Author(s): Isabel Waidner
SHORTLISTED FOR THE GOLDSMITHS PRIZE 2019
"Isabel Waidner will save the nation & save our souls.”
"We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff evokes a topsy-turvy, highly animated world to explore a declining empire’s hopelessly fucked up inequities of class, race, queerness, and immigration status. At one point the narrator (who looks like Eleven from Stranger Things but who happens to be 36) blurts out, “Where’s reality, I want to change it.” This is one of the saddest lines I’ve ever read, perfectly rearticulating the “no there there” anxiety that Gertrude Stein attributed to modern life a century ago. In a world in which everything is stacked against them, Isabel Waidner’s resourceful characters survive, not just physically but spiritually as well. Despite their unflinching vision into virulent social practices, they never lose heart.”
We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff is an innovative and critically British novel, taking issue with the dream of national belonging. Set on the Isle of Wight, a small island off the south coast of England, it collides literary aesthetics with contemporary working class cultures and attitudes (B.S. Johnson and Reebok classics), works with themes of empire, embodiment and resistance, and interrogates autobiographical material including the queer migrant experience.
“Where’s reality, I want to change it.” Up against it in the Isle of Wight, a fender shoved between Britain and Europe, an island with more than its share, if there can be such a thing as a share of such things, of fortifications and prisons, if a distinction can be made between fortifications and prisons, and, according to the Trip Advisor reviews that, appropriately, comprise the final chapter of this remarkable book, home, if home is not the wrong word, of surely Britain’s saddest zoo, the narrator and Shae, their companion or alter-ego, if a distinction can be made between a companion and an alter-ego, work, or at least spend time in what might be loosely termed employment, at a zero-star hotel, or boarding house, as the narrator awaits the results of their application for resident status in a Britain seemingly bent on becoming more stridently a fortress, otherwise known as a prison (a bad sentence for no good reason). Britishness cannot be separated from imperialism, according to the current British Prime Minister [I advise you not to click that link], who, in the context of this book, and in any other context you might like, we can refer to as B...S... Johnson so as to distinguish him from his in-some-ways opposite Johnson, the working-class experimental author B.S. Johnson, whose novel House Mother Normal (of which, >read my review here<) lends its eponymous antiheroine to be the proprietor of the said no-star hotel or boarding house (I should be using nested brackets instead of nested commas) in Waidner’s novel (of their previous novel, Gaudy Bauble, >read my review here< (but why mention that here)), the difference between Empire 1.0 and what Waidner calls Empire 2.0, or Brexit, is that the thinking, if you can call it that, of the new empire, unable to reach beyond its shores, is turned in upon itself, it is an empire of exclusion not one of inclusion, it is an empire, how long can I keep calling it an empire with a straight face, frustrated in its incapacity to do anything other than tread down difference, both by the organs of state, not that organs usually tread, unless a foot is some sort of organ of treading, and by the acts of the mob, the least accountable organ of the state (considerations of treading and so forth notwithstanding), it is an empire of suffocation. The iniquities of class, race, gender, queerness, employment, poverty, migrancy (if that is a word) are weaponised by Brexit, and the narrator and Shae are well positioned to be at the non-handle end of most of those weapons: “They use words as weapons, they use weapons as weapons, and sometimes both come together like in the Boeing CH-47 Chinook.” But, says the narrator, “I have talents, I’ll use them.” Diamond Stuff is a point of infinite mutability, a shrugging off of forms, both literary and social, a word-gurdy, an uncontainable core exuding a shiny slipperiness, or a slippery shine, that repels both boredom and Boris (if a distinction can be made between them). Where all forms are performative, which is etymologically sensible, everything is both a metaphor and at the same time only itself, the banal assumes the trappings of the mythological, this is Britain after all, and probably vice-versa, if we can conceive of such a thing, descriptions, metaphors, clothes, even, and shoes, peel off and become something equivalent of persons, participating independently in the narrative-as-non-narrative and play assumes the place vacated by sensible activity. The Isle of Wight is also the locale of Britain’s one-time rocket programme, connected with both the military and the nuclear industries: “British nature is so interconnected with military and empire, I say. No beach without Sellafield. No garden without Dungeness. … My sense of beauty is brutal, I’m already British like that,” says the narrator. But is there hope? Can there be freedom within increasingly constraining structures? “The scaffolding is a permanent fixture, this is England, the scaffolding will outstand us all,” observes the narrator, but “at best, your resistance defines you.” This novel, short-listed for the Goldsmiths Prize, is a pin-sharp, very enjoyable piece of literary resistance.
Isabel Waidner is a writer and critical theorist. Their books include We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff (2019), Gaudy Bauble (2017) and Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature (ed., 2018), published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe. Waidner is the co-curator of the event series Queers Read This at the Institute for Contemporary Art (with Richard Porter), and a lecturer at University of Roehampton, London.