Prize Fighters: Lost for Words

05/21/2014 4:00 AM |

Lost for Words
By Edward St. Aubyn
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

The Man Booker is dead; long live the Elysian Prize! To stand in for the Man Group’s yearly tourney, Edward St. Aubyn’s latest offers a similarly haphazard competition, sponsored by a company that specializes in modified crops (like lemons crossed with bullet ants for extra zest), driving cattle to cannibalism and farmers to suicide. The committee assembled to select the winner is accordingly suspect: a platitudinous MP; a media personality sounding off on “everything from Abortion to Zimbabwe”; a government grandee’s old mistress and his actor cousin; and, to placate any bookish malcontents, an Oxbridge academic who stubbornly maintains as her standard “good writing”—or “especially good writing”—though everybody knows that’s not the point.

Most of the writers who land on Elysian’s shortlist have at best extraliterary concerns: imitating Irvine Welsh, say, or wondering how one’s vanity-press cookbook was taken for an experimental novel. The well-meaning editor (ditching his wife for one of his authors, but never mind) responsible for the cookbook fiasco travels to a book conference in Guttenberg (!) to discover a “trade fair for digital gadgets and fatuous theories.” Is the point, then, that the golden age of literature is firmly behind us?

Such sweeping satire isn’t St. Aubyn’s bailiwick. The Patrick Melrose novels, for which he’s best known, skewer a specific social class but focus on the deeply damaged eponymous aristocrat as he grows from an abused child into an addicted young man and then into a struggling adult. Next to contorted, caustic Patrick, the mad maharaja planning to avenge his book’s omission from the list, or the familiar, frenetic French theorist (“…both catastrophes, the fantastic and the actual, are deployed to distract us from the desert of the Real…!”) look lacking—but then it’s folly to seat them next to Mr. Melrose at the
award ceremony.

If Lost for Words is a slight event, as some have concluded , like all good satire it’s spillover from serious concerns. Instead of the heartlessness St. Aubyn professes to dislike about Evelyn Waugh, here two promising young writers skipping the Elysian ceremony in favor of more sex find that “all the irony seemed to have rushed from the world, restoring it to a place where things happened naturally and incomparably,” which seems to obviate the need for literature—yet here we are, and (as usual with St. Aubyn) what a lovely sentence.