Book Review: ‘Corey Fah Does Social Mobility,’ by Isabel Waidner

COREY FAH DOES SOCIAL MOBILITY, by Isabel Waidner

In the first few pages of Isabel Waidner’s new novel “Corey Fah Does Social Mobility,” our titular character learns that they’ve won “The Award for the Fictionalization of Social Evils,” a literary prize that comes with a substantial cash purse (which Corey, a working-class writer who lives in a social housing estate, desperately needs) and enormous prestige (which, according to the prize committee, is even more valuable than money). To secure these bounties, all Corey has to do is collect the award trophy. But the trophy doesn’t look like a trophy — it’s a “neon beige” U.F.O. And to make matters worse, it’s disappeared, possibly into a wormhole.

The prize committee is less than helpful when Corey asks for assistance. “The assumption had been that a winner would know how to collect. That prize culture etiquette, its unwritten rules and regulations, would be second nature to them,” Corey reflects. But Corey doesn’t know how to collect, and the unwritten rules and regulations aren’t second nature to them. “I’d not won an award before, and neither had anybody I knew.” This is the paradox that drives “Corey Fah Does Social Mobility”: A person needs to already have social and financial capital in order to get social and financial capital.

We follow Corey; their loving partner, Drew; and their mutant charge, Bambi Pavok (an arachnoid creature with deer-like qualities who crawled out of another dimension and sometimes stays with Corey and Drew), in furious pursuit of this confounding trophy. They dive into wormholes, explore alternate universes and timelines, even appear on (and eventually host) a popular wormhole-focused reality show, all in the hopes of catching the coveted prize “before the judges change their minds.” It feels, in the best way, like a spirited romp through someone else’s stress dream.

Sometimes surreal satires can be inaccessible, too clinically strange to connect with, but Waidner anchors the reader with familiar emotion: the discomfort Corey feels in the warmth of Drew’s unconditional love; the way Corey handles Bambi Pavok with a tenderness that neither the arachnoid creature nor Corey has ever experienced before. In a world full of wormholes and neon beige U.F.O. trophies, these relationships seem heartbreakingly real.

Waidner’s humor is similarly accessible — playful and unpretentious; and their prose, despite being peppered with foreign phrases and grammatical oddities, is disarmingly smooth. But working hard just beneath the surface of this feisty, funny, easily digestible insanity are bigger ideas, about who deserves to be rescued from tough circumstances, and why. What happens if the person in need of assistance doesn’t match the image of a model recipient?

Though “Corey Fah” is a critique of the literary world, it’s easy to apply the novel’s commentary to other, higher-stakes systems. Corey’s attempts to make sense of the literary fun house they’ve been thrust into will remind some readers of, for instance, the challenges low-income students face when they are granted admission to Ivy League schools but are not given the support they need to successfully navigate those rarefied spaces.

The novel is an allegory that argues, effectively, that admission is not the same thing as access. Even though Corey has managed to hustle and, in the end, earn recognition from a lofty literary organization, the award, and all the money and prestige that come with it, still evades them. Which is to say: Corey has bent and contorted themself in ways big and small, but it’s still not enough. And as the narrative comes to its wild end, Waidner conveys, quite poignantly, that a person has no other choice in this life but to be true to themself.

COREY FAH DOES SOCIAL MOBILITY | By Isabel Waidner | Graywolf Press | 147 pp. | Paperback, $16

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