It’s extremely rare to read a first paragraph of a novel that makes you punch the air and say “yes!”. This is what happened when I opened Isabel Waidner’s third novel, Sterling Karat Gold, winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize for fiction.
“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.”
How could a statement about loss be so energetic, so confident, so generous? It’s not easy to be generous or confident if, like the novel’s narrator, you’re a non-binary migrant cleaner under attack. But this opening immediately sets out Waidner’s ambitions: to introduce us to a working class, queer community that we haven’t yet encountered in literature – and to do so with an enormous sense of fun.
Waidner, who identifies as non-binary, writes about class, nationalism and art with a combination of incandescent rage and surreal humour. They have written two other novels, Gaudy Bauble (2017) and We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, which was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2019. Born in Germany in 1974, they have lived for more than two decades in London, where Sterling Karat Gold is mostly set.
After the punchy first paragraph, Waidner takes us straight into a bullfight in Camden Town. Sterling Beckenbauer, wearing a football shirt as a skirt and a black montera, is set upon by a picador, a matador and some banderilleros wrapped in the colours of the St George’s Cross. But it’s Sterling – who arrived in Britain alone as a teenager and who built a life from nothing – who is arrested, placed in a detention centre in Margate and put on trial. As they are terrorised by absurd, frequently violent representatives of the state (including a corrupt judge who looks like a frog and sits on a toilet throne) it becomes clear that the game is rigged.
But they have other forms of escape. Sterling and their artistic collaborator, Chachki, a Polish fashion student, run a DIY theatre group, Cataclysmic Foibles, performing madcap plays in Sterling’s tiny flat. Chachki introduces them to a friend who can hack through the space-time continuum using Google Earth.
“Cataclysmic Foibles… came to symbolise a moment that was so incongruous and out of context with whatever appeared to be going on superficially,” Sterling says, “it offered a glimpse of a hidden reality, was very instructive, it taught us to trust the feeling we had that we were non-consensual participants in a reality put together by politicians, despots, more or less openly authoritarian leaders.”
The lives of marginalised people are so often portrayed as miserable and dour rather than joyous and hilarious. But Sterling Karat Gold finds poetry and pleasure in this community, its creativity, its diversity, its defiance. Its imagery and cultural references are rarely drawn from literature but music, art, fashion, football and theatre. A 15th-century Hieronymus Bosch hell panel is discussed alongside Adidas White Angel trainers by Jeremy Scott. And Waidner is as fascinated by the career of Justin Fashanu, Britain’s first openly gay footballer, as they are by that of the painter Robert H Colescott.
Waidner believes that the British novel tends to reproduce white middle-class values and aesthetics. They want to push it on and show that you can “engage with reality critically while offering creative escape routes”. Funny, dreamlike, grotesque, Sterling Karat Gold sets its own terms.
Johanna Thomas-Corr was a judge for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize. Isabel Waidner will be in conversation at Cambridge Literary Festival’s virtual Winter Festival on 18 November.
This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos