Review: ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ by Isabel Waidner

Sam Burt

Describing the story of Sterling Karat Gold, Isabel Waidner’s third, Goldsmiths prize-winning novel, is probably a fool’s errand – a struggle against ‘bullfighters, football players and time-travelling spaceships’, according to the blurb. But here goes.

Sterling Beckenbauer (the estranged child of German football legend Franz Beckenbauer) lives in Camden with their bestie, Chachki, with whom they organise Cataclysmic Foibles, ‘a quarterly series of DIY artist’s plays’ with a loyal following. Walking down the street one day, Sterling is preyed upon by a gang of rogue bullfighters. Although Sterling escapes unharmed, they are visited by Chachki, who has travelled back from the future to warn them to report the incident. When they fail to do so, Sterling is arrested for an unspecified crime and must prove their innocence, as well as their friends’.

Waidner has said that they tried to write an experimental and formally innovative novel that – surprise! – is also enjoyable to read. On their own terms, they have succeeded: it is rule-breaking (in terms of perspective, chronology and a stubbornly diffuse story) but also fast-paced, playful, often very funny and features sympathetic characters with relatable longings.

As indicated by the preceding paragraphs, it is not a book that takes itself overly seriously. Tonally, it is a world apart from the heavy weather of Kafka’s The Trial; it wears its absurdity in Day-Glo colours. And yet it has weighty concerns: the indefinite detention of failed asylum-seekers in immigration removal centres; hate crimes against gender-nonconforming, working-class and black bodies; HIV/AIDS-related deaths; and suicide, to name a few.

How comfortably do its surreal stylings sit with these very real concerns? Do the time-travelling antics (facilitated by comically antiquated technology, based on Google Street View) and characters plucked from Hieronymus Bosch hellscapes (‘the judge – a tall, blue-bodied frog, spindly, with the head of a fledgling bird’) illuminate or detract from contemporary political concerns? Waidner’s publisher, Peninsula Press, describes it as ‘a surreal inquiry into the real effects of state violence’, and I would argue that these two halves of the novel complement each other. Its tone is consistently one of joyous and optimistic defiance, in contrast to the pessimistic worldview that seems to underpin The Trial. It is less interested in the individual, subjective experience of oppression than in how those on the receiving end of oppressive social structures work to overthrow them by acts of creative (re-)imagination. As Chachki puts it, ‘correcting falsified narratives is important; but conjuring counter-realities even more so.’ Reading this, I was reminded of the closing lines of Shon Faye’s recent work, The Transgender Issue:

‘We are symbols of hope for many non-trans people, too, who see in our lives the possibility of living more fully and freely. That is why some people hate us: they are frightened by the gleaming opulence of our freedom’

Faye reminds us how dangerously easy it is for those experiencing structural oppression by mainstream society – those required to continually justify the terms of their own existence – to succumb to exhaustion and abandon hope. When Chachki recognises that the state prosecutor intends to ‘blindside us with counterfactuals’ and so decides to transform the trial into an amateur play rather than attempt to rebut every accusation, they are holding on to hope.

The world of Sterling Karat Gold – of Sterling and their friends, Elesin, Chachki and Rodney – may appear bizarre and frightening, but it also looks like a hell of a lot of fun. In the end, their ‘counter-reality’ proves too damned attractive to their would-be oppressors: even the merciless Judge is willing to trade their freedom for a starring role in Cataclysmic Foibles #41. The novel’s surrealism, then, is integral to its politics: not only as nightmarish satire of late capitalism and populist-authoritarian disruption, but as a vehicle for imagining better futures.

A collectivist spirit runs through the novel. When Sterling says that ‘what’s ‘different’ about Cataclysmic Foibles, its USP, is far less important to us than what’s shared; what connects Chachki and myself to contemporaries’, they may just as well be speaking for Waidner, who writes the equivalent of a running bibliography. Renaissance paintings featuring suspected UFOs, YouTube speeches and Beach Boys album covers are referenced, among others, not only as explicit references but as motifs woven into the text. For example, one chapter describes the impression made on Sterling by the cover of the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile LP, featuring miniaturised safari animals hidden in long grass; two chapters later, Sterling is inadvertently stomping these ‘cuties’ to death during football practice. This generous gesture towards transparency – the writer laying out their influences for all to see, not only those who read the backmatter – undercuts the culturally ingrained image of the lonely writer in their garret.

Moreover, and despite the titular character of Sterling, its narrative focus constantly shifts among Sterling’s group of friends, depending on who happens to need their help at any particular moment. We might have to forego clear character arcs as a result but in return we get a stronger sense of characters as social constructs, of how deeply each of us is made from pieces of the people around us. In an often fantastical and bizarre story, this also has the curious effect of making the characters feel more authentically real. It’s as if their narratives overlap, without neatly mapping onto, the outlines of the story – as if they exist independently of this book.

Sterling Karat Gold will not be to everyone’s taste. It’s not so much a drama enacted for your pleasure as a house party whose host has invited you in but then wanders off. It is dense and self-referential and a little bewildering, but also leaves you feeling de-centred (in a good way). In this sense, the novel’s hard-hitting themes and psychedelic oddities combine to generate an optimism quite at odds with Kafka’s pessimism. Waidner is not concerned with the heroic, solitary Robinson Crusoe model; this is a communal and solidaristic novel. In these divided times, let us be thankful for that.

About the Contributor

Sam Burt (he/him) is a bookseller and tutor in sunny east London. In 2021 he finished an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester and founded the East London Indie Book Club. His writing has appeared in Popshot Quarterly, The Guardian and 3:AM Magazine among others. He considers badminton a contact sport.

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