see this LibraryThing list.