Book Review

We Are Made of Diamond Stuff by Isabel Waidner

it's the pandemic and it's now

I’m typing this on March the 27th, so for anyone who has read the last few posts on this blog, that’s a gap of a few days since I last wrote anything.

This isn’t because I’ve been reading a massive book or because I’ve been busy with other creative-type projects, but it is instead because I have been made redundant (“temporarily laid off” in the term here, a lovely bit of pro-enterprise legislation in Ontario that allows companies to avoid paying severance pay) and have had some work projects to complete before the contract ends. And in the moments when I wasn’t working, I wasn’t really reading, instead I was panicking, walking my dog with my glasses off (because seeing people without masks gives me panic attacks) and playing Ocarina of Time on my 2DS. I never played this when I was younger, so for £15 and thirty minutes of figuring out how to purchase content on a UK-registered Nintendo device while in Canada, I have obtained the “brand new gaming experience” I had previously only believed possible through the purchase of a Switch. It’s lucky I didn’t buy a console, as a Nintendo Switch and two games costs basically the same as an entire month’s rent (I have a very good deal, lol) and I’m unemployed now. Uh oh.

So, yeah, stressed, worried, anxious but working; I’m still most of those things, but not as many as I was before.

I’ll be fine, financially (if it doesn’t last more than TWO months). I just need to make sure I get every last useful expense claimed before the end of the month lol, because there won’t be more. Oh no.

///

I’m typing this as I walk, masked, down the backstreets north of Bloor Street West. These little streets are unfamiliar. We don’t really have things like these in the UK, in Europe.

I’ve heard them referred to a couple of times as laneways, which is a fucking weird name. They’re backstreets.

Actually, it’s not true that we don’t have them in the UK, we do, in a handful of the pre-planned bits of mass-produced Victorian era housing, in industrial cities.

Here, though, they’re behind every street.

Sometimes I see wild animals in them – skunks, raccoons, rats, squirrels, but usually they’re deserted.

Sometimes when I’m walking about late at night – or back when I used to, back when walking around and going to places was a thing that people did – I would choose to walk down these deserted alleys out of a deliberate sense of self-endangerment. There are rarely any security cameras, almost always no other people, down these alleys. If I were to be mugged or otherwise assaulted in Toronto, I’m certain that down a back street, an alley, a laneway, is where it would happen.

Sometimes I’d walk down these paths late and alone and try to hallucinate an assailant in the shadows; a couple of times I found myself hallucinating a figure with a very different intention, someone whom I could have a rapid, anonymous, completely secret tryst with, in fact the awareness of the danger I was in made these thoughts surprisingly frequent when I walked down the backstreets in snow in the middle of the night. The idea of a strange hand emerging from the shadows beneath a fire escape and slowly unbuttoning my massive winter coat and peeling open my jeans before grabbing my cock with a scabbed hand and just gripping it, tightly, tugging on it once as I pathetically come onto their wrist, put myself away as their hands melts away, I finish the walk to the bus stop where I sit, still a little engorged, still a little bit of come oozing out of my dick, knowing that I have no idea who or what that was, they or it had no idea who I was and nobody would ever know about that glorious moment of-

Sorry, I don’t know where that came from. This blog is ordinarily chaste.

I sat down on a bench to type and got carried away.

I’m going to carry on walking.

///

We Are Made of Diamond Stuff is the first book by Isabel Waidner I’ve read, though I am of course aware of their work and the broad critical consensus that said work is excellent.

While I definitely enjoyed this and understand the validity of the praise it’s been receiving, it just didn’t feel like the right thing to be reading in a pandemic, so I didn’t get as much out of it as I would’ve done at a less fraught time.

We Are Made of Diamond Stuff is working class English (British?) experimental writing in a very clear tradition, and a tradition that I enjoy reading within. There are major references to BS Johnson – a writer who is one of my personal favourites – throughout, as well as disparate references to other people and works I’ve engaged as well as lots that I’m less familiar with.

We Are Made of Diamond Stuff is about informal education and well-read non-graduates; it’s about the problems with English class structures and with the conscious avoidance of intersectionality that is endemic in the UK, a nation now internationally mocked as the home of transphobic “feminism”. The key example in Waidner’s novel is queer men who vocally support the Tory party, a party whose “historic” homophobia – and continued oppression of other minority groups – means that the selfish lack of solidarity is inarguable.

I found it difficult reading fiction focused on these themes, as selfishness and an absence of societal consciousness is what has caused (or at least exacerbated) the global spread of COVID. Individualism fuels pandemics.

There is a particularly fraught scene at one point in Waidner’s novel in which tension bubbles between three groups. One is a pair of non-binary, queer, EU immigrants (one of whom narrates the novel), the second is a a group of young, unemployed, working class “British” youths and the third is a yuppieish couple of cisgender gay men who are canvassing for the Tories and leaning into Brexit (the novel is from 2019). Homophobia and class prejudice and xenophobia and vitriolic gender norms are thrown around aggressively, and the narrator and their friend respond with a tragic passivity that Waidner painfully evokes as a necessity. 

Elsewhere in the novel, there are lots of references to popular culture, i.e.  music and television (Stranger Things in particular) as well many comments on “higher” (i.e. avant garde) arts. We Are Made of Diamond Stuff is a literate text in conversation with other creative practitioners who are creating in other artistic forms.

The experimental elements are more structural rather than textual: realities are shifting and amorphic (which I think is just another way to say shifting, but I’m unemployed now so tautologies are the least of my problems), and though this is pleasant and fun and coherent, I didn’t quite see how it connected to the political/emotive elements of the text, but this is likely just me being ignorant and lazy and mired in a global pandemic.

Inarguably, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff is a great piece of self-consciously working class art in an established tradition, which explores many essential contemporary issues and ideas.

Maybe it’s just a bit too close to reality, maybe its slightly-different-from-reality isn’t different enough now that COVID has moved us into a reality vastly different from the reality we all expected to be living in in 2020.

I’ll order more of Waidner’s work, though. Maybe I’ll reread this book when – or if – the world reverses from the lockdown. This is the new normal and it’s shit, though for different reasons than the old normal was.

My walk is nearly finished. The only notable thing that happened was a child – not wearing a mask – stopped five metres ahead of me on the pavement, pointed at my masked face and shouted “Distance!”

It was good to see at least one other human aware of the importance of maintaining distance, though the child’s delivery did make me feel plagued.

Wearing a mask is responsible (particularly as I’ve had a tightness of chest that is not the same as the tightness of chest I sometimes experience when anxious). In some parts of the city, masks are normal. In others, they aren’t. We should all be wearing masks. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t. Are you not wearing a mask? Wear one, please.

My mask is handmade, crafted by my lover from a pillow I bled on one night after cutting my scalp while shaving half-cut. Did I type this already? I don’t remember. I’m home now. Time to be miserable. Time to crack a beer and play Ocarina of Time.

WE ARE MADE OF DIAMOND STUFF IS PUBLISHED BY DOSTOEVSKY WANNABE

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