Patrick Cash

World Rifting

Corey Fah Does Social Mobility,
Isabel Waidner, Hamish Hamilton, Hardback, pp.147

Brainwryms, Alison Rumfitt, Cipher Press, Paperback, pp.297

There’s a line at the end of Isabel Waidner’s previous novel, Sterling Karat Gold, when the protagonists have kidnapped a judge, that reads: ‘Is this the moment he [the judge] realises… What it’s like to exist on someone else’s terms? In someone else’s violent fiction?’ This feels like an apt description of Waidner’s work, which gleefully – and perhaps, to coin a neologism, queerfully – upends the scaffolding of given society: not so much other world building, as this world rifting, replete with spatiotemporal wormholes into different realities. Characters travel back and forth in time, they meet other versions of themselves, cultural events and signifiers are woven into a delirious meta-narrative. It’s all very Kafka meets Stephen Hawking by way of Judith Butler, like postmodernism on speed, but there’s a particular and often glorious vitality to the prose that makes the writing shine in its own right. Sterling Karat Gold was deservedly the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize 2021, propelling Waidner to a new level of renown.

Not that they’re one to rest on their proverbial laurels, especially when those laurels arrive on the backs of working-class and marginalised communities that suffer from oppressive Western power structures. Their new novel Corey Fah Does Social Mobility – the first from ‘mainstream’ publisher Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin – opens with writer Corey Fah, whose novel has just won The Award for the Fictionalisation of Social Evils. In order to collect the award, the prize committee has instructed Corey to come to Koszmar (‘nightmare’ in Polish) Circus, an ornamental mount on a housing estate in the east of an unnamed, very London-like international capital. Instead of finding an award, Corey encounters a ‘neon beige’ UFO and an eight-legged, multiple-eyed version of the famously cute Disney fawn Bambi, who’s been given an arachnid rebranding as Bambi Pavok. Corey is, as one might imagine, at a loss:

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. But I didn’t, know how to collect; and they weren’t, second nature to me. I’d not won an award before, and neither had anybody I knew.

From the premise, then, Waidner makes it clear that they’re not going to simply accept their prize-winning ascension into the literary establishment (a heartfelt tribute to the Goldsmiths panel in the Acknowledgements section hopefully smooths any ruffled feathers). The plot follows Corey’s attempts to recover their award, aided by their partner Drew – ‘Drew is a top, always has been, but they gets to the bottom of it’ – and, until a memorably horrific appearance on live television, Bambi Pavok. In their travels down various červí díry (Czech for ‘wormholes’), they meet the flouncy-bloused Social Evils prize coordinator, Fumper the doomed one- toothed rabbit, a version of sixties playwright Joe Orton, now presenting reality TV in his boxers, and the twelve-pointer stag boss of a Frikadellen fast food restaurant in the Forest of 1942. It sounds wonderfully nonsensical in paraphrase, and it’s nonsensical in the great tradition of the literary novel that includes Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Swift’s Gulliverian travels and even Lewis Carroll’s rabbit holes into Wonderland. The plot in Corey Fah is always secondary, a mere vehicle, to an incisive and biting political commentary.

Corey Fah, as a working-class, queer writer, doesn’t belong in prize culture. The award that they’re too unknowing to collect is cultural capital, prestige and social power, and the prize coordinator – wearing a ‘#DecoloniseLiterature pin. Another one saying “ally’’’ – can’t fathom why Corey isn’t behaving in the accepted prize-winning manner:

Most people from my background would kill for the platform. Case of self-sabotage here. Why they (plural pronoun, denoting the international, multiracial working classes) keep doing this to themselves, was incomprehensible to her. Was like, they keep throwing the widening participation agenda back into their faces.

Similarly, the newspaper headlines that report Corey Fah’s win make ‘disproportionate mention’ of the prize’s alleged inclusion agenda. Occasionally Waidner’s academic training breaks through the fictionalisation of social evils to merely recount social evils: ‘[Bambi Povak] was caught up in the socioeconomic systems designed to disadvantage and kill-by-stealth the racially othered, the sick and disabled, the working classes, the lower castes, and anyone who, simplistically speaking, wasn’t born within a twenty-mile radius’. But their critical thinking is what makes their attack on the chimera of social mobility so interesting. To usher one person from a marginalised background through the elite gates, on the highly mythologised ideology of ‘merit’, means that the rest of the international, multiracial working-classes can still be safely locked outside the gates. The non-fictionalised social evils continue and the prize winner assimilates (expected), dies (Joe Orton) or inadvertently opens a červí díra (Corey).
The červí díry are what really start to tear spatiotemporal holes in Corey’s already slanted world. Corey’s theory is that their emergence is linked to the prize’s redistribution of cultural capital, moving trophies from their regular place in ‘the ideological depot, the cultural-capital supernatural hoard.’ Hence why the trophy is in fact the UFO itself, as the object is unidentifiable to Corey in ‘the deepest possible sense’. The satire is always at the fore in this novel, whether in the nuance or at the macro level. When Corey fails to collect the trophy at the novel’s beginning, a rift is created in the received cultural-capital order which has consequences for given reality towards the novel’s climax. Corey, Drew, and the crew for the brief-lived TV show Corey Fah Does Social Mobility, fall down a giant červí díra and enter a series of parallel world time loops. There’s a revelation linked to Bambi Pavok: the fawn who doesn’t deserve compassion as real Bambi did, his spider legs, eyes and, indeed, nature symbolic of his queer, working-class traits.

Sometimes reading Waidner is like encountering a very rare and radical genius. It can also read like the literary equivalent of a particularly severe ketamine trip. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – or even that the two comparisons are mutually incompatible – as Waidner’s modus operandi appears to be invested in expanding the reader’s consciousness. There’s a very methodical control of the madhouse: the sentences snap, the voice is acute, the wit is funny. The colloquial tone, often effacing or playing with pronouns – ‘Showrunner didn’t know what was, literary press. Sounded thrilling, though. Not.’ – is consistently engaging for the reader, and masks the quick, cutting cleverness at the text’s core. A negative is that, while everything technically dazzles in a Waidner novel, rarely does anything move: Drew often reads like a shadowy cipher to Corey, and it’s difficult to invest in their relationship. Perhaps this is partially deliberate: emotional resonance is hard, and no doubt expensive, to come by in this warped world.

What does exist throughout the writing is a great and beautiful sense of play. Think differently. Consider. Find truths. Waidner would presumably take issue with the term ‘mind bending’ but if social conditions create consciousness, then Corey Fah is something of a condition in itself: a snarky and joyous bomb. Rather than Kafkaesque, ‘Waidnerian’ may yet become an adjective of its own.

The structure of Alison Rumfitt’s second novel, Brainwyrms, revolves around a literal bomb. Frankie, a trans woman, is the survivor of a gender- critical activist’s attack on an English gender identity clinic. When Tabi, her cis co-worker, picks up the rucksack left in the waiting room, she’s ‘thrown against the wall by the explosion, head torn apart. Frankie had been sitting behind her desk, shielded from most of the blast… But the damage to her mind was far more significant.’ The novel almost revels in exploring this damage, frequently using a visceral, squelching horror as a metaphor for trauma, and delving feverishly into the more disturbing corners of the internet. We first properly meet Frankie at a queer sex night, fucking a himbo (a slang portmanteau of him and bimbo: attractive but stupid) to indulge her impregnation fetish. It’s after this disappointment that she meets the non-binary, teenage and über submissive Vanya, who’ll prove to be a major part of the plot’s engine.

Frankie and Vanya enter into a rollercoaster sadomasochistic relationship that ends after possibly one of the most repulsive passages in queer literature. Rumfitt delights in disgust, giving voice to the unspeakable: shit, piss, vomit, worms, abuse and various parasitic life forms – some human – are all woven into a white hot agent provocateur narrative. Nothing appears too dark to be included, and in this respect, she bears a resemblance to the bizarre realms at the edge of human experience explored by Dennis Cooper or David Cronenberg. It’s a middle-class nightmare. There’s an excitement and rage-like energy to the writing that keeps the pages swiftly turning, despite the confrontational nature of the scenes’ content. Occasionally Rumfitt doesn’t trust in her own talent and feels forced to include an on-the-nose reference to remind us of her literariness – we’re sledgehammered with Nabakov at Vanya’s first appearance, and later comes (of course) Edgar Allan Poe. But there’s certainly a place in art for her work.

Brainwyrms applies this same anything-goes energy to its playing with form. Nothing is going to constrain Rumfitt, least of all novelistic tradition, and she darts between close third, journalistic parody, second person discourse and, at one point, a Beckettian play script that reminds one of the Nighttown scenes in Ulysses. When the aforementioned disgusting bust-up occurs between Frankie and Vanya, Rumfitt breaks the fourth wall to offer her readers a personal, vaguely sarcastic trigger warning:

YOU [that is, the reader, not the character] are welcome to take a break here given the extremity of the content explored in
the next series of chapters. It isn’t shameful to take a break. It is in fact encouraged that you do so right here, so that this
novel does not become overwhelming to you.

Given the extremity of what had already been explored at this point, roughly halfway through the novel, one wondered how bad it could get (it got worse). But all this upheaval and play largely works for such a genre- bending, horror-relishing novel.

What works less well is the almost Manichean division of characters into good and bad, believable and evil. Rumfitt clearly has a gift for characterisation and both Frankie and Vanya are highly personable narrators. Neither is by any means perfect but their foibles and wide emotional (and sexual) spectrums create the impression of living, breathing people. The majority of other characters are simply villainous. Most men are sadistic abusers, a mother has a very short character arc from psychotic to murderous. Rumfitt does flirt with giving a Polish father some redeeming qualities but then quickly kills him off. The trouble with such binary portrayals is that it affects the novel’s integrity. As disquieting as it is, a victim of abuse infecting themselves with parasites holds a psychological truth. But insane gender-critical activists stabbing their children and burning Pride billboards down feels false: not necessarily because these things can’t happen but because the activists are entities rather than people. In the wider culture war, Rumfitt is standing at the sidelines, cackling as she hurls petrol on the flames.

Yet this deeper lack, and an ending that feels a little too deus ex machina, doesn’t stop Brainwyrms from being a gruesomely enjoyable read. Not having to bother with pesky humanisation, Rumfitt indulges in a lot of blackly satirical fun and doesn’t hold back on savaging her targets. Jennifer Caldwell, a thinly veiled billionaire children’s author, is first introduced ritually sacrificing a trans woman at a Hampstead dinner party, as the ‘brain wyrms’ of the title drip out of her eyes. At a demonic orgy, Rumfitt manages to slip in lines like ‘… some Guardian journalist shoving her hand up Frankie’s cunt.’ One imagines The Observer didn’t run a double page review. Stylistically, the prose is tightly controlled and the odd flash of lyricism nestled amongst the gore is welcomed: ‘The moon in the sky dripped its yellow light down the inky dark.’ Where Rumfitt’s writing really excels is in a consistently dry, contrarian wit that halos everything sleazy about queer culture, and castigates the dreary emptiness of post- Brexit UK:

In the final days of the empire, people started cottaging again, and this was the only way to stop it. Dismantling [public
toilets] piece by piece. Cobweb by cobweb. Halogen bulb by halogen bulb… And I hope on the site of the last public
bathroom they build a grave or monument but I don’t think they will. I think they’ll build a Pret and call it a win… Was this
country ever Great? No, but the public toilets were Great.

What both these novels achieve are vivid depictions of marginalised worlds: rifted windows into the sub-rosa realms beneath the mainstream. They tackle economic oppression and transphobia in sparking, often political prose. Some queer people might find themselves identifiable for the first time in these pages. Corey Fah Does Social Mobility is the more accomplished, and by far the more subtle, but Waidner has also been in the game for longer: by their own admission they’d been writing for over twenty years until fame came late knocking. Rumfitt exhibits a uniquely terrifying vision and repeated hints of brilliance. Long may her career continue, and it’ll be exciting to see how she follows Brainwyrms. Any reader who steps into these fictions can’t help but realise what it’s like to exist on someone else’s terms.

Patrick Cash holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Oxford and spent three months as writer-in-residence at Shakespeare & Company, Paris. He’s had two plays published by Bloomsbury and written for Vice, Dazed and Attitude. His writing has been selected for the BBC Drama Room and The London Library’s Emerging Writers Programme 22/23. He’s currently working on a short story collection, Nightlife.

To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.