Throughout January I will be running a feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. This will include interviews and guest posts from some of the publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist. The first title to be featured is Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner, published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe. To kick things off, today I have a guest review of the book from my fellow judge, Graham Fulcher. Graham is a father of 3 girls and a new puppy, lives in Reigate, Surrey and works in London (with monthly trips to New York which gives plenty of reading time). You may follow him on Twitter: @GrahamFulcher
Gaudy Bauble is published by a small UK publisher, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, who “publish and exhibit independent/experimental/underground things”
Given this aim it is far from a coincidence that Isabel Waidner is the ex-bassist of the indie, experimental group “Klang” – who struggled at times with matching their underground philosophy with the attention they gained from their lead singer being Donna Matthews of Elastica. Their main single was “L.O.V.E.” from their early post punk period. The author is now a research fellow in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton, London, where she invites inquiries from prospective research students in “areas of innovative fiction, avant-garde writing, and creative writing at the intersections with cultural studies, gender studies, queer studies, body studies, subjectivity and independent publishing.” These research themes are key to the motivation behind this novel – even more so on the realisation that this novel was in fact an integral part of Waidner’s PhD Thesis. The reading of this was crucial to cementing and amplifying my (admittedly still limited) understanding of this hugely experimental book.
Attempting to put that understanding in my own words, I believe that Waidner’s key idea is to link two areas: conceptual art (something which she feels has only had limited cross over into literature) and post-identity gender fluidity – this leads to her concept of trans-literature.
Further, a key element of the book is its rejection of the traditional novelistic structure featuring a main character, other key characters, minor characters and then passive objects with which they interact. I believe that Waidner implicitly equates this rigid and hierarchical structure with a traditional patriarchal, gender-rigid society.
In this book by contrast the dominant character is a fluid concept – and just as an hierarchy starts to form (often to the relief of the reader, who finally starts to be able to identify the book with conventional concepts of plot and character and feels they are returning to something they know), Waidner very deliberately overturns this hierarchy and introduces a new main character, including in many cases what initially seemed inanimate objects – often based around patterns or illustrations on clothing (clothing often described in detail, and all it seems based on items that Waidner or her friends have worn).
Another way of saying this is that just as we start to find some solid ground Waidner pulls the rug from under our feet – a cliché but one I have chosen deliberately as a key example of this idea (and one Waidner explains at length in her thesis) is when a pattern on a carpet suddenly emerges as the main protagonist of the book, only for, just when the reader is starting to accept this, the polyester-style material of the carpet to take over from the pattern as the protagonist.
Other thematic elements of the book which stood out to me on my initial read (and before reading the thesis) were: the clear use of Google as a tool to take an idea and extend in a kind of free-association exploration of an initial concept and a search for links or word plays that can be incorporated to alter the course of the novel or to facilitate the introduction of new protagonists; the slightly odd narrative which at times can read like a rather literal translation from German (an idea crystallised by the occassional insertion of German sentences). To my interest, both of these elements (which I may have regarded as criticisms) are dwelt on and examined in the thesis.
The actual style and plot (to the extent such reactionary concepts even have any validity in this ultra-progressive, post-everything novel) is best captured by simply giving links to a number of websites that have published excerpts from the novel (others are embedded and conceptualised in the author’s PhD thesis).
And this perhaps gets to the heart of my only criticism of the book – accessibility. I suspect for many (if not most) readers, these excerpts are not going to encourage further engagement with this book. Another Goodreads reviewer who ended up giving this book a 4* rating, originally could not get past the first page for several days.
One of the very few mainstream authors that Waidner admires is Ali Smith, and in fact Smith’s partner, Sarah Wood, provides the photography for this book. However Smith has made a breakthrough into the literary mainstream. I was critical of elements of her latest book “Autumn”, which I felt owed more to the absurdity of Harry Hill than cutting edge literature, but it’s clear from Goodreads reviews that it’s exactly those passages that have drawn many others into the book, giving them an entry point with which to engage with the more radical and experimental themes.
I suspect if (and this may be a significant if) Waidner wishes to really challenge the mainstream with her ideas, then she may need to think about this concept of allowing an entry point into her work.
However, once engaged I found this a fascinating novel.
You may read my review of Gaudy Bauble here.
I will be posting interviews with the publisher and author later this week.
Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc