There’s no better ballast for a fantasy narrative, something solid to keep all the impossible elements grounded (time travel, biodrones), than a numbered bus route: ‘the 88 bus passes by noisily’; ‘the 214 bus from Pratt Street to Old Street’. In Sterling Karat Gold, the Goldsmiths Prize winning novel of 2021, Isabel Waidner showed a shrewd sense of how to balance registers. In the world of the book there are small mutant creatures – ‘cuties’ – resembling or genetically based on boars and giraffes (among other animals), which are both potentially dangerous and somehow legally protected. But there are also passages that soberly describe a recognisable London:
Where aerial bombing left dents in the terraces, social housing went up post-WW2. Chachki’s brown-brick, low-rise estate, L-shaped at the corner with Arlington being one example, typical with its external walkways along the façade connecting the blue or black front doors of the flats on the first and second floors. Small windows are designed to reduce traffic noise – deceptively residential, Delancey Street is a major through road connecting Camden to Central, with two bus routes running along it all days of the week.
This is closer in tone to a Pevsner guide than to psychogeography of the Iain Sinclair school.
Waidner seems to be revisiting the distinction made by Iris Murdoch in Under the Net that some parts of London are necessary, others contingent. The ontological standing of Camden Town is high in Sterling Karat Gold, with the Fairfield and Three Fields estates glowing particularly brightly, but there are other hotspots that can claim super-contingent status, such as Chariots Roman Spa, a gay sauna in Shoreditch, though for a melancholy reason. It was the last place the gay black footballer Justin Fashanu visited before his suicide in 1998.
In general though, reality is prone to rippling or laddering. Sterling, who is wearing elements of a bullfighter costume (red velvet jacket and a black montera hat) along with a white football shirt, yellow socks and black loafers, is confronted by a group of toreros wielding English-branded banderillas – barbed sticks wrapped in the colours of the St George’s Cross. Soon three or four banderillas are hanging from Sterling’s shoulders ‘like patriotic hair pins’. Sterling, the victim, is charged with assault by the assailant, Nimo Bosch, whose surname (there’s also a Hiero Moussi involved in the case) is echoed in the grotesque imagery of the judicial proceedings: ‘At the head of the courtroom, the judge’s highchair … On top of the chair sits the judge – a tall, blue-bodied frog, spindly, with the head of a fledgling bird. A rose-coloured sash wraps round his lap, then drapes onto the floor in front of him. On his head, a cauldron as a hat.’
Recognisable daily reality doesn’t disappear for good. The authoritative factual tone used to describe the housing estate is produced on special occasions. Waidner favours a hybrid, even mutated, form able to sprout wings without losing its sharp little teeth. Sterling is kept in detention in Margate pending trial, and the unfairness of this is not personalised but laid out in statistical terms: ‘Of everyone leaving detention in the last decade, 66 per cent were detained for less than 29 days, 17 per cent for 29 days to under two months, 14 per cent for two months to six months, 3 per cent for six months to a year, and just under 1 per cent were detained for a year or longer.’
The book’s genre might be described as ludic dystopia. Sterling offers various versions of personal history, starting in the first paragraph: ‘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.’ The threefold ‘this’ is classic rhetorical heart-stirring, and though you might expect ‘Britain’ in so multiculturally aware a book, there’s no question which word taps into a deeper vein of feeling (later on it’s a ‘big British heart’).
Other riffs overlay this first version with half-comic fantasy, while leaving the possibility that it is in some way true: ‘My father, Franz Beckenbauer, played for Birth-Town FC. He used to carry my sister in one arm, myself in the other, practising kick-ups. I lost him to penalty shootouts and my sister to international migration.’ Or:
I lost my father, Franz Beckenbauer, to his serial gay love affairs. During the 1980s and 90s he fucked his way through the intergenerational fantasy football league. Fucked Karlheinz Förster. Fucked Jürgen Klinsmann. My father’s betrayal got to my mother, even through the barbiturate haze. I lost her to that. I lost her to a variety of prescription drugs and to magnum bottles of Asti Spumante. Ultimately, I lost her to Lidl champagne flutes.
Later elaborations add to the Beckenbauer storyline, and propose Fashanu as a stepfather figure, although one who obliquely enlarges the family trauma: ‘I lost my mother to a bottomless money hole and my birth country to an area code. My first language is rendered in aspic, and I no longer know what to say to my sister, nor how.’ No family member is a presence in the book.
The book’s science fiction elements come in charmingly homely, even dinky versions. The time machine/spaceship seems to be run on the same basis as Street View: you follow white arrows and can’t enter buildings. When Sterling’s best friend, Chachki Smok, returns from an excursion to the near future, it’s with some clothing advice that Sterling rejects on style grounds. Does two-tone clothing really confuse identification software? It seems both absurdly plausible and plausibly absurd, like the three pints of beer Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is advised to down immediately before involuntary interstellar travel, to cushion the shock of a matter transference beam on a system not used to such things. There’s some acknowledgment that the bits of kit that give us so much joy in our digital lives were developed to reinforce surveillance and state control, but it’s easily forgotten.
Sterling is rescued from the Camden Town toreros by a stranger, ‘a person in trackie bottoms and a jumper, with short hair, sharp side parting’, carrying a football and a referee’s whistle. The stranger shows them a red card, making escape possible under cover of a sending-off. Sterling is smitten with the stranger, but in the absence of a name resorts to the designation ‘Trackie’. Nevertheless, Sterling intuits ‘they’ as the appropriate pronoun, a choice that survives the discovery that Trackie’s name is the superficially unambiguous Rodney. In this world pronoun identity (despite the word’s derivation of ‘standing in for a name’) precedes and outranks personal identity. It’s disconcerting to find that even the biodrones harvesting information about people’s skin colour, voice timbre, heart rate and facial dimensions, whose entire mission is oppressive, are too scrupulous to squash gender diversity into an oppressive binary, yielding for instance ‘gender: femme of centre’, along with ‘complexion light’, ‘moderated Oxbridge accent’ and ‘Balham regional undertones’.
One version of cultural politics would like to see male and female pronouns die out, but there are plenty of ‘he’s and ‘she’s in Sterling Karat Gold, even if it’s unclear whether people know how to honour invisible preferences. As for the actual narrator, Waidner is too canny to limit the reader’s choice of how to define this person with ‘boy breasts’ (‘sensitive topic, best kept under wraps’). First-person narration is a rich medium in which difference can simply be suspended, without the need to announce the fact. For readers of a novel, the question ‘What is the gender affiliation of this narrator?’ may not seem particularly important. It certainly ranks much lower than ‘Do I want to go on reading?’ from which Sterling Karat Gold has nothing to fear.
Maureen Duffy wrote two novels that play with gender ambiguity, Love Child (1971) and Londoners (1983). The earlier novel has a child narrator, Kit, gender undisclosed, whose mother is having an affair with her husband’s secretary, Ajax, who might also be either male or female. It might be possible to read the book without noticing the indeterminacy, but it’s more likely that readers will be nudged into an exploration of the social role of gender – not necessarily determinant, compared with wealth and class. In Londoners gender cues for the narrator are withheld, but this is a more delicate experiment. Not everyone will notice that the option has been left open, some assuming that female writers use female narrators, others that the name Al is more likely to be a shortening of Alfred or Albert than of Alice or Alma. For readers who do notice, there may be other clues. The narrative space of the book is not gendered, but the social and professional spaces through which the central character moves are. Al is preparing a radio programme for the BBC about François Villon – wouldn’t a female contributor of the time have her ideas patronisingly indulged or dismissed? One of the privileges of masculinity is not to be reminded of it.
The modern range of gender identifications wasn’t available to Duffy (though she gave a transgender woman prominence in her play Washouse), but they might not have been particularly useful. The assumption behind the acronym LGBTQ in its various shortened and extended forms is that its component parts stand shoulder to shoulder, but minorities often gain ground at the expense of other minorities and smooth sailing is not to be taken for granted. Sterling remembers that at school ‘queer youths bullied each other. We put that distance between each other, saying I’m not like you.’ The pattern doesn’t end with school. There is plenty of room for colour clashes in the rainbow flag. Transsexuals, for instance, who have braved surgery to achieve or restore bodily harmony aren’t likely to have a lot in common with those attuned to the non-binary. It isn’t a sense of the gender boundary as fluid and essentially unreal that has guided their actions.
The acknowledgments of Sterling Karat Gold include: ‘Thanks to the queer, trans, black, poc and working-class writers showing us how it’s done.’ The assumption is that working-class values and sexual difference are necessarily in harmony. A dissenting view (argued in Sarah Schulman’s The Ties that Bind) is that the family, irrespective of class, is where sexual minorities learn about their worth, or lack of it. Some families manage a welcome (the writer Tom Wakefield, son of a Staffordshire coal miner, often talked about his family’s clear-eyed acceptance of him), some do not. It’s noticeable that in Sterling Karat Gold the only families (apart from Chachki Smok’s mother, not characterised apart from being described as loving and beloved) are the ones people have chosen. They are atomised individuals, though the ghosts of traditional working-class values also sustain them. Council estates have the same cultural meaning as they did before the right to buy. Football seems to retain some potential healing power, despite the racism and homophobia that was directed towards Fashanu. Sterling has hopes that the Justin Fashanu All-Stars (a real team founded in 2009) will build ‘alternative worlds of amateur football’, where ‘new socialities and support systems’ can come to fruition. Non-fans will be mystified that the phrase ‘the beautiful game’ can be used with little or no irony.
Who in this very polarised world, with its strong sense of us and them, is the enemy? The ultimate culprits, the pullers of the strings, are ‘Western regimes’ and Conservative governments, a disappointingly standard conclusion, but then conspiracy theorists have exhausted all the more imaginative options. Lower down are uncreatives, functionaries, the badly dressed. One of the underlings who arrest Sterling wears pink joggers and a matching sweater; the other sports a similar ensemble in soft orange. In a cosmology so strongly based on self-presentation and personal style, it was always on the cards that the devil would wear Primark. Is it cheeky to describe this very us-and-them worldview, minimising or discounting tensions within and between minorities, as rather binary?
It’s overstating the case to describe Sterling Karat Gold as a rewriting of The Trial (though the cover copy has a good go), even if Kafka’s novel appears in its end credits and the ending of The Trial is revisited at the end of Waidner’s. In their final pages the two books converge most fully and diverge most sharply. The details of Josef K’s miserable end are retained – the knife twisted twice in the heart, the blankly sadistic interest his killers take in his last moments – but Waidner turns the tables. Sterling is not victim but executioner. In Kafka’s story the reasons for the death are both irrelevant and existential. Sterling doesn’t express the motive here as ‘Because I hate you’ or ‘Because it’s either you or me’ (both cogent reasons) but in a series of rhetorical questions. ‘Is this the moment he realises what he has let himself in for? What it means for him to give up control … ? What it’s like to exist on someone else’s terms?’
It isn’t easy to imagine what it would mean, politically and philosophically, to exist on your own terms. Even the plutocrat whose chauffeur-driven car gets stuck in traffic inhabits a set of collective restrictions on the freedom of the individual. And if the goal is to exist on your own terms, and to enact revenge on those who prevent you from doing so, then there is no such thing as society, just individual men and women (and those who would prefer not to say), with the result that the book’s system of values comes uncomfortably close to arriving, by way of a strange ideological wormhole, in Margaret Thatcher’s lap.
Actual wormholes – back doors that connect different places and times – orchestrate the action in Corey Fah Does Social Mobility, Waidner’s follow-up to Sterling Karat Gold. In 2024 Corey Fah encounters in a run-down park – and brings home – a mutant fawn with a strong element of arachnid who seems to have arrived from the forest of a parallel world in 1942, the year of Bambi. The creature is christened Bambi Pavok. Corey’s life partner, Drew Szumski, goes back to the same park and encounters – and brings home – a mutant rabbit that acquires the logical name of Fumper. Drew ‘cried often and easily, usually on behalf of someone else. A descendant of first-generation immigrants, they had love for anything vulnerable and a pronounced sense of injustice.’ That ‘descendant of first-generation immigrants’ is oddly vague, as if claiming a status rather than sketching a family history. It sounds precise but could describe a vast swathe of the population. As with the earlier book, the narrator suggests no self-pronoun, though some chapter titles are non-binary (such as ‘Corey Fah hates on their younger self, but doesn’t admit to it’). But the author’s biography on the cover, which for Sterling Karat Gold omitted pronouns, uses ‘they’, implying a definite push towards the indefinite.
The Camden Town specificity of the earlier book has gone: the bubblegum flavour of the detergent the council uses for street cleaning, ‘the industrial-scale burning of coffee, like always, Camden Coffee Shop forever selling the same five, six types of beans, Continental, Kenya AA Estate’. It’s replaced by a generic depressed urban setting. Drew and Corey live ‘in a one-bed flat on Sociální Estate, a 1960s social housing estate in the Huàirén part of the capital’. Scraps of familiar pop culture survive in this new world, but the joke of (for instance) referring to an episode of Countryfile set in Chernobyl seems wan when set beside the comic energy of Sterling Karat Gold. Drew’s favourite television programme is St Orton Gets to the Bottom of It, whose host obsessively interrogates guests about wormholes – the proper word in this world is ‘červí díra’, plural ‘červí díry’. The obsession is understandable since the host is a version of Joe Orton, saved in 1967 from murderous attack when a červí díra whisked him to an alternative 2014.
As Corey and Drew are in possession of two mutant creatures arrived from another time and place it’s hardly surprising that they end up on the show. Corey finds the host snide and arrogant, but Drew comes close to being seduced. Unless červí díry have sensitivity training installed as standard it seems unlikely that Orton (Sean St Orton in this timeline), insistently masculine in demeanour, would establish a rapport with non-binary Drew, to the point where the offer of a ‘hook up in the men’s toilet’ doesn’t strike Drew as anywhere near as horrible as it should.
Later in the book Corey witnesses the 1967 assault, though this time, the červí díra being blocked, the scene plays out. All the props are there, apart from the weapon with which Kenneth Halliwell killed Orton: the hammer is here transformed into the trophy for a literary award. There are dirty Y-fronts on the floor, collages on the wall, plates on the desk next to the typewriter bearing the remnants of disgusting meals (rice and tinned fish, rice and golden syrup). Halliwell rages, his ash blond wig sliding out of position, at an Orton who ignores him. Sirens can be heard, coming closer. Then comes a curious sentence: the spatiotemporal visitors leave the premises and head back to 2024, just as ‘the police barged their way in, as ever infiltrating gay personal spaces when it was too late by far.’ This is a jarring combination of scolding attitudes – if the police are ‘infiltrating’ they shouldn’t be there at all, though it’s hard to see the argument against entering a crime scene because of the sexual orientation of the residents. If they’ve arrived too late, they should have gone in earlier.
The Orton material is drawn from John Lahr’s biography, Prick Up Your Ears, which plays the part in Corey Fah Does Social Mobility that The Trial did in Sterling Karat Gold – a text to be ‘put to work’, in Waidner’s phrase. Orton’s literary executor was his agent, Peggy Ramsay. She entrusted the material to Lahr, who not only wrote the biography but edited Orton’s diaries for publication. Prick Up Your Ears won the Gay News Book Award in 1978, a slightly surprising choice since, though the subject was gay, the author was not. The choice was tactical, as minority politics needs to be. It sent two messages at once: that gay subjects could be of interest to the wider culture, and that an award from ‘the World’s Largest Circulation Newspaper for Homosexuals’, as the masthead of Gay News proclaimed with pride at the time, was not the kiss of death for a mainstream publisher, but could tickle sales along very nicely.
No one who has read his book could say that Lahr de-gayed the material, but there are emphases that an insider might place differently. It’s not a radical piece of work, and makes no claims to be. Waidner might have cited Simon Shepherd’s Because We’re Queers, published by Gay Men’s Press in 1989. Shepherd argues that Lahr helped to create an Orton industry (of which Shepherd himself cannot avoid being a part), in which Halliwell was offered up as a sacrifice – not in his role as killer but as someone perceived to be effeminate. Orton could be dragged down, or the threat he posed tamed, by making the relationship between the men seem like a sickly copy of a heterosexual marriage. When the diaries were published in 1986 John Osborne felt able to trumpet in the Spectator that Halliwell was ‘the almost perfect type of that familiar social hazard, the homosexual “wife”’. Waidner’s use of Lahr’s book doesn’t really amount to ‘putting it to work’. It’s more a matter of its value as collage material, without the mischievous flair Orton and Halliwell gave to their own collages. It was their collaging of library books that got them sent to prison, after all.
When the follow-up to a prize-winning novel is a weaker performance in the same mode it’s tempting to speculate that the second was in fact written first, but this can’t be the case here, for the simple reason that winning a £10,000 literary prize is the starting point of the plot: when Bambi Pavok so distractingly appeared Corey Fah was waiting at a designated location (Koszmar Circus) for the teleportation of the Award for the Fictionalisation of Social Evils. The rendezvous was missed, and a second delivery attempt (shades of Amazon) also failed. The prize organisers are adamant that they won’t pay out until winner and award are united. After their memorable part in an episode of St Orton Gets to the Bottom of It, and the subsequent disappearance of the host, Corey is offered the job, and the programme becomes a reality show called, yes, Corey Fah Does Social Mobility, with the gimmick that if Corey manages to capitalise on the opportunity by a certain date then, award or no award, the programme makers will come up with the ten grand themselves.
Why should winning a literary prize lead to a loss of confidence, when its purpose is to encourage? In this case, winning involves the loss of a cherished status as outsider. Granted the Goldsmiths isn’t as bourgeois an accolade as the Booker, but even so niche a validating force can have an alienating aspect. The sentence about the writers ‘showing us how it’s done’ returns at the end of Corey Fah Does Social Mobility, but although you can publish a book in solidarity with the writers you feel constitute your creative community, you can’t win a prize in solidarity with them. It’s possible to become so accustomed psychologically to being faced with closed doors that you are paralysed by the sight of an open one. In Waidner’s imagination, the not-quite-acceptance, not-quite-refusal of the award threatens reality itself:
If reteleportation was needed, that is, if for whatever reason normal collection wasn’t achieved, if the winner fluffed it, the risk of the spatiotemporal continuum caving in increased exponentially. Laid the risk firmly with recipients who didn’t know shit about collecting prizes; who didn’t have anyone in their extended social circle who did; who hadn’t had the right sort of training, like Sean St Orton or myself.
In effect, the Award for the Fictionalisation of Social Evils becomes a social evil in itself. It’s a symbol of co-option, and capitalism’s requirement that you turn yourself into a product and then market it.
There’s a remarkably mean-spirited portrait of the prize’s co-ordinator. Corey would know that ‘shoulder-length wave with the fringe anywhere, her saucer-sized glasses on a lanyard, and her flouncy blouse with the #DecoloniseLiterature pin. Another one saying “Ally”.’ When the co-ordinator opens her mouth she moves from naff to insidious: ‘Most people from my background would kill for the platform. Case of self-sabotage here. Why they (plural pronoun, denoting the international, multi-racial working classes) keep doing this to themselves, was incomprehensible to her. Was like, they were throwing the widening participation agenda back into their faces.’ There’s nothing wrong with biting the hand that feeds you, of course, something Orton practised almost on the level of an Olympic sport.
Sterling in the earlier book, offered a coercive deal (immunity for a friend in exchange for the judge’s being offered a starring role in a performance piece), resisted co-option, or rather agreed to it and turned the tables, but it’s not so easy for Corey Fah. As reality contracts to a succession of ten-minute time loops, no one but Corey can take the drastic action that will restore a version of stability. Perhaps some sort of sacrifice is the answer, either of writing itself (a high price to pay) or the nomination of another winner. That’s the trick that finally breaks the spell: Corey stipulates that the prize be delivered to another person in twenty years’ time. The designated recipient is someone even more disadvantaged socially, in fact someone who has been trying to kill Corey with some persistence. This act of selflessness has the effect of turning the other person from misfit into writer, as well as freeing Corey from the paralysis of a corrupt success.
Clearly right action is important in the novel, and it’s unreasonable to expect quite such high standards from the author outside it. The acknowledgments page of Corey Fah Does Social Mobility churns with uneasy subtext. Waidner places the emphasis squarely on cultural politics, singling out the book’s editor, Simon Prosser, as ‘being an agent of progress’ – though the idea of progress in literature isn’t a straightforward one. There’s a shout-out to Peninsula Press, publishers of Sterling Karat Gold, and one editor in particular, Sam Fisher. Presumably Fisher too has vision. Peninsula Press puts out a handful of titles a year; Hamish Hamilton is four times as productive, while its mother ship, Penguin Random House, has a publication capacity of 15,000 titles. By all means express gratitude to your agent – in this case Tracy Bohan of the Wylie Agency. There are any number of reasons for choosing to be represented by the Wylie Agency, if they’ll have you, but agents are in business and that business does not involve setting the world to rights. Wylie clients include the late Henry Kissinger and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
The consequences of equating literature so directly with social justice can be ticklish. Waidner is preoccupied with structural privilege, but these are structural privileges too, awkward and inconvenient things when purity of action is seen as a priority. Careers can have their own upward mobility, one that may come at a cost. A writer signing up with a multinational corporation would have to be naive to ignore an element of righteousness-by-association in the continuity of image. Great care has been taken to make Corey Fah Does Social Mobility look just like the previous book. Strong background colour (green for Sterling, blue for Corey) – check. Title in large caps encroaching on a photographic collage dominated by a mammal (giraffe for Sterling, deer for Corey) – check. Anyone buying both books at the same time would take it for granted that this was a uniform edition, rather than a move towards the corporate. Certainly it makes commercial sense to maintain the connection with a prize-winning predecessor, but there’s a sneakier element involved, the subliminal affirmation of a status quo that no longer exists. The Body Shop didn’t drop its logo when Anita Roddick sold the brand to L’Oréal, nor did Cadbury change the packaging of Green & Black’s chocolate. But it’s in the references to the Goldsmiths Prize that the tone goes most badly astray. Waidner names and thanks the founders and administrators of the prize, adding that ‘winning in 2021 – as a writer lacking the structural privileges related to class, native status and cisgender heteronormativity – has made a significant difference to my practical circumstances.’ That’s the whole idea behind literary prizes! The proportion of writers able to support themselves solely from their writing shrank from 40 per cent in 2006 to 19 per cent in 2022. Waidner goes on to name and thank the judges personally. The way gratitude is being framed here suggests that the judges were expressing solidarity with the writer as much as admiration for the work. As this winner seems to see it, though not exactly an award for the fictionalisation of social evils, the prize amounts to a compensation for them. But why would you want the sum of your disadvantages honoured rather than the talent that has managed to beat them back?
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