Whose Reality Is It Anyway

‘Sterling Karat Gold’ by Isabel Waidner



STERLING KARAT GOLD, the new novel by the London-based writer Isabel Waidner, begins in what we might call consensus reality: “I’m Sterling. Lost my father to AIDS, my mother to alcoholism. Lost my country to conservatism, my language to PTSD.” Relatable. But the novel tumbles headlong into a surrealism that harkens to Kafka and seems the only logical strategy to interact with a global culture gone mad with fascism. On top of a recognizably present-day England, Waidner constructs an apocalyptic, magical world that in its preposterousness resembles the truth on the ground for immigrants and queers: a police state where a traumatized populace strives to find communal joy in art making, theory, and camaraderie while under the thumb of Orwellian systems that have leveled up their means of oppression to otherworldly dimensions.

If the subject matter is grim, Waidner’s evident delight in this book’s jazzy unfurling of inventive elements—such as a DIY queer playhouse reminiscent of Kevin Killian’s poets’ theater—electrifies its prose. To borrow a turn of phrase with which the narrator, Sterling, describes Cataclysmic Foibles, the “anti-theater” hosted in a Camden Flat, “The objective was not to stage a convincing fantasy or simulation, but to glamorize the small part of reality we inhabited.”

This novel is unlike anything I’ve read recently, though I glimpsed elements reminiscent of other works I’ve consumed this season: the slo-mo, hyperrealistic mental breakdown of Chantal V. Johnson’s Post-traumatic; the trauma contagion at the heart of the horror flick Smile; the grotesque, bottle-brandishing mommy of the monster movie Barbarian; the fractal-like replication of intergenerational trauma in Leila Motley’s Nightcrawling; the legacy of colonialism as understood in Wakanda Forever. I could go on, lumping together esteemed works of literature with B movies and Marvel blockbusters. Highbrow or lowbrow, trauma is hot hot hot. So what if it took a bazillion years; the worst-case-scenario presidency; a fascist renaissance; an uprising spurred by the ongoing murder of Black people by the police force created to imprison, kill, and control them; and, oh yes, a global pandemic that has killed millions and destabilized everything from the economy to our intimate relationships? Whatever the cause, trauma is having a moment. Which means that writers of color, queer and trans artists, poor and self-taught creators—while still far from being the reigning queens in any real-world (i.e., bill-paying) way—are facing a larger culture that maybe is ready to listen.

Waidner, already an award-winning novelist, is a German queer who has resided forever in London—a punk, a freaky artist in possession of a raucous imagination. The way Waidner busts through walls of reality reminds me of the novelist Tao Lin, an influence on my own novel Black Wave (in which, for example, the narrator “Michelle” has kinky gunpoint sex with the actor Matt Dillon in a used bookstore). I remember reading Lin’s book Eeeee Eee Eeee on the bus one night, years ago, and becoming so engrossed that I missed my stop. Did Lin actually write a scene—and have it published—in which a pod of dolphins kills the writer Kate Braverman and also Sean Penn? Was that, like, legal? I didn’t know if I actually liked Eeeee Eee Eeee or was just dazzled by its chutzpah. On the one hand, I loved its playful buffoonery, undergirded by palpable angst. On the other, it reeked of that over-the-top, cartoonish writing native to guys who are unable to express any sort of vulnerability. And, indeed, Lin’s inescapable bro-ness came to a head in 2014, when he was accused of abuse and statutory rape by the person on which he’d based his autofictional novel Richard Yates (2010), which documents the twenty-something narrator’s abusive relationship with a teenager.

There is something to Lin’s voice and ongoing penchant to merge celebrity pop culture into an exaggerated version of “real life.” I took from Lin certain permissions, but part of what bugged me during my brief love/hate affair with his work was a suspicion that anyone who’s not a cis man has a harder time pulling it off. Wracking my brain for femmes who have dared to fuck up literature in similar ways, I emerge with Kathy Acker, who never really climbed out of the academic underground, and Valerie Solanas, who died of pneumonia in an SRO Hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Of course, Acker and Solanas did not warp reality for shits and giggles. Acker takes shots at the masculinist canon and fucked-up dads; Solanas satirically proposes doing off with men entirely. Waidner makes similarly absurdist moves and seems to need no permission. And it strikes me as a piece of cosmic justice that their wild, queer imagination has been published and feted widely; their three novels—Gaudy Bubble, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, and Sterling Karat Gold (originally published in the UK) have all been shortlisted for and/or won literary prizes.

Isabel Waidner.
Photo by Suzie Howell.

IF TRAUMA IS the subject of the moment, Sterling Karat Gold is unique in the way it balls up so many traumas—in the narrator’s case, of being orphaned, broke, queer/trans, an artist, intimate with immigrants who live in constant dystopian fear—into a glob of Play-Doh which they stuff through a grinder, producing colorful squiggles to be braided into a “plot” involving UK football culture, bullfights, time travel, fashion, government, white privilege, the justice system, spaceships, queer theater, and more.

Sterling’s gay father died of HIV, but Sterling spends a lot of the book thinking about and speaking (in interior monologues) to their stepfather, who is also dead. The stepfather is Justin Fashanu—a real person, though never anyone’s stepfather. Fashanu was a superstar British footballer who, in 1990, became the first in the game to come out as queer; in 1998, he killed himself following allegations of sexual assault against a teen. He left a suicide note attesting to lack of faith in any sort of fair trial, due to his queerness. The crux of Sterling Karat Gold is a trial, unfair from the start, based on hallucinogenic, Boschian corruptions of power and justice. Sterling’s trial has seemingly nothing to do with Fashanu’s pending litigation, except everything in this book is mixed up with everything else, like a paranoid’s interpretation of life. Even the name of the art project, Cataclysmic Foibles, is explained (mentally, to Fashanu), thusly: “Everything meant something then . . . the name . . . referred to a state of precarity in which any foible, character flaw, or momentary slip-up can and will have cataclysmic personal consequences.” Elaborating to his dead stepfather, Sterling recounts a particular show, No. 19: “[It] came to symbolize a moment that was so incongruous and out of context with whatever appeared to be going on superficially, it offered a glimpse of hidden reality, was very instructive.” And here, Sterling offers a legend to the map of reality this novel charts: “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.”

I have it on authority that Waidner is an Aquarian. It takes an Aquarian’s detached and far-reaching vision to create a work like Sterling Karat Gold, which attempts to fuse the personal and political into an unabashedly queer phantasm grappling with nothing less than the entirety of fascism, with us wormy humans’ obsession with power-over. Such an ambition could only be translated through the surreal, the fantastic, the absurd. Waidner has made of it all a daring masterpiece, messy and bizarre, yet precise and witty and brainy as something by an AFAB David Lynch, or a nonbinary Valerie Solanas or Kathy Acker born into an era that would actually listen to them. An era that needs this kind of wild and brilliant conjuring.

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