Has there ever been a Lesbian Zoo?
Olivia Laing was not wrong in saying “the future of the queer avant-garde is safe with Isabel Waidner”, as Waidner creates a topsy-turvy, destabilising, dismantling, distorting post-identity Britain inhabited by Gilbert & George-esque lesbians, Peggy “the let’s-get-the-hell-out-of-here Pegasus”, hoofed fibreglass sculptures, Healthy-lips, chalk faeries, a transarmy with red question marks compressing the left-facing heads and the “phantom of prohibited futures”. In this novel, the riff raff are running the show and you’re in for a treat. Gaudy Bauble explores the political potential of innovative writing at the intersections with intersectional subjectivities – issues of gender, class, sexuality and race are at the forefront of this short novel, which seeks to disrupt normative social and literary structures at every turn.
Do you remember playing make-believe games as a child, engrossed in your own imagination where a teddy bear could suddenly be an evil genius and a pencil could become a frog? Where your toys took on a life of their own as characters in a twisted plot that only made sense to you, as you hadn’t learnt the “rules” of the game yet and anything could still be anything? Waidner creates this world anew in a queer dystopian utopia, expanding the possibilities of identity, narrative and style beyond any limits one might usually find within a novel. The reader is reminded that not only is imagination for adults too, but that our abilities to imagine, to go beyond categories, labels, genres, constructs and stereotypes, is only limited by our own boundaries, preconceptions, and compliance with social norms to keep them all intact. The best way to read this novel, therefore, is to shed those constructs and enjoy the rollercoaster ride.
Waidner breaks down conventions, literary genres, historical stereotypes and identities with style and finesse; if you let the text hit you right, moments of poignancy find themselves enmeshed with humorous undertones. Picture the character P.I. Belahg finding themselves wearing a bikini over their clothes, as they sleepily put it on without the realisation of what it was, only to awaken fully to the nightmare childhood trauma of gender conforming clothing and succumb to a meltdown. Here, the bikini acts as a trigger for memories of the “gender police” who “had seen to the dyke child being taught many life lessons. Lest she become a bulldagger. Lest she become a fully-fledged, raving, raging, reckoning and incorrigible adult powerdagger. Strong and unhinged. What if she organised. Already there had been Techtelmechtel with that wildgirl interpretation of John Taylor. Girl-on-girl hanky-panky. Innocent, but. Best nipped in the bud.” Waidner tackles age-old perceptions of lesbianism in subtle and effective ways. The reader catches a glimpse of Pre-Bikini Atoll, a 12-year old from West Croydon – whose name also gestures toward histories of colonialism, occupation, oppression and nuclear weapons testing at the site of Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean – and who preferred gender neutral pronouns: the past merges with the present in a significant moment of transformation whereby Bikini Atoll is “born”, as a performance act in a cabaret troupe called ‘The Avant-garde of the Oppressed’. This scenario ends in a poignant recognition of the struggles and pressures of gender conformity and the ways in which clothes can come to signify this in society, as Blulip, in drag as Painlevé Hypercamp, assists in providing the “context in which a bikini on a butch meant genderqueer camp rather than normative femininity.” These two characters partake in “Hypocamp micromovement […] a strangely microfied, butoh-like, and restrained full-body expression of gay exuberance” – an act I only wish I could see in real life!
Historical gay identities creep in and start taking control of the workshop as queer identities wrestle with a history that still haunts their present. As team Reco.Mö hijack Tulep.tv, “Combating A Localised Evil” by airing a be-on-the-look-out and attempt to locate Cadavre Exquis for a Mördervogel that none of the characters can truly define or draw, Hilary adorns Bobák’s abdomen and face with maroon-coloured lipstick in the shape of tiny kidneys only for this creation to evoke the haunting inscription of sarcoma, an illness that shares a lineage of being known as the mark of aids. Present and past collide in the body’s inscriptions, highlighting how the body tells all, how it has been marked as the bearer of identity, of histories and of stigmas one does not choose. Waidner’s ability to swiftly alter the perception and representation of the smallest things, whether that be lipstick marks, hoofed figurines, chalk faeries, glittery faces or carpets that hold entire ecosystems of germs, continuously wrong-foots the reader in the best of ways.
Taking us through a gay taxonomy of anthropomorphic animals deemed appropriate for gay stereotypes, the reader is introduced to the gay zoo, a newspaper article entitled Who’s Who at the Zoo? that lists male homosexuals as Gay Bears, Owls, Cygnets, Pussycats, Gazelles, Afghans, and Marmosets. Waidner addresses the lack of a lesbian equivalent with an amusing tangent about creating lesbian counterparts. Had there been a lesbian zoo? And if there was one, what would there be in comparison to the cubs, otters, and other animals that allowed gay men to strip themselves of their humanness and take on animal qualities? Detailing the scenario with creations, such as Ursula “a lesbian-identified Bear, or a Bear-identified lesbian”, the reader sees the woeful lack of a lesbian history and how, in a post-identity Britain that would prefer to forget the past before women have had a chance to create their own equivalents, women are left to grapple with their own makeshift identities, often restricted to the femme-butch dichotomy that cannot seem to be shaken. Waidner addresses crucial issues and hard truths, but wraps them up in glitter and imagination, so that the reader doesn’t fully realise the richness of Waidner’s narrative as it creates a present so haunted and full of the past that brought us to it. There is no comparing this novel to previous texts, for it is one of a kind and will take many more reads in order to fully engage with all the references and attention to detail that Waidner has brought to these eccentric, quirky and queer characters and the world they inhabit.
About the Publisher:
Dostoyevsky Wannabe publish independent/experimental/underground things: We publish a lot of books, any types of books − short books, long books, flash fiction, poetry, anthologies, samplers, chapbooks, experimental things.
Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley
Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.