'Lost for Words' is a delightful and deserving winner of the Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction
A novelist shines mercilessly comic light on the insular world of literary prizes.
Edward St. Aubyn's Lost for Words, a pitiless satire of literary prizes and the mediocrities who give and receive them, might reasonably be regarded as its author's successful revenge on a prize committee that overlooked him. On top of that, it has just been awarded some laurels of its own – the Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction. Were it not enough for St. Aubyn to have triumphed on those two counts, we may add this: In "Lost for Words," the author is at last having some long-overdue and much-deserved fun, a word one wouldn't dare apply to the composition of his remarkable five-volume series of autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels.
"Lost for Words" is entertaining enough to be enjoyed in total ignorance of its author's history, but the context does help. St. Aubyn, the scion of an aristocratic and depraved British family, was raped by his father and neglected by his alcoholic mother, became a heroin addict, contemplated suicide, and wrote his way out of these horrors with a cycle of lucid, bitter, improbably comic works that earned him comparisons to Waugh and Wilde. Advised that he might ease his suffering by considering his father sick and not evil, St. Aubyn's surrogate, Patrick, wonders: "[W]hat is evil if not sickness celebrating itself?" The line is characteristic of the author's hard-bitten, unforgiving honesty.
Despite the best efforts of enthusiasts like The New Yorker's James Wood, St. Aubyn has enjoyed far too little renown in the United States, and – returning to the subject of "Lost for Words" – some feel that he has been ill-used in his native country as well. "Mother's Milk," the fourth installment of the Melrose cycle, was shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize but lost to Kiran Desai's "The Inheritance of Loss"; the final book in the cycle, 2012's "At Last," wasn't even longlisted. St. Aubyn claimed the snub didn't bother him, but, really, where's the fun in being a good sport? Thanks to his pique we have the Elysian Prize of "Lost for Words," patterned so carefully on the Booker that some of its fictional judges correspond to figures of the British literati.
Not, of course, that one need bother with any of that: The characters, who are really types, on display in "Lost for Words" will be instantly and deliciously recognizable to anyone who hates terrible writing and its enablers. Among the judges the most awful are surely Jo Cross, a "columnist and media personality" whose "ruling passion was 'relevance,' " and Penny Feathers of the Foreign Office, who composes her own vapid thrillers with the help of a program called Ghost: "When you typed in a word, 'refugee' for instance, several useful suggestions popped up: 'clutching a pathetic bundle,' or 'eyes big with hunger'; for 'assassin' you got 'ice water running through his veins'..."
The prize is named for the Elysian Group, an agribusiness whose specialties include genetically modified crops and skirting notice or responsibility for the, shall we say, quirks in their product. Sir David Hampshire, a "Cold War relic" and the Elysian board member responsible for running the prize, is a former paramour of Penny Feathers and the godfather of another judge, Tobias Benedict, a minor actor whose role "playing Estragon in a hip-hop adaptation of 'Waiting for Godot'" prevents him from actually attending any committee meetings. But St. Aubyn seems far less exercised by the incestuousness, favoritism, and politicking of the prize committee than with its near-total lack of literary discrimination or passion.
The writers and novels under consideration are well matched to the committee, which is to say almost uniformly terrible. There is wot u starin at, which provides some sense of what an Irvine Welsh novel must sound like to a hyperliterate former addict like St. Aubyn: "Death Boy's troosers were round his ankies. The only vein in his body that hadna bin driven into hiding was in his cock." There are two works of moronically crowd-pleasing historical fiction, "All the World's a Stage" ("Penny couldn't help admiring the way it made you feel you were really in a tavern with William Shakespeare and his pals") and "The Enigma Conundrum" ("The novel's portrait of Churchill was utterly convincing – you could almost smell the cigar smoke and the brandy on his breath!"). And, in a joke whose very datedness makes it all the more pointed, there is an Indian cookbook submitted to the prize by accident and mistaken for a specimen of postmodern genre-bending.
The narrative threads running alongside St. Aubyn's amusing character sketches and vicious pastiches do, believe it or not, feature people it is hard not to like: the serious but desperately blocked novelist Sam Black; the intimacy-averse, promiscuous, and talented Katherine Burns; Vanessa Shaw, the token Oxbridge academic whose expertise makes her the lone voice of sanity on the judging panel; and the lovably risible Didier Leroux, a cultural theorist whose masterpiece-in-progress is called "The Anatomy of Banality." The only villain is Sonny, an Indian panjandrum determined either to take the Elysian Prize or to destroy the fools who withhold it from him.
"Lost for Words" is so much lighter than St. Aubyn's Melrose novels, with their lacerating badinage and stop-you-dead aphorisms, that it can be hard to believe they are the work of the same author. But a man who has endured as much as St. Aubyn has a right to indulge in the simple pleasures of farce and ridicule now and then. "Lost for Words" can feel like a joke at the expense not only of prize committees and lit types but also of satire as such, which too often stoops to conquer unworthy adversaries. Could a man who took five novels to work out a singularly horrifying and traumatic past really harbor particularly intense feelings about a lost award? Or is he slyly mocking those who think so, by sending up frivolity itself?
Whatever the case, St. Aubyn's true feelings about the value of great writing are made clear by a character who considers the position that art is useless: "Try telling that to ... someone whose loneliness has been abolished by the perfect reflection of her mood or predicament in the sentence she has just read." From the pen of a very different author, this might be a syrupy sentiment. From St. Aubyn's, it is a striking testimony to the redemptive power of capital-L Literature. "Lost for Words" would, to all appearances, be perfectly happy with beach-read status, but something of its author's darkness can't help bubbling up to the surface – and neither can his hope.