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review: Corey Fah Does Social Mobility by Isabel Waidner

By Joshua Tompkins, MA Comparative Literature

What would an authentically new novel look like? There is no shortage of innovation in contemporary British writing, but this appetite to innovate is frustrated by the exclusionary tactics of British publishing. The British media ‘Commedia’ says that even formal experimentation must not deviate too gnawingly from what is expected (namely, the rules derived from experiments by the rich, white, and male). Experiments must be appropriate experiments. We believe you are a threat. We will not tell you why you are a threat. 

These conditions make Isabel Waidner a miracle. Working-class, trans-queer, and experimentally experimental (a British publisher’s norovirus), Waidner has been quietly producing the most radical and exciting fiction in the country for around a decade. Presently, they find themselves in the limelight, with their novel ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ clinching the Goldsmiths Prize in 2021. 

Their most recent work, ‘Corey Fah Does Social Mobility’, is inspired by this newly accrued cultural capital, and employs the whole arsenal of their hallmark weirdness to tear the structures behind it apart.  

Waidner is not an aesthetician of weirdness; they do not proclaim weird for weird’s sake. Weirdness has no intrinsic value, instead value radiates from the social satire underpinning all of Waidner’s writing. In Corey Fah, a dissection of the myth of meritocracy is the dimension giving weirdness a nervous system. 

“A society built on exclusion, simultaneously preaching that the categories of power are available to all, is an obvious absurdity; yet this succinctly describes Britain.”

A society built on exclusion, simultaneously preaching that the categories of power are available to all, is an obvious absurdity; yet this succinctly describes Britain. Waidner asks: What happens when those who shouldn’t do well, do well? If doing social mobility demands a perpetual reckoning with one’s own differences, is social mobility a coherent possibility for marginalised groups? After they are awarded the prestigious prize for ‘the fictionalisation of Social Evils’, Corey Fah is lobbed into this cultural paradox. 

How does this crucial weirdness fit in? There are major weirdness’ defying the tasteful weirdness of the publishing establishment. There are UFOs. There’s space-time-distorting reality TV. Weird animals recur in Waidner’s weirdness. There is a spider-deer, a queered time-travelling Bambi, whose meddling provides the narrative of Corey’s failure to collect their prize. With Bambi evoking a challenging upbringing, the novel is an allegory for the obstacles of origin and background on the road to the summit of capital, and the fiction of equal opportunity. 

More often than not, formal experimentation and narrative engagement are mutually exclusive phenomena. But Waidner’s novels are not just readable, they are intensely enjoyable. Narrative flow is not compromised in their vision of the novel to come. Corey Fah is a genuinely radical work of fiction: high experimentalism, even higher high jinks, and sharp cultural criticism from a major voice in British writing. 

Corey Fah Does Social Mobility is published by Hamish Hamilton 

[Photo Credit: Penguin Books Limited]

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