Sunday, January 21, 2018
Books

Review: St. Aubyn's 'Lost for Words' skewers literary prizes

In the highbrow, hoity-toity book-scribbling racket, unlike the ink-stained wretched world of newspapering, capturing the Man Booker Prize is widely regarded as the Holy Grail and cat's pajamas for writers of thoughtful fiction.

The Man Booker also turned out to provide rich fodder for Edward St. Aubyn in Lost for Words, a scathing, funny roman a clef exploring the behind-the-scenes feuds, the wheeling and dealing, and the bumptious personalities who come together to award Great Britain's most prestigious literary prize, which may not be so coveted after the author's lampooning.

St. Aubyn is best known for writing about his own tortured, drug-infused, sexually abused life in the five semiautobiographical Patrick Melrose novels. But unless you're Edgar Allan Poe, a writer cannot live by depression, ennui, chronic self-loathing, an utter lack of confidence and the occasional hit of heroin alone. Sometimes you have to have a few laughs. Sometimes you have to get even.

Lost for Words is St. Aubyn's middle-digit sendup of the Man Booker, an award he was short-listed for in 2006 for Mother's Milk, the fourth Patrick Melrose novel. He didn't win. Bad luck for St. Aubyn. Good news for the readers of Lost for Words.

This novel is the story of the quest to determine the honoree for the Elysian Prize, an annual literary competition sponsored, ironically enough, by a multinational agricultural corporation that specializes in producing herbicides and pesticides. Feel free to let your mind wander to the obvious barnyard comparisons. St. Aubyn certainly did.

The chairman of the Elysian Prize committee is a listless backbench British MP, Malcolm Craig, with not much to do with his time. Craig is joined by his former lover, Penny Feathers, who is uniquely qualified to be on the committee for supposedly selecting the finest novel of the year inasmuch as she is laboring away at penning her own dreadful spy thriller.

Rounding out the committee are Jo Cross, an advice columnist on family life whose own family is in tatters; Vanesssa Shaw, a dreadful snob; and acclaimed actor Tobias Shaw, who never shows up for any meetings.

Katherine Burns' powerful novel Consequences would have been an odds-on favorite to claim the prize, had not her editor and paramour Alan Oaks accidentally sent over instead The Palace Cookbook, a collection of Indian recipes by a nonprofessional writer, the elderly Lakshmi Badanpur.

Unpleasantries ensue as the carnally gifted but emotionally challenged Katherine dumps Alan and spends the rest of the book having sex with men she barely can stand being in the same room, much less the same bed, with.

It's natural that when we read about such distinguished accolades as the Man Booker, or perhaps even the Nobel honors, we want to think the vetting process took place through intellectually honest interplay among those doing the judging. Maybe so.

But with St. Aubyn's formerly smack-stained fingers at the keyboard, about the last thing on the minds of the Elysian committee is literary excellence, as the reader eventually learns when the winner is announced.

As you would expect, St. Aubyn is a deft observer of the publishing industry, capturing its inner pettiness and its uncanny ability to make lousy manuscript decisions while retaining its self-importance as an arbiter of taste, culture and what will sell, but rarely does. He also possesses a keen ability to re-create long sections of truly horrible writing submitted to the committee. There must be an award for that kind of skill alone.

For lovers of both fine writing and satire delivered at its most poisonous, Lost for Words is a thoroughly enjoyable read, made all the more so by the thought that the Man Booker cabal is probably blanching at the price to be paid for rejecting St. Aubyn's earlier work. He has obviously heeded Alice Roosevelt Longworth's wonderful quip: "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."

Irony abounds as well. Lost for Words was awarded the 2014 Wodehouse Prize for its "wonderfully funny sendup of literary prizes and contemporary life."

Well done, Mr. St. Aubyn. Well done. But wouldn't we all like to know how the Wodehouse committee decided on you?

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