Larger than Life

Isabel Waidner, Sterling Karat Gold

Peninsula Press, 192pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781913512040

reviewed by Tobias Carroll

Fiction that successfully moves between trenchant political concerns and unabated dreamlike logic and imagery is a rare thing to come across. Flann O’Brien’s works, at once madcap and tragic, come to mind; so too does Norman Lock’s fiction, which has a penchant for blending historical resonance with dream logic. And the short fiction that first put George Saunders on the map also unites politically conscious themes with frenetic imagery. Isabel Waider’s work likewise exists in a near-constant state of flux between the lucid and the conceptual, while simultaneously raising urgent points about the much less delirious world in which it’s been published.

It’s no coincidence that the titles of their three novels — Gaudy Bauble, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, and Sterling Karat Gold — all gesture towards distinctly tactile and visual elements. These are novels that embrace breakneck shifts between psychological realism and cartoonish imagery, offering a distinctly modern and even futuristic take on fictional delirium. It’s not for nothing that Waidner’s last two books have been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, with Sterling Karat Gold winning the award earlier this month.

Summarising Sterling Karat Gold is both relatively easy and head-spinningly difficult. On one hand, it’s about a protagonist, Sterling, who finds themselves on trial for a bizarre series of charges that they barely understand. On the other, it’s about ritual, memory, performance art and violence. Waidner’s approach abounds with larger-than-life elements, including doppelgangers, allusions to famous soccer players, and using Google Maps to travel through time. While this lends Sterling Karat Gold a madly playful creative energy, that element is balanced out with a strong sense of the elegiac, and a highly concentrated anxiety about the reactionary politics of present-day Britain.

‘Did I elicit the violence, or did I just fail to prevent it from happening?’ So ponders Sterling early on in the novel, after they’re attacked in the middle of the city by a squad of bullfighters. ‘The whole of Camden Town is one big, unsung bullfight,’ Sterling muses after the violence has come to an end — but the sense of violence and competition following some underlying structure persists. The actual bullfight incorporates aspects of soccer, including Sterling asking an absent referee to issue a yellow card to one of their tormentors.

Both soccer and bullfighting continue as motifs throughout the book, including some deep cuts: there’s a reference to the second-division German team Karlsruher SC in the novel’s opening pages, and a key scene takes place at a Hendon FC game; Sterling also alludes to their father being the legendary player Franz Beckenbauer. Alongside sport, Sterling Karat Gold features two other formalised, structured institutions. One is Cataclysmic Foibles, which Sterling describes as ‘a quarterly series of DIY artists’ plays’ that Sterling and ‘bestie’ Chachki Smok, began performing in 2002 or 2003. The other is a trial where Sterling finds themselves forced to defend themselves, persecuted for the attack on them that opened the novel. Gradually, the lines between the trial and Cataclysmic Foibles begin to blur, the anarchic and the structured losing definition and converging.

The sense of Sterling being trapped in an oppressive and unyielding system expands to a broader threat to queer and immigrant lives, with a comment that Chachki makes earlier in the novel hovering ominously over the proceedings and reminding the reader of nationalism and ritualised violence. Those political themes are also summoned up by the opening paragraph of the book:

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.

This paragraph serves an overture of sorts — and the way that Sterling shows up as both name and adjective anticipates the linguistic fluidity of the novel, where things move from the physical to the metaphorical and back again. Certain elements of Sterling Karat Gold feel more symbolically charged than others — such as the monstrous judge who presides over Sterling’s trial — but this novel also resists being read on a purely symbolic level. This is not a work of realist fiction, even though the emotions and conditions it describes, such as familial alienation, national identity, and the constant threat of reactionary violence against trans and gender non-binary individuals, warrant urgent consideration.

It’s also worth mentioning that some of Waidner’s language is absolutely stunning — a chapter about the life and times of Justin Fashanu, the first openly gay men’s soccer player, is written in a free-flowing style unlike anything else in the novel. Waidner writes:

Justin Fashanu we want you, we love you, the way you volleyed it in with your left foot from way outside the box, the way you spun round and slipped it between the goalkeeper’s hand and the right post, your teammates jumped you like only footballers playing on the exact same team jump each other when one of them scores.

Some phrases are perfectly wrought, such as Sterling’s declaration that ‘[m]y first language is rendered in aspic.’ Sometimes the delirious aspects of Sterling Karat Gold come off in the imagery and juxtapositions; here, they feel like they’ve been translated into a headlong transmission halfway between memory and meditation.

Two moments — one halfway through the novel, and one at its conclusion — offer a haunting summary of all that transpires in its pages. During Sterling’s trial, Chachki is called to the stand and asked if Sterling ‘at least partly exist[s] in a dreamland of their own making.’ And when the novel reaches its conclusion in a harrowing echo of its opening’s scene of ritual violence, Sterling poses a pair of haunting questions: ‘What’s it like to exist on someone else’s terms? In someone else’s violent fiction?’ In the gulf between those two spaces — that is, a dreamland of your own making and someone else’s violent fiction — you’ll find Sterling Karat Gold. The delirium this novel imparts is all too clarifying.

Tobias Carroll is the author of three books: Political Sign, Reel, and Transitory. He is the managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn and writes the Watchlist column for Words Without Borders.