Lost for Words

lost for wordsA novel about warring judges on the panel of a prestigious book prize that is essentially a poorly-masked Booker? This sounded like a delightful hoot to me when I heard about it, and I fell on Lost for Words with enthusiasm. I hadn’t read any of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels but he was an author I was curious about and I figured that at the very least there’d be plenty of good writing. Well this was a masterclass in how good writing alone cannot save a doomed story, and for me it raised the question yet again as to why anyone would want to write a satire. It is the most adolescent of literary genres and I do not mean that in a good way. The book world is a complex place, rich in emotion and significance; when will anyone write a book that does justice to its reality?

Anyway, in Lost for Words, we find power-hungry MP Malcolm Craig appointed head of the judging panel for the Elysian literary prize. Elysian being a somewhat dodgy agri-chemical business whose notable creation, the ‘Giraffe carrot’ ‘had been a great help to the busy housewife, freeing her to peel a single carrot for Sunday lunch instead of a whole bunch or bag.’ He is joined by crusading journalist, Jo Cross, interested only in the ‘relevance’ of the books she reads, a good-looking young actor, Tobias Benedict, who never seems able to turn up for the meetings, an academic, Vanessa Shaw, who irritates the others with her hunt for good writing, and an ex-Foreign Office writer, Penny Feathers, who tries to be diligent but finds the judging process interferes with writing her latest thriller, Roger and Out.

I don’t need to say any more about these characters. They are exactly as you might expect them to be. In the full glory of their two dimensions.

Added into this mix are some of the writers whose books are competing for the prize. There’s a nymphomaniac but brilliant writer, Katherine Burns, whose admirable novel fails to make the longlist because of a mix-up at the publishers. Instead they send the recipe book of an elderly aristocratic Indian woman, aunt to a princeling determined that his magum opus, the enormous and unreadable The Mulberry Elephant, will be a huge hit. Alas and of course, his aunt’s cook book is hailed as a triumph of postmodernity and shoots onto the shortlist, provoking him to turn the family retainer into a hired assassin.

There are other people but I can’t be bothered to tell you about them. You can probably imagine.

Stuff happens. You can probably guess what.

Various pot shots are taken. For instance, genre writer Penny Feathers gets it in the neck because of her use of ‘some highly addictive software called Ghost’, a programme that can provide a cliché for any situation.

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’, and ‘his eyes were cold narrow slits’…. She could scroll and click, scroll and click all day, with the word count going up in leaps and bounds.

And of course the judging process itself is fair game.

He could hear Vanessa’s exasperation as she gradually realised that the majority of her so-called ‘literary’ novels were not going to make it onto the Short List. She kept trying to argue that the other novels lacked the qualities that characterized a work of literature: ‘depth, beauty, structural integrity, and an ability to revive our tired imaginations with the precision of its language’. The poor woman didn’t seem to realize that what counted in the adult world was working out compromises between actual members of a committee that reflected the forces at work in the wider society…

St Aubyn is capable of making clever and incisive remarks. He writes really well. Why lower himself, then, to some of the most tired and lazy cliches when it comes to character, situation and plot? Well, my own issue with this is basically about satire. Satire is fuelled by unresolved emotions – anger, spite and contempt for the most part – and in the rush to make a cheap laugh, it rarely pauses long enough to contemplate the objects of its derision. Satire is pretty much permanently doomed to using stereotypes as its foundation. St Aubyn does try to bring in some much needed compassion – Vanessa is deeply worried about her anorexic daughter and Katherine’s love life eventually calms down – but this just makes the book feel choppy and unstable. What I would love to see is a novel about the book industry that tries to be serious and real, and maybe it would be satirical inadvertently, but then again it might not. At least the result would be unpredictable.

Unfortunately, back in 2006, Edward St Aubyn’s novel Mother’s Milk, was shortlisted for the Booker and surprisingly failed to win it. At the time he is reported as saying he was relieved about this. And then in 2011 when his novel At Last wasn’t longlisted, he was quoted in interview as saying: “I’m not going to spend a lot of time thinking about a prize I can’t win. The Booker 2011 is of no more interest to me than the world heavyweight championship which I’m not going to win either. It is irrelevant. What I have to do is start writing a new novel.” You have to wonder whether it’s wise for someone with that kind of history to write this kind of novel.


28 thoughts on “Lost for Words

  1. I know that the Patrick Melrose novels were much admired but I found them so utterly depressing that I failed to stay the course. I had wondered if Lost for Words might be worth a look but thanks to you I will be avoiding it. Life really is too short for bad books. I have read a very funny satire on the book world – Charlie Hill’s Books – but I suspect that it’s much funnier if you’ve worked in that world and are amused by Jasper Fforde.

    • How interesting that the Patrick Melrose novels didn’t work for you. Charlie Hill is a new name to me but one I will now look out for – and Jasper Fforde is someone else I’ve never read! If you can think of straight narratives about publishing, I’d be interested in those, too.

      • Oh I completely agree! I read that a few years ago and loved it too. And on that topic, Joanna Rakoff’s memoir that comes out in June – My Year of Salinger – will probably be one of my best books of the year. You are wise to think of memoir; it’s a good way to go.

  2. Not one for me either. I’m sure I read something by him years ago and wasn’t wowed. I do have Charlie Hill’s ‘Books’ on the TBR though.

  3. Aw, sad. I was sort of excited about this one — although you’re right, satire’s not the best of genres. The problem I think is that authors insist on continuing to write satirical BOOKS, when they should properly focus on shorter things. Spinning satire out to book-length very very often ends up seeming mean-spirited. You want to be on the characters’ side, and you can’t because the author keeps insisting that you must despise them.

    • That is such a good point! You are quite right – it’s the way the satire goes on and on that’s deadening, and the sporadic attempts to make his characters sympathetic are just confusing. I would have very much liked to be on their side if I could and it would have added a lot of power to the story.

    • Yours is the second vote so far for Mother’s Milk, so I will have to give that one a go. He does write well, so this one seemed a waste of his talents.

  4. This book just won the Wodehouse prize the other day so I was excited to see you had read it and was hoping you’d say how hilarious it is! Too bad it didn’t turn out so very funny for you.

    • It’s amazing, isn’t it, how we all read books so differently? Well, you should definitely give it a try if you’re interested in it. You might well agree with the Wodehouse panel!

  5. According to last week’s Bookseller this was the most reviewed book that week. What they didn’t say was what that multitude of reviewers thought about it. I was hoping that this was going to be one St Aubyn book that I might enjoy because, like Susan, I failed to stay the course with the Melrose novels. However, I trust your judgement and so will give this a miss as well.

    • Heh, there’s nothing like a book about the book world to draw the reviews. I would be very interested to know what the ratio was of good to bad. And it’s very interesting to know that you felt the same way Susan did. I’m quite relieved, in fact, as this was my first attempt at a St Aubyn, to find out that he isn’t universally loved!

  6. I can never get any purchase on satire (or irony or allegory for that matter). I’ve never understood why, either. And now, thanks to your review, I do. Thank you for that.

    • You are such a dear heart. I don’t mind irony (in fact, my life is ruled by it so I’ve had to learn to get to grips with it), but I am right with you on the others!

  7. I’m with the anti-satirists – all that bile and superiority directed so destructively – I mind less if there’s an alternative presented. Yet perversely I am impressed that his writing just about carried you through. I might not hurry to read this but I think I will keep an eye open for anything else of his which comes my way.

    (I feel rather for him though; it must be galling not only to miss out on a prize but to be asked for your response to this, a response which you know must be graceful even if you’ve spent the previous half hour hurling paperback editions of your work round your study while shouting rude things about the judges.)

    • Oh Helen, your parenthesis did make me laugh! I would love to know what you thought of this. The writing IS very good and I would give him another try if the premise of the book appealed.

  8. Interesting point about satire – I’d never thought about it before. The best “satires” are ones that have made me think “Why has this been categorised as a satire??” Strangely, some of my favourite books are among them: Ian McEwan’s Solar, lampooning a certain kind of scientist, and Michael Frayn’s A Landing on the Sun, about philosophers. I’d also say Barbara Pym is a bit satirical. And many years ago I enjoyed The History Man. Gentleness helps, although the McEwan and Bradbury are hardly gentle. Maybe the key for me is that the satire has to be a take on a view of the whole world presented, as an argument against the system. Rather than this just seems to be about setting up characters who are not very real or rounded in the first place, trying to get laughs?

    • I’m very interested indeed in what you say about satire; you put forward a far more sophisticated intent which I could certainly get behind. I am a fan of both Barbara Pym and The History Man, and I guess there is so much subtlety in both cases – for me they are more novels with satirical elements and in that respect the satire works much better. Yes, the St Aubyn felt much more like shooting fish in a barrel – easy targets, not much sport, obvious ending. I must try both the McEwan and the Frayn that you mention. They both sound like books that would intrigue me.

  9. I still want to read Mother’s Milk but I’m not interested in this. I don’t mind a satire per se but not always on the same topics please – book related themes or academia. Overall however, it’s not a genre I pick up often. I do wonder why he of all people chose this subject.

    • Yes, it’s intriguing that academia seems to attract the satirists, when it is interesting enough to be portrayed in its own right (and of course some writers do – Marilyn French, even Richard Russo, whose book is funny but not satirically so). Mother’s Milk definitely seems to be the St Aubyn to try. His writing was good, so it was a shame I didn’t enjoy this one more. I’d love to know what you think of him.

  10. I am in the midst of this novel right now, and frankly, struggling through much of it. (I loved the Patrick Melrose novels so very much.) That said, I also find myself laughing unexpectedly. The facetiousness is delightful to me, especially in light of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize going to a book which I thought to be the very bottom of the pile. (The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim). I mean, an accidental submission of a cookbook which then makes the Long List? Hilarious, and I’m afraid, somehow applicable to many judge’s decisions.

  11. Pingback: Lost For Words by Edward St. Aubyn | Dolce Bellezza

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