Queer BIPOC buddy story meets post-Brexit dystopia meets Hieronymus Bosch meets Kafka: the pleasures of Isabel Waidner’s subversive new novel.
Sterling Karat Gold, by Isabel Waidner, Graywolf Press, 181 pages, $16
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Isabel Waidner’s exhilarating, time-traveling, UFO-flying, Goldsmith’s Prize–winning Sterling Karat Gold, their third novel, is narrated by the eponymous Sterling, a migrant cleaner in North London, who delivers one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve ever read:
I’m Sterling. Lost my father to AIDS, my mother to alcoholism. Lost my country to conservativism, my language to PTSD. Got this England, though. Got this body, this sterling heart.
Percussive with missing subjects and dropped verbs, the passage sets both tone and scene for the novel: dystopic post-Brexit Britain, with its “compassionate-conservative” politics. Here, Sterling, alongside their three closest friends, battles the state’s surreal reach into their lives. The book feels partly like a queer BIPOC buddy story, where the buddies are Elesin Colescott, a sex worker; Chachki Smok, a late-in-life art-college student; Rodney Fadel, a Citizen’s Advice worker; and Sterling, an office cleaner; and where they read like superheroes. Or the superheroes I want.
Laying out this shape-shifting buddy story in a linear way is impossible, but the barest of summaries would be: Sterling is attacked, arrested, and subjected to an arbitrary test, then awaits trial at an “immigration removal centre” reserved for “failed asylum-seekers and others.” Sterling is obviously “and others,” the officials say, as they run through a decade’s worth of shifting Tory immigration policy. It’s hard to compete with the IRL insanity of the UK, where the government is planning to ship asylum seekers to Rwanda, and surveillance cameras have long formed what’s called a “ring of steel” around the city of London. The attack on Sterling, though, is a bullfight—which is no metaphor for anti-trans, anti-immigrant violence but an actual bullfight, state-sanctioned, or, at least, state-tolerated, in which Sterling is forced to be the bull. The test is a soccer-dribble drill two officers make Sterling perform. The detention center is taken directly from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, and Sterling’s trial is The Trial, a recreation of Kafka’s novel, the judge a half-frog, half-bird from Bosch’s painting, all of which feels possible and even probable in contemporary Britain. And, all of which is also very funny. With its multiple overlapping cataclysms, in SKG there could easily be tears (at times, reading, I did want to cry), but the situation is so ridiculous, the impulse to weep can turn into laughter—a far more explosive sound.
The orphaned Sterling had originally come to London from Germany at seventeen, searching for their maybe-real, maybe-imaginary stepdad Justin Fashanu. An actual Black British footballer, Fashanu, who grew up in foster care, was loved by fans, then cast out because he came out. He hung himself in 1998 just after leaving the legendary London bathhouse, Chariots Roman Spa, outside of which, a few years later, Sterling met their best friend, the British-Polish Chachki Smok, “a big, white faggot, brutal looking, with critical acumen and a strong love for their mother.” In short order the two began Cataclysmic Foibles, their quarterly performance duo, which continues, like their friendship, into the present of the novel, twenty years on.
The way Waidner describes the Foibles could set out SKG’s theory and thesis: that art and literature have the power to shape and define us, and we can take that power for ourselves, whatever “we” that may be. The name Cataclysmic Foibles, Sterling says, “referred to a state of precarity in which any foible, character flaw, or momentary slip up can and will have cataclysmic personal consequences,” like strolling down a street in North London wearing a shirt as a skirt—which Sterling is doing when they’re attacked. “That’s why,” Sterling explains to the imaginary Fashanu and us readers, “we developed a language around it, we were kids, didn’t care for the precise or even correct use of words, we still don’t, we care for their capacity to give life, and to take it away.”
In SKG words create worlds; art does, too, and early in the novel, Sterling declares: “But I won’t, leave Art alone,” as they call out the racism they see in the 1890s bronze sculpture End of the Trail, whose slumping Indigenous warrior has been repeated through the decades. Then, there’s language’s capacity to take away, where hate comes hidden in the doublespeak of the detention authority, as well as in the civic realm. Waidner tracks it in essayistic asides. Sterling’s friend Elesin lives in Fairfield House, about which Sterling delivers a small half-paragraph on the etymology of “fair” and its connection to whiteness. (Elesin is also painter Robert H. Colescott’s fictional horseman come to life from his 1976 version of End of the Trail, wearing the composition’s Y-fronts and Converse.) The exhortation not to leave art alone signals readers to trust our instincts and experiences, as well as to believe the ways Waidner renders London with a daring mix of fact and fantasy. It’s a city where the bullfight, as Chachki says, “is like the logical extension of class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.”
In interviews, Waidner talks about wresting the avant-garde from expensively educated elites and staking it out as an intersection of populism, poetry, and pop culture. Waidner and their characters inhabit language, subvert it, appropriate it, occupy and expose it. The book’s dialogue itself hews to the diction and cadence of London’s queer immigrant working class. Their list of references at the back includes everything from student fashion degree shows to Beach Boys albums, and, early in the novel, they situate the Foibles in the lineage of Kevin Killian’s plays and Black British playwright and academic Mojisola Adebayo’s Afriquia Theatre.
What I find profound is the humor and joy in all of this, even as the writing exposes patriarchy and suggests strategies to subvert it. In English, sentences with their beginnings, middles, and ends come carrying progress. So, too, most novels with plots moving on to a resolution. Waidner explodes those expectations from the sentence up. Their truncated speech and time-traveling narrative refuse the dictates of Western time and all its assumptions of capitalism and conquering. “A foible [is] something that catches,” Waidner writes, “that you may get caught up in . . . doing similar symbolic work, see?” Reading this at a time when late capitalism feels difficult to resist, when it feels like there are few ways to fight back against the cataclysm of our contemporary reality, I love how that sentence ends on a question, a direction for how we can find our own symbolic work.
Then, there are SKG’s UFOs. They’re straight out of early Renaissance paintings, where the Annunciation arrives in a beam-me-up-Scotty ray of light. Waidner also links the spaceships to an anonymous fifteenth-century altar in Kosovo, where the morning star looks like a flying saucer. The UFOs navigate using Google Street View, introduced in the novel with a short exegesis on the technology’s historical links to US colonial-capitalist exploitation. They are key to the plot, though detailing how risks not just giving away too much but also straightening out the story and making it obey the laws of our world. The narrative depends on loops and glitches circling through time. Suffice it to say that ultimately there is love and revenge.
SKG’s power comes from the wide-ranging creativity and openness of Waidner’s mind and their challenge not to leave art alone, daring us not to either. Daring us to trust our imagination, because the imagination is a weapon, too. So, too, is humor, which is why, in Waidner’s hands, the world the imagination creates is also funny. And so, too, is love—which abounds between Sterling and their friends.
Jennifer Kabat’s books Gentian and Nightshining will be published by Milkweed Editions in 2024. Her writing has been in Best American Essays, Granta, BOMB, Harper’s, and McSweeney’s. She lives in rural upstate New York and serves on her volunteer fire department.