Titus Chalk on Sterling Karat Gold, an award-winning experimental novel by Isabel Waidner

Isabel Waidner’s Goldsmith Prize-winning new novel is a cri de coeur from a Tory Britain battered by inequities. Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010 and prescribed brutal spending cuts as an antidote to the Financial Crisis, the country has become a callous place. But worse, since the 2016 Brexit referendum emboldened charlatans, liars, and gas-lighters, Britain has found itself, much like the US, flirting with authoritarianism. Austerity, culture wars, draconian police powers … Waidner’s narrator reflects on the country’s circumstances in a bravura opening: “I’m Sterling. Lost my father to AIDS, my mother to alcoholism. Lost my country to conservatism, my language to PTSD. Got this England, though. Got this body, this sterling heart.” Resist fatalism, says Sterling. And, as they guide us through a working-class London of ethnic minorities, immigrants, and gender nonconforming people, they show us just how to lead the charge against an oppressive state.

That state is a threat to protagonists like Waidner’s, all of whom go by gender-neutral pronouns. There is Sterling themself, who claims to be the child of German football legend Franz Beckenbauer. Then there is Sterling’s Polish collaborator Chachki, a fashion student and partner in Cataclysmic Foibles, the experimental performance series the two “besties” stage in Sterling’s semi-legal, office-block home. These two are joined by Elesin Colescott, who Sterling imagines as the rider from Robert H. Colescott’s The End of the Trail, albeit now a black, nonbinary sex-worker in Camden. Then there is Rodney Fadel, a tracksuited transman from Iraq, who Sterling falls for over the course of the story. These characters are thrown together in a plot that riffs on Franz Kafka’s The Trial, with Sterling, like Joseph K., apprehended for a nonsensical crime, then tried by an abomination of a court. Like surrealists before them, Waidner finds the political climate so stifling that they must turn to the alien, the absurd, in a bid to defy (or warn) a complacent society about the precarity of life at its margins.

Indeed, Sterling’s voice rings like an alarm of sorts. Their English is compact and canted, dropping subjects, articles, prepositions (“Is BS. Is Camden Town.”) in a way that defamiliarizes the language and also translates the cosmopolitan joy of London at its best. But this is a changing London, one where landmarks like Shoreditch’s long-time gay sauna Chariots Roman Spa have been swallowed by gentrification. Where artists like Sterling and Chachki are living off Patreon as they fight a creative rear-guard action against a voracious capitalism. They are insurgents in the in-between spaces, inhabiting dilapidated housing estates, converted offices, football terraces, and later, spaceships that slip through the seams of mapping software like Google Earth.

Waidner deploys their nonbinary characters in liminal London not only because that is where society has pushed them, but because their identity itself is a fertile in-betweeness. Waidner busts binaries throughout the text to demonstrate how transgressing society’s norms can allow Sterling & Co. to flourish. It is also what allows Waidner to write such a trenchant piece of work. One binary constantly put to the sword is that of reader/writer, or, if you prefer, audience/performer by Sterling the playwright. Sterling’s chopped and twisted English gives way to what feels like authorial interventions, or fourth-wall-breaking asides, which are both fluent and erudite. They bump us out of the fictive dream and force us to digest lessons on everything from the Beach Boys to the homophobic treatment of Britain’s only ever openly gay footballer, Justin Fashanu. This feels like Brechtian Verfremmdung, alienation or distancing. Waidner uses it with aplomb to confront us with didactic messages, to unpick all sorts of hierarchies before our eyes. At one point, for example, Sterling’s tormentors throw them in Margate detention center. “Sorry not detention centre,” Sterling says. “Immigration removal centre. Name change in 2002, reflecting the part played by detention in the removal of failed asylum-seekers and others […] A third of detainees are held for longer than twenty-eight days. No statutory upper limit for the period that an individual can be held in UK detention centres.” These moments are jarring because they should be. Waidner refuses to perpetuate the cover-up of state violence with euphemism or obfuscating artistry.

And why would they? Waidner’s characters are on the receiving end of this treatment in their neighborhoods, in their daily lives. Matadors set upon Sterling (and later Rodney) in the streets of Camden, taunting and attacking them like a bull. The news comes as no surprise to Chachki: “’Bullfights in residential areas?’ they say. ‘I don’t doubt it. Is like the logical extension of class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.’” It doesn’t matter that the violence is surreal, metaphorical. Ultimately the persecution is ever-present. As Sterling points out, “… they know when a contest is rigged. They know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a system poised against them; to be positioned as the aggressor, the danger, when having nothing, nothing, on the other side.”

The strength of Waidner’s novel, though, is how their characters turn the tables on the authorities (a cast of goons including officers Pinky Authority, Soft-O Authorito, and a creepy avian judge). It is Sterling & Co.’s very genderqueerness that makes them such potent rebels. By embracing a lack of defining binaries, they position themselves almost necessarily as part of a broader coalition of marginalized people. This vision, this intersectional rallying cry, feels revelatory (at least for this cishet, male reader) and positions Sterling Karat Gold as a rare and incongruous book. Did I tire of the book’s madcap antics at times? Sure. But I also emerged from it enlightened by Waidner’s mission; their willingness to take a knife to aesthetic assumptions and political authority. As the author acknowledges in their epigram, quoting US iconoclast Samuel R. Delany,  “All good fiction is about money.” Sterling Karat Gold opens a new front, a collective front, in a war against capitalism and its grubby purveyors in the UK government and beyond. As challenging as this book can at times be, it feels like a milestone in reconceptualizing a left fractured and in retreat since the Financial Crisis (“The left wing won’t stay put,” says Chachki at one point, ostensibly working on a dragon costume). Like Cataclysmic Foibles, it creates a space for the imagining of a something different. Sterling plays down their artistic project (“… the objective was not to stage a convincing fantasy or stimulation, but to glamourise the small part of reality we inhabited”), but Waidner’s unstinting commitment to that reality, to its gem-like facets and simultaneous hard edges, offers genuine subversion, and in so doing, that rarest of qualities, hope.

Sterling Karat Gold, by Isabel Waidner. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, February 2023. 192 pages. $16.00, paper.

Titus Chalk is a British writer based in the US. His fiction appears or is forthcoming in Nimrod and the Peauxdunque Review. He is also the author of Generation Decks (Solaris, 2017), a history of the fantasy game Magic: The Gathering. He has an MFA from the University of Kentucky and can be found on Twitter at: @tituschalk.

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