[Graywolf Press; 2024]

Isabel Waidner argues that a novel shouldn’t aim to convey “some universal truth.” As they explained in a conversation with fellow author and playwright Maxe Crandall, the desire to create “something truthful” is irreconcilable with the idea of a generalized human experience. “Specificity,” Waidner argues, “is much more meaningful.”

In Sterling Karat Gold, Waidner’s first novel published in North America, an urgent specificity charges every passage. When Sterling, an experimental playwright and performer, steps out of their apartment building in London to find themself assaulted by a gang of homophobic bullfighters, they are careful to note every detail. They observe the roles of their various assailants (picador, banderillo, matador), and the colors of the barbed sticks thrust into their shoulders (those of St. George’s Cross), as if mentally preparing the police report as the violence unfolds. Sterling’s is a deeply unpredictable world, and attention to detail is a matter of life-and-death:

Is it my fault? Did I elicit violence, or did I just fail to prevent it from happening? My jacket, too much? Not enough? The football socks? I knew a gay who looked straight like a Gap advert. Got hassle still. Big girl’s blouse written all over his unisex T-shirt.

As Sterling’s odyssey progresses, the details only get less predictable. The man-eating prince of hell from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights presides over their court hearing. A UFO takes them through time and space in search of their supporting witness. When all else fails, Sterling’s art turns the tide of battle—they offer a part in their latest production to the prince of hell, whose pride causes him to ignore all the red flags as Sterling and friends march him into a clearing and slaughter him in broad daylight. By refusing to allow the reader to lapse into any kind of familiarity with Sterling’s world, Waidner restores the strangeness of the power structures that it shares with our own. Sterling spends the majority of the story trying to survive, or else save their friends, from the brunt of capitalism, nativism, and heteronormativity: forces we’ve been conditioned to accept as normal.

While so much of Sterling Karat Gold revolves around direct confrontation with violent systems, very little violence appears in Waidner’s formidable follow-up, Corey Fah Does Social Mobility. Corey Fah finds themself a notch higher on Maslov’s hierarchy of needs than Sterling: they live with a loving partner in a reasonably safe apartment, they aren’t locked in a blood feud with the police state, and like Waidner, they’ve just won a prestigious award for their “mind-bending” novel about “social evils” (Waidner received the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize for Sterling Karat Gold). Published two years after Sterling, Corey Fah is a more introspective story. Instead of fighting for their life, Corey is tasked with physically claiming the literary award they’ve just won—a neon-beige trophy that hovers, often literally, just out of reach.

Unlike the theatrically-minded Sterling, Corey has mixed feelings about stepping into the spotlight. As the gauntlet of “bureaucratic technicalities” between them and their trophy grows, their motivation to claim it wanes. Though Waidner speaks passionately in interviews about art’s ability to subvert systems of oppression, perhaps the mainstream attention garnered by Sterling left them wrestling with a new challenge, one articulated by Corey as they watch their favorite TV show, St Orton Gets to the Bottom of It. The host of this fictional show, Sean St Orton, claims to have fallen through a wormhole and is hellbent on proving the existence of “spatiotemporal irregularities.” He goes on live television in nothing but boxing shorts, works himself into a frenzy over potential leads, and falls into sullen silence when his guests disappoint him, much to the delight of the audience at home: “People,” Corey observes, “were happy to feel something, anything, in relation to a problem that wasn’t theirs.” Corey themself, despite enjoying countless hours of the show, doesn’t worry much about Sean’s well-being. Perhaps Corey is ambivalent about claiming their prize and owning their story because they cannily anticipate the shallow engagement they are likely to receive from privileged audiences. The prize coordinator, despite sporting “Ally” and “#DecoloniseLiterature” pins, betrays little interest in Corey’s humanity.

Still, Waidner is not simply out to criticize the literary world. As social commentary, Corey Fah aims to debunk meritocracy as a whole. Waidner dramatizes the knots into which society will twist itself to keep capital out of the hands of the disenfranchised. Reality itself is so vexed by Corey’s proximity to social capital that it rips at the seams as they approach their trophy, opening a červí díra, the Czech term for wormhole preferred by Sean St Orton. Even worse for Corey: their childhood trauma leaps out of the červí díra in the form of Bambi Pavok, an eight-eyed, eight-legged deer whose tragic backstory mirrors Corey’s own (Pavok, according to Waidner, is derived from the Czech word for spider).

Of all the psychedelic pleasures conjured in Corey Fah, none are as endearing or deranged as Bambi Pavok. The arachnoid fawn, “wide-eyed, times eight,” is the novel’s crown jewel. When Corey appears on Sean St Orton’s show to try and muster up a media presence, they only get two words in before Bambi Pavok emerges from the stands to commit an unspeakable act, stealing the show. It’s the most memorable scene in the book. Corey’s dismay, though understandable, also betrays the hate they’ve internalized. Corey’s partner, Drew, sees the problem clearly: “Is mad,” they say, “hating on Bambi Povak. Like hating on the undomesticated part of you.”

Corey knows they’re lucky to have Drew at their side, but struggles with the complications that the novel’s events bring to their relationship. When Drew hits it off with Sean on the set of his show, Corey can’t stand it. Sean is based on British Playwright Joe Orton, in whose literary tradition Waidner consciously writes. Sean tells Corey that he won the same literary award as them before he fell through his červí díra. He describes a long, winding struggle that mirrors Corey’s own. Corey accuses him of not trying hard enough.

In the face of inscrutable systems, Waidner suggests, we end up scrutinizing each other—and ourselves. Breaking this cycle requires Corey to process the trauma that their success has exhumed. It’s thankless work, unlike the satisfaction they found in writing their novel. But for all the effort that goes into fighting social evils, even more must go into healing the wounds they inflict. Near the story’s climax, Corey finds themself in a crowd of themselves at various “historical junctures”:

Lots of mes, ages twenty-five til thirty-five, studying hundreds of books of literature and philosophy, self-educating like no one was watching, cos, matter of fact, no one was . . . I was reading as if my life depended on it, and it did, it did. None of my former selves were interacting with each other, which seemed sad from my current perspective.

Corey’s informal register is a source of comedy for much of the book (as reality crumbles around them, they describe it with the candor of a man-on-the-street interview), but the effect is also disarming—when Corey finally confronts their trauma in earnest, the free-flowing diction proves deeply poignant.

Waidner’s prose, a kind of lucid dreaming, is as effective a weapon as it is a balm. Their particular brand of unreality is distinct from both the deadpan extravagance of traditional magical realism and the safer quirkiness of more contemporary literary darlings. The many flourishes and tangents that populate Corey Fah are impactful in a way that goes far beyond style. Waidner pushes against the wider forces that would attempt, and fail, to flatten their otherness.

Mike Nees is a case manager for people living with HIV. He hosts the Atlantic City Story Slam series. His recent stories appear or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, The Greensboro Review, and Hunger Mountain Review. He lives in Philadelphia. mikenees.com

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