Bodily functions in fiction.
December 30, 2010 8:18 PM   Subscribe

What are some interesting, particularly well-written or unusual fictional depictions of 'bodily functions'?

I don't necessarily mean 'gross-out', but just chapters or sequences that involve the sorts of human activities that people don't generally talk about in polite company. One extreme example of what I'm talking about is Chuck Palahniuk's Guts (warning, not safe for lunch), but I don't necessarily mean something as over the top as that, maybe something just absurd or particularly well-observed, or in some other way notable.
posted by empath to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I've never read it, but my husband has told me about a Stephen King book called "Dreamcatcher" that is all about horrific bowel movements involving aliens. Apparently there is also a movie.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:28 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ulysses features Stephen Dedalus peeing early in the book, Bloom masturbating to an underage girl about 2/3 of the way through, and Bloom and Molly fucking various people throughout. If it counts, Bloom and Dedalus both shave memorably.
posted by foursentences at 8:30 PM on December 30, 2010

Ever read James Joyce's love letters to Nora Barnacle?
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:30 PM on December 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

The tapeworm story on is pretty close to what you're describing.
posted by deadmessenger at 8:36 PM on December 30, 2010

The first chapter of The Android's Dream is basically one long fart joke involving aliens and diplomats.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:41 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia reminds me that Ulysses also includes Dedalus picking his nose, Bloom and Molly shitting -- the scene where Bloom shits I should not have forgotten; it is very near beautiful -- Bloom and Dedalus pissing side-by-side, Molly's period, and various fetishistic fantasies. Ulysses is really the earliest and still greatest example of what you're looking for, at least within High Literature as opposed to Victorian pornographies.

I also feel honor-bound to mention a reference to love pitching "his mansion in the place of excrement" in Yeats. (Yes, that'd be butt-fuckin'.)
posted by foursentences at 8:44 PM on December 30, 2010

In a freshman year English class I read a short story in a scholarly compilation of stories that was written from the point of view of sperm traveling through the birth canal. This was never expressly stated in the story but it was obvious. I can't find it for the life of me but it was certainly an unusual depiction of a bodily function.
posted by ND¢ at 8:51 PM on December 30, 2010

Hmm, Gulliver's Travels is another classic famously full of bodily functions (i.e. the memorable way in which Gulliver extinguishes a Lilliputian blaze).

Anything by Irvine Welsh, I imagine, fits, though I've only read Trainspotting (IV drug use and various other ill uses and effects on the body), and Filth, which I think is more relevant to your question since it contains a somewhat interesting literary depiction of a tapeworm.
posted by scribbler at 8:55 PM on December 30, 2010

Sancho Panza has some bathroom troubles in Don Quixote. It starts midway through page 147, in case the link doesn't work.

"Sancho...felt the urge and desire to do what no one else could do for him."
posted by apricot at 9:00 PM on December 30, 2010

There is an unbearably grotendous book, Wetlands, about a girl who eats all her bodily wastes and revels orgasmically in her total lack of personal hygiene.
posted by elizardbits at 9:05 PM on December 30, 2010

In the Ulysses vein, in P by Andrew Lewis Conn, there is a memorable passage about how the main character had envisioned female urination, as opposed to their "laserlike micturitions" in real life. As it is based on Ulysses, there's probably a ton of other such descriptions, though I haven't read the book in ages.
posted by ultrapotato at 9:11 PM on December 30, 2010

Well, Ignatious has that damn Valve that keeps slammin' shut on him.
posted by nickjadlowe at 9:14 PM on December 30, 2010

I don't know if you only want books; if you are open to movies there is The Human Centipede and Salò. In fiction, some of Henry Miller's featured bodily functions in graphic detail.

And elizardbits beat me to it, but Wetlands sounds ideal for what you are looking for.
posted by Forktine at 9:17 PM on December 30, 2010

The tapeworm in Irvine Welsh's Filth gets a bit of nod here and there.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:20 PM on December 30, 2010

Anthony Burgess wrote a series of four novels about a fictional poet called Enderby who can only write poetry while seated on the toilet.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:21 PM on December 30, 2010

All right, I hate to get into this, but there's a story in an old issue of a magazine called Nuggets -- a scat fetish magazine -- and, if you can locate it, it contains perhaps the most extraordinary description of a bowel movement ever committed to paper.

I know this because quite a few years ago -- the spring of 1996, to be precise, the Blue Barn theater in Omaha did a play set in a mobile home, and they decorated the set with adult magazines, this issue of Nugget among them. And the cast discovered the story, and it instantly became legendary. People at the theater liked to gather backstage after a show and somebody would do a dramatic reading of the piece, and inevitably, by the end of the reading, half of the listeners would be driven out by the sheer horror, and the other half would be gasping for air, clutching their aching stomachs, puffing their reddened cheeks, and begging for the torment of the hilarity to end.

The story, in a nutshell, is as follows. A young man is a but too aggressive in pursuing an anal encounter with his girlfriend, and she curses him so that his next bowel movement will be the worst he has ever experienced, or anybody has ever experienced. And the past, as Shakespeare said, is prelude -- that takes up perhaps a paragraph or two, and then it is on to the actual bowel movement, which is detailed in outrageously vivid prose, with an exquisitely slow build of minor aches and embarrassments eventually surging toward a bowel-destroying calamity. I thought I was a brave man when I first heard it. I thought I was strong. I made it just to the point when the character herniated, and then thought I was faint.

For years we planned to do a late-night reading of this. We wouldn't tell people who it was. We'd just announce it as a dramatic reading of an important new piece of the theater. I would come out, in coat and tails, and go on and on as the audience sipped champagne and nibbled on cheese, and I would tell them of the author, and his significance, and how important the piece was, and how proud we were to debut it. Then the theater's artistic director would emerge, likewise in tie and tails, and walk over to a lectern, open the magazine, and read the title.

"Buttfuck Payback."

We would then wait to see how long it took the entire theater to clear.

The magazine was destroyed in a fire that erupted in the building. If you can find a new copy of it, I would pay good money.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:35 PM on December 30, 2010 [25 favorites]

In the Táin Bó Cúailnge, an Irish epic, Medb loses because she's on her period.
posted by wayland at 9:50 PM on December 30, 2010

It may not be included in what you mean by "bodily functions", but remarkable for its detail is the scene in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon where he describes eating a bowl of cereal. Most of the excerpt is quoted here, but for a brief taste (ha!):

all his concentration is fixed on the interior of his mouth, which naturally he cannot see, but which he can imagine in three dimensions as if zooming through it in a virtual reality display. Here is where a novice would lose his cool and simply chomp down. A few of the nuggets would explode between his molars but then his jaw would snap shut and drive all of the unshattered nuggets straight up into his palate where their armour of razor-sharp dextrose crystals would inflict massive collateral damage, turning the rest of the meal into a sort of pain-hazed death march and rendering him Novocain-mute for three days.
The strategy, then, is to use the Cap'n Crunch against itself by grinding the nuggets together in the center of the oral cavity, making the cereal chew itself, like stones in a lapidary tumbler, minimising any contact with gums and palate --- contacts bound to be bloody, violent and painful. Like advanced ballroom dancing, verbal explanations (or for that matter watching videotapes while sitting on your ass) only go so far and then your body has to learn how to do this.

It goes on like this for about three pages.
posted by lollusc at 10:05 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

In Yann Martel's Self there's a brief section where a character discusses how satisfying it feels to have a bowel movement. There's also talk of sex while menstruating and a very blunt description of a rape.
posted by Rora at 11:44 PM on December 30, 2010

Garth Ennis, Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits. John Constantine undergoes some unpleasant experiences with cancer, and demons.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 12:25 AM on December 31, 2010

In The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana the narrator is a man in his sixties who awakes from a coma suffering from a form of amnesia in which he can't remember being himself. This includes what it feels like to inhabit his body, and so at various points in the book he describes his impressions of various bodily functions as a person who is experiencing them for the first time. His frank description of how wonderful it feels to scratch his scrotum is one of my favorites scenes of any book ever. He also describes in great sensory detail what it feels like to brush his teeth, and muses about how taking a shit is the most personal, private thing a person does (in the scene it seems to be helping jog his memory about himself.)
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:51 AM on December 31, 2010

As part of The Vampire Chronicles, Anne Rice wrote Tail of the Body Thief in which Lestat (an immortal vampire) switches bodies with a mortal. He has major problems adjusting to the care and maintenance of the human body, and there are some really detailed passages about bodily functions.
posted by kimdog at 6:24 AM on December 31, 2010

Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille pretty much fits your description, though it it probably far more gross-out-making than you're looking for. The entire story is about bodily functions. Sex, mainly, with the aid of eggs, urine, blood and semen. Oh, and milk. And tears.
posted by brina at 10:26 AM on December 31, 2010

Came to say Ulysses and Confederacy of Dunces. So I nth them. One of the best examples in Ulysses, imo, is in the Circe episode when prostitutes fart on Bloom's face.

There's a great passage in Marquez...and I'm blanking a little but I think it's in Love in a time of Cholera where a character describes liking the smell of his pee after eating asparagus.

Infinite Jest
has a lot - from the incontinence of alcoholics to what happens when you shoot dirty heroin to having your sweat licked.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:02 AM on December 31, 2010

I'm not sure if this counts as a 'normal' bodily function, but The Hot Zone gives a disturbingly vivid picture of the effects of ebola on various victims (and what comes out of their various orifices). The very first chapter was so graphic, I threw the book across the room and curled up into a ball. It's still one of my favorite books ever, though.
posted by chara at 2:15 PM on December 31, 2010

There's plenty of stuff like this in Sterne's Tristram Shandy. I only skimmed it, but it looks like this article might be of interest.
posted by trip and a half at 2:47 PM on December 31, 2010

Rabelais all the way--Gargantua and Pantagruel is marvelous. There was a French film a few years back called In My Skin IIRC about cutting and bodily self-loathing or something. Lots of Chinese classics talk at length about gastrointestinal distress--I'll need to dig to find the name of one I remember as particularly eye-opening. I think something like "Secunda Saves Her Life With 7 Ruses"...and another where a dutiful newlywed woman makes her mother-in-law soup by slicing her finger into it, literally giving of her body for the sake of Confucian family bonds. The ancient forensic manual The Washing Away of Wrongs goes into great detail about bodies and is super fascinating.
posted by ifjuly at 10:31 AM on January 1, 2011

As for minute joys: as I was saying: Do you realize the illicit sensuous delight I get from picking my nose? I always have, ever since I was a child. There are so many subtle variations of sensation. A delicate, pointed-nailed fifth finger can catch under dry scabs and flakes of mucous in the nostril and draw them out to be looked at, crumbled between fingers, and flicked to the floor in minute crusts. Or a heavier, determined forefinger can reach up and smear down-and-out the soft, resilient, elastic greenish-yellow smallish blobs of mucous, roll them round and jellylike between thumb and forefinger, and spread them on the under-surface of a desk or chair where they will harden into organic crusts. How many desks and chairs have I thus secretly befouled since childhood? Or sometimes there will be blood mingled with the mucous: in dry brown scabs, or bright sudden wet red on the finger that scraped too rudely the nasal membranes. God, what a sexual satisfaction!

All this from who else but Sylvia Plath?
posted by sciapod at 6:22 PM on January 1, 2011

In Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator there is a poem about a girl who has some gastrointestinal distress. What I remember of it involves a girl who has to spend several hours a day in the lavatory.
posted by bendy at 1:30 AM on January 2, 2011

Here it is: Goldie Pinklesweet.
posted by bendy at 1:37 AM on January 2, 2011

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