Friday, August 29, 2014

Lost For Words, by Edward St. Aubyn: Literary Award Hijinks

In the grand tradition of the best literary satire, Edward St. Aubyn's Lost for Words boldly takes its place. That's how the character Sonny might describe this goofy novel that sends up the Man Booker Prize with equal parts snark and silliness. Sonny — an Ignatius Reilly-like fella, who is so distraught that his 2,000-page tome isn't longlisted for the Prize, he decides to assassinate the judges — is just one of a cast of grotesques, both judges and writers, who populate St. Aubyn's comic novel.

The question of the novel: What possible chain of events could lead to a cookbook (yeah, a friggin' cookbook) being considered for the Commonwealth's most prestigious literary prize? (It's prestigious, yeah, but it is now sponsored by the Elysian Corporation, a Monsanto-like outfit famous for its pesticides and GMOs.)

Well, start with five idiot judges, some of whom were appointed to the committee for reasons of pure cronyism, each of whom have their own agendas of vastly varying degrees of sophistication. Add a snafu whereby the cookbook is mistakenly submitted to the committee instead of a novel by a sexpot writer named Kathryn. And throw in a deadlocked panel, most of whom haven't actually read the books, and you'll see how it's not outrageous. (Well, it would definitely be outrageous in real life — but not so in the pages of this novel, where one of the judges even tells her daughter to lay her life savings on a wager of one of the five shortlisted novels. Which of course doesn't win.)

Some of the fun of this novel is the snippets of the nominees St. Aubyn includes. My favorite is one titled All The World's A Stage, written from the perspective of William Shakespeare. Ol' Billy gets in a battle of wits with a romantic rival, who, after Billy reveals he keeps a poem in his codpiece, tells him, "It is a naughty codpiece, for it hath naught in it." Burn! (By the way, another of the nominated novels is titled The Enigma Conundrum — John Le Carre couldn't have done better himself.)

These snippets are short, but allow you to get the general sense of terribleness of all these books. Sometimes they're a bit hit or miss, though, and can drone on a bit. As can the snippets of story told from the perspective of a couple of the characters, like a pretentious French writer named Didier, who is fascinated with paradox. But his pretension is just as boring reading it in this novel as you'd imagine it would be listening to this dude in real life. Another character — the only deserving author on the prize's long list – named Sam is a milquetoast lovelorn wuss, whose neurotic ramblings are also just as annoying to read about as they would be to hear in real life.

But so, if you've read and enjoyed other publishing industry satires like Steve Hely's How I Became A Famous Novelist or Adam Langer's The Thieves of Manhattan, you'll probably dig this too. It's a really short, two- or three-sitting read, and mostly pretty fun. 


  1. I especially loved the Ghostwriter App used by the "popular novelist"and the scene in the stuck elevator

    1. Ah, yeah - the silly app was fantastic. Should've mentioned that. Everything about Penny was hilarious, too. She's such a dolt. But has no idea she's a dolt.