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6 November 2019

We Are Made of Diamond Stuff: a pungent, fluent, thrilling novel

In Isabel Waidner’s Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel, Reebok is discussed along with Robert Rauschenberg, commas enable syntactical flow, and genders blur or disappear.

By Leo Robson

This is a pungent, fluent, frequently overbearing though just as often thrilling novel set in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, equally comfortable making reference to the Duffer Brothers’ sci-fi series Stranger Things and BS Johnson’s House Mother Normal. Or, for that matter, BS Johnson and Boris Johnson, since this is the latest example of English modernism with a Brexit backdrop. (It has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, awarded for innovative novels.)

Isabel Waidner’s appetites take the reader everywhere. Reebok is discussed along with Robert Rauschenberg (one chapter is entitled “Rauschenberg and Brexit Are Braving the Surf”), commas enable syntactical flow, genders blur or disappear. Any boundaries that continue to exist and wield power have been erected by society for reasons of its own.

The narrator – unnamed, shaven-headed, 36 years old – is an English-speaking EU national who claims to “have worked in all areas of the British hospitality and retail sectors”. They have filled out the 85-page application form for citizenship and are preparing to take the Life in the UK test, with 24 multiple-choice questions, among them, it turns out, “Who wrote ‘The Daffodil’?” (Answer: none of them, the correct title is “The Daffodils”.)

The narrator’s best friend is Shae, a Reebok-wearing second-generation economic migrant. (Aged 21, in a flashback, Shae is said to look “like a Goldsmiths student”.) Together Shae and the narrator (both of whom are, like Waidner, non-binary) work at a boarding house – or “no-star hotel” – whose manager, a heartless inflictor of zero-hours misery, is strongly associated with the title character of BS Johnson’s 1971 novel House Mother Normal, the “house mother” of a care home. In Waidner’s handling, everyday reality tends towards the fantastical or phantasmagorical – the animals depicted on Shae’s clothing (polar bears, leopards) spring to life and run rampant.

As a setting, the Isle of Wight comes heavy with associations – a site of austerity, or general late-capitalist post-industrial decline, and home “to a large working-class demographic”. Ryde Harbour is a waste land, while Ryde Arena ice rink was shut down in October 2016. The novel ends with a chorus of reviews, mainly disobliging, of the Isle of Wight zoo (“The children was board”).

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The narrator, though uneducated, doesn’t present this stuff to the reader passively or neutrally, as a courier or recorder, but with analytic verve and eloquent directness. They note, for example, that “they have a thing about foreign invasion down here”, reflect on the social meaning attributed to Reebok Classics, offer up sentences like “British nature is so interconnected with military and empire, I say” and, “Cultural theorist Paul Willis (1977) argued that, to some extent, working-class school boys were complicit in the reproduction of their own class disadvantage.”

The same few ideas are visited again and again. As a result, the novel doesn’t build in tension or emotional impact. But then that is not among Waidner’s aims, which are to employ poetic motifs as the building blocks of a polemical statement – about what it means to be “normal” or normally British, a kind of literary alternative to the ideology underpinning the Life in the UK test, with general knowledge replaced by reflections on landscape (the narrator claims to possess the very British “brutal” sense of beauty), industry, isolationism, nuclear weapons, immigration, sexual difference, economic stasis and decay. We Are Made of Diamond Stuff reads like a magnum opus, or mega-novel, conducted at novella length – and only just scraping that.

It’s generally agreed that solving the problem of how to evoke British experience at this point in time calls for some kind of experimentation. And as Waidner’s BS Johnson references remind us, the English novel has pedigree here. Avant-garde techniques don’t simply furnish an elite language for rendering elite experience (Mrs Dalloway or Henry Green’s Party Going) or ordinary experience (Ulysses). They can be a genuine ally of the demotic and democratic (Johnson, Green’s Living and Loving). Waidner’s efforts to extend this tradition can be linked with the recent work of Ali Smith and Nicola Barker, whose writing, border-busting in spirit, also effaces the boundary between garrulous vocality and modernist patois.

In Waidner’s book, too, we have puns and slang (“Shae has a massive tear in their eye, they tear through the foyer”), even text-speak (“rn” for “right now”). And just as Smith identified the pioneering example and enduring relevance of the neglected British pop artist Pauline Boty in Autumn, the first instalment of her Brexit-era quartet, so Waidner writes about the working-class American figure skater Tonya Harding, whose career only served to “put her right back in her place”. Harding’s skates, Waidner quips, were “just Reeboks with blades on”.

But the Tonya Harding story doesn’t possess a single, defeatist meaning. She may have been ostracised and undervalued by the skating community. She may have turned to violence in retaliation or revenge. She also kept going. Class trappings operated as a brake on respectability but not self-realisation. And so it goes for the narrator of this resourceful, fist-raising novel – trapped in Brexit Britain, perennially precarious, but finding a way through, as reflected in their statement of defiance, the lovely, comma’d motto, “I have talents, I’ll use them.” 

The Goldsmiths Prize is awarded on 13 November

We Are Made of Diamond Stuff
Isabel Waidner
Dostoevsky Wannabe Originals, 113pp, £4

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This article appears in the 06 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong