A Review of Isabel Waidner’s Sterling Karat Gold

(…) we were kids, didn’t care for precise or even correct use of words, we still don’t, we care for their capacity to give life, and to take it away.

So says Sterling Beckenbauer, the narrator of Isabel Waidner’s Sterling Karat Gold, which was published and won the Goldsmiths Prize in the UK in 2021, before being made available to American readers in 2023 by Graywolf Press. The principle of indifference to precision and correctness in favor of words’ “capacity to give life”—which will come to mean their legal and narrative function—is supposed to justify lexical mess, grammatical mess too as above, and make a grim promise about novelistic justice. One is reminded of standup comedian Mitch Hedberg’s joke: “I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too,” but Sterling Karat Gold’s language has no such awareness of its ambiguities. The novel is sincere, strident, and unforgivably zany. Imagine someone chanting with a raised and clenched fist, nonetheless riding a unicycle. Waidner is a German-British writer based in London, “with a specialism in interdisciplinary and innovative forms of creative writing at the intersection with queer and trans theory,” the editor of Liberating the Canon: an Anthology of Innovative Literature, as well as the author of We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, Gaudy Bauble, and this latest effort.

The narrator of Sterling Karat Gold is a youngish non-binary immigrant living in Camden Town, with a fiction-modified version of retired German soccer player Franz Beckenbauer for a father, and a nameless alcoholic and shopaholic for a mother, both long absent. With a local friend named Chachki Smok, Sterling runs a Patreon supported DIY theater called “Cataclysmic Foibles,” which has some relationship to London’s performance art scene. The novel is written in the present tense, and its plot proper begins after just three introductory sentences. Sterling, dressed in a bullfighter’s jacket and hat, is walking in Camden. The neighborhood is home to prowling, actual bullfighters too, who attack Sterling in a surreal and somewhat slapstick sequence. Someone in trackie bottoms and a jumper named Rodney Fadel intervenes and helps Sterling get away. The attack is apparently motivated by bigotry, and is also a set-up. Sterling, who has noted that bulls are manipulated into aggression to justify the matador’s violence, is arrested shortly after for assaulting one of the bullfighters. There’s a lot more weird stuff with animals ahead, with references to Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights—in prison Sterling has to get along with a gray giraffe, a “micro-dragon,” an ocher boar, etc. Sterling’s trial is farcical—the raucous “Cataclysmic Foibles” becomes relevant to the plot, and a futuristic vehicle’s Google Earth application is used to do some time and space travel which inserts tab A into slot B and explains some of the character background. The UK’s dubious order is challenged by the righteous and playful defiance of Sterling, Chachki, Rodney, and other eccentric collaborators.

The Goldsmiths Prize is given to a fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form.” What is new or striking in the form of Sterling Karat Gold? The twelve chapters are given playfully long titles, e.g. “11. The past is preferable to the present I came from.” The acceleration of the story is effective, if not unprecedented. Before the time travel starts around halfway, settings such as an improvised courtroom where Sterling’s trial is held are given more texture, peopled with Londoners who “look a lot like fifteenth-century angels and scorpions”; after the time traveling spaceship shows, things get very hasty as the friends rush from Guatemala, to Baghdad, to Chicago, and so on. The ending is perhaps less shocking than the author had wished, and upon closing the book there is no conviction that the author is onto anything new with its design. In searching at the sentence level for formal innovation, one only comes up with the consistent omission of the word “to” as in “I’m prepared to go every North London football club.” Sterling’s and Chachki’s tendency to say “is” in place of “it’s” is another quirk, maybe auto-fictional but similarly irritating because it appears contrived. Perhaps the literary commendation was given for the all-caps outbursts (“GOAL! !! GOOAAL!!!!!!), for the playful substitution of “Numero” for number, or for the would-be onomatopoeic custom words (“we swiiiiiiiiiiiii-ing round the globe in our spaceship”). Or the occasional nonsensical word combinations (“unscrupulous rancour,” “system of flaccid understandings”) might be recognized as innovation of a different sort.

That second one, the “system of flaccid understandings,” which we may as well call an arrangement of flimsy accords, or an order of limp comprehensions, is a little sample of Waidner’s insight as a critical theorist; it’s the UK’s legal system that is given this mocking definition. Many more of Waidner’s own insights are brought into the story. Thus one reads in Sterling Karat Gold of carceral and juridical arms of the state, of the “historical juncture,” “precarity,” people referred to as “bodies.” Subtler in social justice talk is the tendency toward pleonasm—think “actively engage” or “ongoing conversation”—which is found here too when Sterling’s homophobic father goes up to the counter at a döner shop and “vocally orders [emphasis mine] a side of faggots, ‘for these two’, meaning Rodney and myself.” Much as the story was presumably devised with these ideas in mind, they are not easily incorporated into a fiction that also intends lightness and humor. Chapter four, the rambling “My father’s lover was never the stepdad I wanted him to be,” is an opportunity for both detail on Sterling’s background and the release of various political concerns as if they were the contents of an unzipped backpack inverted over a table. To wit: capitalism, “discreet neo-authoritarian governance,” racism in the provinces, homophobia in the locker rooms, and most galling, the “tinge of transphobia in the suggestions that [Sterling], with no recourse to cis masculinity, wouldn’t be able to handle” cleaning a bathhouse called Chariots Roman Spa.

Once time travel is introduced to Sterling Karat Gold, the drama is compromised, or at least complicated; the dead can return, many of those injustices can be rectified. There is now the interesting business of causation’s direction, but without the promise of permanent effects. Waidner makes meta-fictional note of the increased power, which would seem to lower the novel’s cultural status: “Know that we bring people back round here if we have to, like this were a TV soap.” This aside also enfolds others around the singular author, as if Sterling’s collective of friends has decided on plot points together. It’s a funny and odd way to channel working class Camden Town tastes and connect the two mediums in a novel that nonetheless could have used much more novelistic craft. Waidner’s theme, the corral in which all the political sub-themes jostle, is something much bigger than the novel: fiction tout court (i.e. untruths, many relating to identity, which constrain or even incarcerate people). And it is in using its new freedom, and asserting against these fictions its own stubborn story, that a novel is supposed to have any political edge. So when Sterling Karat Gold reverses the roles of warden and prisoner, there is much resentment and retribution:

Is this the moment he realises what he has let himself in for? What it means for him to give up control, even if temporarily and in the context of an artistic performance? What it’s like to exist on someone else’s terms? In someone else’s violent fiction?


Kazuo Robinson

Kazuo Robinson is a writer based in New York. He runs a Substack at kazuorobinson.substack.com where he writes all about fiction. You can find him on Twitter @rudedaubings

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