Winner: Observer/Anthony Burgess prize 2024: Oscar Jelley reviews Isabel Waidner

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Oscar Jelley is simply a master’s student astatine nan University of Oxford. He has written for student papers specified arsenic Cherwell, nan Oxford Blue and nan Oxford Review of Books, and has a Substack, Adventures Close to Home.

“Life should beryllium afloat of strangeness/ for illustration a rich | painting,” declares nan protagonist of nan Fall’s How I Wrote Elastic Man, a opus astir a writer whose occurrence ruins his life. It could conscionable arsenic good beryllium nan credo of Isabel Waidner, whose latest book, Corey Fah Does Social Mobility, concerns a novelist named Corey Fah whose world is upended aft they triumph an “award for nan fictionalisation of societal evils”. When Fah goes to cod nan trophy, it flies away, leaving them pinch thing but nan unusual half-deer, half-spider hybrid that has inexplicably appeared beside them. They return him location and telephone him “Bambi Pavok”. The consequent communicative eschews realism successful favour of nan rich | strangeness of a chatshow astir wormholes presented by a man successful boxing shorts, a retelling of Bambi successful position of working-class ressentiment, and hints of a world successful which astir things are surgery and reality is taking connected bizarre caller shapes.

Oscar Jelley and Laura Cumming
Burgess prize victor Oscar Jelley pinch Observer creation professional Laura Cumming, 1 of this year’s judges, astatine nan Art Workers’ Guild, London.

Waidner is simply a governmental moralist and doesn’t attraction astir seeming didactic: their caller intends to make unambiguous points astir genuine societal injustice. Its flights of vivid fancy are mostly held together by an statement astir really exclusive our taste institutions remain, moreover erstwhile they’re falling complete each different to trumpet their inclusivity. Truth-telling is nan novelist’s prerogative, of course. But Corey Fah sometimes feels a small scholastic, arsenic though it were written to beryllium taught astatine universities; arsenic pinch Waidner’s erstwhile work, it ends pinch a short database of references.

The champion parts of nan book are those that seizure an facet of our reality successful a script aliases an image while retaining an irreducible constituent of oddness. One illustration is nan transition that deals pinch Bambi Pavok’s unhappy puerility successful “the forest”, wherever he’s abused by his deadbeat dad, a mendacious spider, and bullied by his friend Fumper, a rabbit whose life sounds arsenic grim. Compared pinch Nell Zink’s caller fresh Avalon, which besides dealt pinch nan unwritten rules that govern nan often suffocatingly bourgeois world of prestige culture, Waidner places much accent connected nan ways successful which working-class group are pitted against each different by their circumstances and societal institutions. On their telling, Disney’s Bambi was an able naïf; erstwhile his mother is shot, we pity him for losing nan innocence that is nan privilege of a sheltered upbringing. Bambi Pavok is forced to adopt protect postures of vicious self-interest. He’s harder to guidelines for, but much interesting, and yet much sympathetic too.

The novel’s style comprises a weird melange of idioms, radiated pinch overseas words that further deterritorialise nan anonymous “international city” successful which it takes place. Despite a subplot astir nan playwright Joe Orton and a characteristic pinch nan surname Hölderlin, it often sounds for illustration lit for a post-literary age, 1 whose habits of look are mostly shaped by TV, video games, trading and societal media. Several times Fah deploys nan building “what a concept”, which I’ve ne'er encountered extracurricular nan notorious Smash Mouth azygous All Star. Overall, it’s an absorbing approximation of nan measurement group often talk and deliberation now – successful a watercourse of unmoored phrases and references, sporadically dispensing pinch extraneous prepositions and articles. If it makes for mostly lively and unique prose, it sometimes falls short successful nan novel’s particularly imagistic sections, wherever a much self-consciously artful style mightiness person been called for.

Today’s bookshops are truthful glutted pinch tedious, well-behaved novels that it seems somewhat churlish not to extol this one. Yet for each its ostentatious convention-bucking, it’s not clear really overmuch of an replacement Corey Fah really offers. Near nan end, Fah recalls days spent successful nationalist libraries “reading arsenic if my life depended connected it, and it did, it did”. This mini infinitesimal is simply a bully reminder of why lit should not beryllium nan sphere of a moneyed elite: it has nan powerfulness to liberate group from nan fetters of circumstance. The surreal happenings successful this book, however, are chiefly allegories for nan difficult facts of systemic disadvantage, suggesting that imaginative lit tin thief nan underprivileged to amended understand nan restrictions placed connected them by mishap of birth, but not to flooded them.

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Yet this position fails to do justness to nan world-expanding imaginable of art. Countless taste artefacts, including nan aforementioned How I Wrote Elastic Man, attest to nan expertise of working-class group to defy their unfair batch and observe caller ways of being done acts of imagination. Waidner’s caller uses estrangement to make an each excessively comprehensible lawsuit against bourgeois taste gatekeeping. But can’t location beryllium thing arsenic extremist astir strangeness for strangeness’s sake?

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Source theguardian
theguardian