Reviewed: Isabel Waidner, Sterling Karat Gold, Peninsula Press, 192 pp.
Sterling Karat Gold is a wild read—and for a slim novel, a lot of work. Not laborious or boring work, though: more that the sheer profusion of stuff means you, the reader, can’t drop your attention for a second. This is a rarer demand from a book than one might expect, amid a sea of contemporary fiction comprising increasingly what novelist and critic Brandon Taylor has called (to paraphrase) minimalist novels of consciousness—aesthetic moods designed to wash over you as you sip your batch brew in a linen robe and ponder your own ontological credibility.1 Isabel Waidner’s manic, delirious third novel does the opposite, slamming together geopolitics, trans activism, Hieronymous Bosch and (much) more. Kaleidoscopic fragments taken from pop culture, sport, and time travel form an intricate narrative; the oppressive nature of surveillance technology and the police state is claustrophobically invoked. To take all this in, one must let go of default reading modes where linear plot and clear understanding of reality (or unreality) hold court. Only then—dazed, slightly exhausted—can you follow Waidner’s vast, violent, extremely serious joke. It feels like reading in 3D.
Waidner has described their work as ‘interdisciplinary writing’ or ‘transliteracy’—prose deployed to un-repress text as a medium, using puns, concertinaed references, other art forms. Their first two novels, Gaudy Bauble (2017) and We Are Made of Diamond Stuff (2019), are committed to the same project: challenging the mechanics of ‘literature’ in its most conventional sense through new forms and voices, exploding the publishing industry’s status quo and, hopefully, culture itself. ‘This is how we redo canonical,’ Waidner writes in their introduction to the anthology Liberating the Canon (2018). ‘Diversify the discipline and the literature itself will change.’
Waidner crafts their narrative with these provocations in mind: Sterling Karat Gold opens with Sterling (who is non-binary) on their way home one day in London. They are attacked by a gang of mounted bullfighters for apparently wearing the wrong clothes (a bullfighter’s jacket and hat). The book is punctuated by this kind of dream logic—if you are so bold as to put on a montera, thugs on horseback will come after you with banderillas. And as soon as Waidner gets an image like this down, they pile it with meaning. In a bullfight, as Sterling’s best friend Chachki points out, ‘the bull always dies’. Bullfighters—as glorified agents of ritualised, asymmetric violence—become a metaphor for the transphobic attacks endorsed by the rhetoric of the nation-state. And since we’re in England, Waidner gives the bullfighters Saint George colours on their stabbing sticks—Saint George being the patron saint of English nationalism, Brexit and/or whatever the state reviles or denotes as a threat.
But Sterling doesn’t die. They are rescued at the last second by an acquaintance, ‘dishy af’ Rodney. Sterling then lies low, putting on dragon costumes with Chachki and maybe trying to score a date. But no-one is surprised when the head bullfighter presses charges. From here, things bounce loosely off Kafka’s The Trial.
As in the case of Josef K., haunted by a ‘false accusation’ from offstage, the state initially declines to explain Sterling’s alleged wrongdoing (they are, literally, ‘accused of blah’). The real issue eventually emerges: Cataclysmic Foibles, a performance night Sterling runs with Chachki in their home. These shows—chaotic, low-budget, creative, communal—are the antithesis of a totalitarian state, a threat to social order made incarnate. The authorities are riled. The machinery of the court starts to turn. In Sterling Karat Gold, just like in The Trial, a voyeuristic bureaucracy inserts itself into the citizen’s intimate world: the court case is held in the bedroom, making visible the structures that, as Waidner has noted, ‘tend to recede into the background’ in (literary) work produced from privileged positions.2 Sterling’s room is overrun with matadors, lawyers, judge, jury, spectators. The crowd screams Sterling’s team down, wields their identity against them, ignores and destroys their evidence.
The court calls a lunch break. The judge—the mean-looking, bird-headed frog from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights—zooms off in a spaceship. Of course, as made evident throughout the novel, a spaceship is never just a spaceship. It’s a Sterling–Chachki in-joke: their code-word for contact with the state’s ‘hidden reality’, inspired by an incongruous rocket-shaped piñata in an old Cataclysmic Foibles show. And as much as Sterling likes the metaphor, they’re disturbed when a real one shows up. They try to think of other weird spaceship cameos: What do they mean? Why are they there? Sterling considers the Crucifixion of Christ (1350), a monastery fresco that features—alongside Christ—two tiny pilots in what look like spiky UFOs ‘cruising the Kosovan skies’.
Next second, one of those pulls up outside the bedroom. The pilot, as it turns out, is Rodney! And, conveniently, for a bunch of friends whose legal proceedings are going from bad to worse, Rodney’s medieval rocket can time travel. (It uses Google Maps and Street View—which, as Sterling observes, ‘involve a level of time travel by default’.) They travel back to a baby Chachki, whose present-day dragon costumes are Waidner’s homage to designer Nasir Mazhar’s psychedelic, genderqueer fashion label Fantastic Toiles—and look just like the fresco spaceships: cheerful orbs festooned with large spikes.
Indeed, if Waidner’s aim is to ‘un-repress the multiplicity of text’, their attempt at tying together medieval art, Kafka, north-London grime designers and contemporary ethno-nationalism by way of a time-space travel plot is thrilling. Without visual accompaniment, Waidner’s narrative relies on the reader’s imagination—characters are constructed from paintings, history and internet miscellanea. Even for the uninformed (including me), this flood of references provides an extratextuality that elicits the feeling of a treasure hunt. For example, Sterling and Chachki’s friend Elesin Colescott is the ‘son’ of the painter Robert Colescott: specifically, Elesin is the figure in Colescott’s The End of the Trail (1976). And as with Mazhar’s clothing line and the frescoes, many other fragments are pulled from real life: Shoreditch’s Chariots Roman Spa (‘RIP, oh gentrification’); minute-by-minute football commentary from 2020; the work of writers such as Juliet Jacques, Sophia Al-Maria, Kevin Killian. Footballer Justin Fashanu features; so does Saddam Hussein. French sex worker, trade unionist, LGBTIQ+ activist and former Guardian columnist Thierry Schaffauser makes a cameo too, teaching Elesin about ‘the interconnectedness of all liberation struggles’.
Waidner, discussing their second novel, the similarly insurrectionist We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, describes this as ‘a citational politics that evokes a community of highly innovative, Black, POC, queer and working-class writers’—a deliberate counter to marginalisation. Sterling and Chachki’s Cataclysmic Foibles operates on the same ideals, ‘not to stage a convincing fantasy or simulation, but to glamorise the small part of reality we inhabited … correcting falsified narratives is important; but conjuring counter-realities even more so’. This is precisely Waidner’s project: not just rejecting calcified structures of privilege but using creative forms to bust open new alternatives.
Sterling’s voice (tired, wired, confiding) might string this seething mass of ideas together, but at no point is Sterling Karat Gold a relaxing read; Waidner has told the Guardian that producing tension and energy is ‘one of the things I like to do in my fiction’. It’s risky to keep pulling the spring of the reader’s attention tighter and tighter without respite. But the energetic charge Waidner creates is kept afloat by constant play—jokes, meet-cutes, visual and linguistic puns—in which the author trusts the reader to ‘get it’ (or at least, discover for themselves). The pay-off is there if you do. Yet the politics in Sterling Karat Gold is delivered somewhat heavy-handedly. Something is lost there—some sense of mutuality. This could be part of Waidner’s intentional, neon barrage, but it could also be that the gains are still too new to risk any message slipping through the cracks.
Waidner has called the British novel ‘a—if not the—technology for the reproduction of white middle-class values, aesthetics and a certain type of “acceptable” nationalism’. They propose a counter-reality in the hyper-saturated principles of Sterling Karat Gold—friendship, solidarity, art. When everyone Sterling cares about is harassed, arrested, incarcerated, they inevitably blame themselves. As in The Trial, keeping one’s head down becomes drearily attractive. However, unlike Josef K., Sterling has friends, fans and another Cataclysmic Foibles show to put on—the community creates and preserves a place outside the state.
Waidner has described their writing practice as ‘disidentificatory’3—a ‘minority subjectivity … neither with, nor fully against canonical works of avant-garde literature’. The author has been shortlisted twice for the Goldsmiths Prize, and, for Sterling Karat Gold, won it in 2021. But ‘canonical avant-garde’ can be a messy concept: as any authorial subjectivity garners recognition, readers and imitators, can it retain its destabilising potential? Contributor to Liberating the Canon Jess Arndt lays out the underlying dilemma: ‘how to write with politics that don’t collapse into rhetorical moves or language’. To put it another way, how do you tell a story and yet resist the convenient, deadening conventions of ‘story’? How does the writer articulate the language and structures of injustice coherently, without making it digestible?
Waidner, like Kafka, finds the solution in violence—the insoluble reality that must be shown, that wrenches their work out of cliché, abstraction or allegory. Violence exceeds language and meaning, making rhetoric impossible. In The Trial and Sterling Karat Gold the capitalist, colonialist state’s violence exposes its meaning-making as farce, its mandate as a lie. A stunningly violent act is the only way either novel can end—but they point different ways: Kafka to a hopeless void; Waidner to a furious black hole of potential. The spring of your attention, finally released, shatters. No chance of a book washing over you when it hits you in the face. •
Imogen Dewey is a writer, editor and journalist.
- Brandon Taylor, ‘bobos in ikea’, <https://blgtylr.substack.com/p/bobos-in-ikea>.
- Thom Cuell, ‘The Potent Mythology of the English Riviera—an Interview with Isabel Waidner’, <https://minorliteratures.com/2019/07/16/the-potent-mythology-of-the-english-riviera-an-interview-with-isabel-waidner-by-thom-cuell/>.
- Isabel Waidner, ‘Class, Queers and the Avant-Garde’, Institute of Contemporary Art,