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Vanguard Collectibles: Isabel Waidner’s Gaudy Bauble

By MH.

Review of Isabel Waidner’s Gaudy Bauble

Isabel Waidner, Gaudy Bauble (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2017)

Playing with syntax and polysemy has long been the hallmark of narrative experimentation in a bid to subvert coherence and clear distinctions between various literary genres. In a similar shot, Isabel Waidner’s Gaudy Bauble juggles with dichotomies instead, somehow counterfeiting the ambiguities in the sexual identities we are so keen on wrapping and delivering as unitary, compact versions of ourselves. But as its sassy narrative zigzags, the trap of making such stereotypes or binary divides line up or, even worse, interchangeable is dodged. As a matter of fact, what happens to the characters in this experimental narrative could easily be relocated in the midst of a Balkan flea market or a furniture store that advertises its kitsch items as “baroque” – their flashiness is likely to remain the same regardless of the context because they seem to know exactly how to work out different ways they can interact with each other without denying their own self-determination.

In Gaudy Bauble, characters themselves happen and everyone – and everything – gets to be a protagonist: clothing imprints, transgender infantry paradeing in question-mark-shaped helmets, butch fibreglass animals, GoldSeXUal StatuEttes to name just a few. It’s as if no one is actually calling the shots, so the plot becomes just a pretext, a background against which all these unapologetically “gaudy” figurines seem bound on displacing heterosexual identifications and placing queer manners of speaking, looking and acting instead.

Charmingly enough, Gaudy Bauble tackles a very specific trope in gay culture, namely the animal identifications (the gay body types such as Bear, Wolf, Otter, Cub) used as shorthand for one’s sexual identity but also as a way of setting the terms of desire and attitude towards other gay bodies.

Had there been a lesbian equivalent to the historical, hysterical, galvanising, generative, prolific, prohibitive, empowering, limiting, liberating, inclusive, exclusive, offensive Gay Zoo? Had there been a Lesbian Zoo? There were lesbian taxonomies sure. But neither Blulip nor P.I. Belahg had heard of a Lesbian Zoo. Blulip, have you? No. No. You?! We could have been fruit flies. Jellyfish.  Carnivorous plants. We could have been crystals. There could have been a Lesbian Toxicology. Mineralogy. There probably had been. There probably was.

Such animal metaphors (“An Ursula was a lesbian-identified Bear, or a Bear-identified lesbian. Was it true that post-identity Britain did not know what a Bear was?”) may provide the perfect occasion for leaving aside one’s humanity, especially when you desire an honest differentness in your self-conception. But as this text also hints, there is no counterpart to this menagerie when it comes to lesbian culture that is somehow still congealed around the butch/femme binary even if it’s not so keen on admitting it. However, there aren’t any regrets either as lively queerness is also supposed to function as a meeting point between ingenuity and repression of desires that stonewalls stereotypes of any kind.

Waidner’s attention to details mostly pertaining to aesthetics is almost clinical and language rolls with punches to the point that it may come across as a little bit suffocating. Flamboyant names, punctuation marks that seem to leave the text for a career in fashion, a prize (such as Deadwood-to-Dynamo Audience Prize) that leaves you scratching the more technical part of your brain, unicode and chemical structures splintering the text every once in a while, glittery ornithology that borders transhumanism – they all bear the semblance of wanting to go beyond the divisive identifications brought by class, gender, race, even if only for a second or two.

Belua’s head detached from her broad-shouldered body and volplaned onto the workbench. The head ran past a row of turpentine bottles and hid behind a pot of paint. Belua apologised for the late night visitation. Headless, she spoke from the heart. Belua proceeded further to disintegrate. Her shoulder duplex disengaged from her collarbone. The latter landed on the floor. Finally, Belua’s broad torso bifurcated, and Belua was gone.

After all, this could be a diagram experimenting with the contours of a queer utopia, a space where difference is not instrumentalised against its bearers and identity is means to an end and not a scope in itself or an exercise in self-absorption based on the exclusion of others (or the Otters in Gaudy Bauble).

Coming across a character named Ursula and a reference to bald heads covered with glitter might also bring to mind another utopian narrative concerned with (among other things) traditional gender roles and how they coerce those already disenfranchised, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Reading the heart-breaking ‘EINE GANZ VORZÜGLICHE LEICHE, UN CADAVRE EXQUIS, AND BELOVED’, a piece on living with AIDS without having to die of it, might bring to mind another memoir of disintegration, David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives. It also evokes the queer necropolitics currently at play in the US: HIV/AIDS funding could be gutted by the introduction of the American Health Care Act of 2017, thus literally condemning HIV positive queers to death. On this particular front, the entire narrative is an inquisitive beast, overpopulated with references that may require a second, even third reading.

 Gaudy Bauble is what happens when the margins/marginalised suddenly decide to chew on the centre by means of an avant-garde smouldering with differences in language and sexuality the uselessness and toxicity of binaries as mechanisms of definition are, once again, gleefully exposed. 


MH cross-stitches dissonances at Anomaly.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 13th, 2017.