Lost for Wordsby Edward St. Aubyn
Edward St. Aubyn is "great at dissecting an entire social world" (Michael Chabon, Los Angeles Times)
Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels were some of the most celebrated works of fiction of the past decade. Ecstatic praise came from a wide range of admirers, from literary superstars such as Zadie Smith, Francine Prose, Jeffrey Eugenides, and/b>/i>
Edward St. Aubyn is "great at dissecting an entire social world" (Michael Chabon, Los Angeles Times)
Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels were some of the most celebrated works of fiction of the past decade. Ecstatic praise came from a wide range of admirers, from literary superstars such as Zadie Smith, Francine Prose, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Michael Chabon to pop-culture icons such as Anthony Bourdain and January Jones. Now St. Aubyn returns with a hilariously smart send-up of a certain major British literary award.
The judges on the panel of the Elysian Prize for Literature must get through hundreds of submissions to find the best book of the year. Meanwhile, a host of writers are desperate for Elysian attention: the brilliant writer and serial heartbreaker Katherine Burns; the lovelorn debut novelist Sam Black; and Bunjee, convinced that his magnum opus, The Mulberry Elephant, will take the literary world by storm. Things go terribly wrong when Katherine's publisher accidentally submits a cookery book in place of her novel; one of the judges finds himself in the middle of a scandal; and Bunjee, aghast to learn his book isn't on the short list, seeks revenge.
Lost for Words is a witty, fabulously entertaining satire that cuts to the quick of some of the deepest questions about the place of art in our celebrity-obsessed culture, and asks how we can ever hope to recognize real talent when everyone has an agenda.
The latest from St. Aubyn (the Patrick Melrose novels) marks a departure from his previous work. This comedic novel chronicles a year in the life of the Elysium Prize, a fictional Booker-like British literary award. The Elysium is mired in scandal and incompetence from the get-go: the underwriting funds come from a dubious agribusiness conglomerate, the judging panel is marginally qualified, and the process of selecting a shortlist is more about alliances and favors than quality. St. Aubyn inserts some amusing parodies in the early part of the novel, including selections from wot u starin at, a crude Scottish drug novel, as well as All the World’s a Stage, a dense historical work about Shakespeare. These surveyings of the terrain of Irvine Welsh, Hilary Mantel, and others are among the novel’s highlights. In addition to following the judges, St. Aubyn devotes chapters to several would-be nominees. Katherine is a rising literary star whose publisher accidentally submits a cookbook instead of her latest manuscript; Sonny is an Indian prince who takes the slighting of his self-published opus, The Mulberry Elephant, as a grave personal affront. St. Aubyn is clearly having fun with this material, and the book is breezy and propulsive. Still, the satire isn’t particularly deep, and none of the many characters in this short novel are featured long enough to make a lasting impression. A modest entertainment from a writer whose output had hitherto been uniformly exceptional. (May)
“Everything St. Aubyn writes is worth reading for the cleansing rancor of his intelligence and the fierce elegance of his prose…” Anne Enright, New York Times Book Review
“Lost for Words is especially witty... a hilarious commentary on the dissonance between the daily lives of authors and how they are perceived publicly.” Maddie Crum, Huffington Post
“Lost for Words is... a satirical romp that showcases... [St. Aubyn's] Waugh-like talent for comedy and his unsparing eye for people's pretensions and self-delusions.” Mikicho Kakutani, The New York Times
“Lost for Words... is an entertaining squib... [with] perfectly aimed satirical barbs.” John Banville, The New York Review of Books
“St. Aubyn… executes his irony with phlegmatic and tightly controlled prose, underneath which lurks the trenchant exasperation of a veteran.” Esther Yi, Los Angeles Review of Books
“[D]eeply eloquent writing… St. Aubyn's mastery of language--and the resonance it can hew--can't help but come through.” Brian Gallagher, The Seattle Times
“Lost for Words is a withering satire... a deliciously irreverent novel.” Jonathan Yardley
“St. Aubyn's is a subtle, dry, and often dark type of humor... [he] once again skewers privilege in a humorous way.” Jason Diamond, Flavorwire
“Lost for Words [is a] savage field report. ...The best and meanest parts of the book are its pitch-perfect parodies of fashionable genres...” Eugenia Williamson, Boston Globe
“[Lost for Words] contains some of the best writing we're likely to read this year.” Hannah Beckerman, Huffington Post
“A light-footed romp and a notable taboo-buster… a frisky satire on modern literary manners and the funniest thing St. Aubyn has ever written.” Sunday Telegraph
“St Aubyn's powers of observation are as sharp as ever.” Henry Hitchings, Financial Times
“Lost for Words is a fizzing satire that neatly skewers all the contradictions of literary prize-giving… Lost for Words is very funny, but it also makes some serious points about what is good writing, who is best qualified to make judgments about it… [The Melrose novels] are the most extraordinary transmutation of personal horror into great art.” Telegraph magazine
“[St. Aubyn is] an adept observer of the elite with a devastating talent for dialogue…” Chicago Tribune
“A tangy jeu d'esprit… [St. Aubyn] is such a bitchy, brilliant prose writer that any impression this book is a mere scathing divertissement is amply compensated for by nearly every sentence.” Metro
“St. Aubyn has a cut-glass prose style, a gift for unexpected metaphor, and a skewering eye… [He] is a conjurer, able to take that greasy deck of cards and make it perform tricks of a sort rarely seen anymore.” The Atlantic
“… St. Aubyn offers a hearty satire, full of laughs and groans.” Mark Levine, Booklist
“Lost for Words is a... jaunty, often hilarious farce… very, very funny.” Alexander Benaim, Bookforum
“Edward St. Aubyn is among the handful of the current giants of English fiction. He has always had an eye for the sort of satire that does not exclude compassion and understanding; now that eye is trained on the absurd world of awarding literary prizes. The results are hilarious!” Edmund White
“A laugh-out-loud sendup of literary prizes . . . Both the author and the reader have great fun.” Kirkus
And now for something completely different: a broad farce from a British novelist renowned for his literary subtlety and command of tone. Having finished his five-volume series of autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels (At Last, 2012, etc.), which have been hailed as one of the foremost achievements of modern literature, what could St. Aubyn do for an encore? Though a lethal sense of humor has been crucial to his skewering of the British upper classes, here he exchanges the darkness of hell and redemption among the coldhearted aristocracy for a laugh-out-loud sendup of literary prizes. Instead of the Man Booker, Britain's most prestigious award is the Elysian Prize for Literature, determined by one well-meaning academic and a motley assortment of philistines, sponsored by a "highly innovative but controversial agricultural company" whose chief critics are environmentalists "claiming that [its products] caused cancer, disrupted the food chain, destroyed bee populations, or turned cattle into cannibals." The judges for the prize generally have hidden (or not so hidden) agendas that don't require them to actually read the books, and one doesn't even bother to attend their deliberative sessions (he's an actor on tour with "a hip-hop adaptation of Waiting for Godot"). The plot pivots around the promiscuity of a nubile novelist who has "averaged twenty lovers a year since she was sixteen" and who is in the process of juggling three or more through most of the narrative. Both the author and the reader have great fun with this, as the virtuosic novelist provides excerpts from nominated works, including a historical novel about William Shakespeare, a pulp page-turner and a scabrous (and hilarious) spew that the highest-minded judge dismisses as "sub-Irvine Welsh." Through preposterous plot machinations, a cookbook of traditional Indian recipes is mistakenly submitted as fiction and becomes an unlikely contender, "operating as the boldest metafictional performance of our time." The madcap climax involves an assassination plot and a stuck elevator at the awards banquet before surprisingly resolving itself with a (tentative) happy ending. Like a long Monty Python sketch.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Publication date:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)
Read an Excerpt
When that Cold War relic Sir David Hampshire had approached him about becoming Chair of the Elysian Prize committee, Malcolm Craig asked for twenty-four hours to consider the offer. He had a visceral dislike of Hampshire, the epitome of a public-school mandarin, who had still been Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office when Malcolm was a new Member of Parliament. After he retired, Hampshire took on the usual bushel of non-executive directorships that were handed out to people of his kind, including a position on the board of the Elysian Group, where he had somehow fallen into the role of selecting the committees for their literary prize. His breadth of experience and range of contacts were always cited as the justification, but the truth was that David liked power of any sort; the power of influence, the power of money and the power of patronage.
Malcolm’s doubts were not confined to Hampshire. Elysian was a highly innovative but controversial agricultural company. It numbered among its products some of the world’s most radical herbicides and pesticides, and was a leader in the field of genetically modified crops, crossing wheat with Arctic cod to make it frost resistant, or lemons with bullet ants to give them extra zest. Their Giraffe carrots 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.
Nevertheless, environmentalists had attacked one Elysian product after another, claiming that it caused cancer, disrupted the food chain, destroyed bee populations, or turned cattle into cannibals. As the noose of British, European and American legislation closed around it, the company had to face the challenge of finding new markets in the less hysterically regulated countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. That was where the Foreign Office, liaising with Trade and Industry, had stepped in with their combined expertise in exports and diplomacy. The latter had come very much to the fore after some regrettable suicides among Indian farmers, whose crops had failed when they were sold Cod wheat, designed to withstand the icy rigours of Canada and Norway rather than the glowing anvil of the Indian Plain. Although the company disclaimed any responsibility, an un-usually generous consignment of Salamander wheat proved such a success that Elysian was able to use a shot of the gratefully waving villagers, their colourful clothing pressed to their elegantly thin bodies by the billows of a departing helicopter, in one of its advertising campaigns.
Elysian’s weaponized agricultural agents had come to Malcolm’s attention when he was asked to sit on the Government committee responsible for the ‘Checkout List’. Aerially dispersed, Checkout caused any vegetation on the ground to burst immediately into flame, forcing enemy soldiers into open country where they could be destroyed by more conventional means. Debates about the Checkout List had of course remained secret, and from the general public’s point of view, Elysian’s name continued to be associated almost entirely with its literary prize.
In the end it was backbench boredom that persuaded Malcolm to accept the chairmanship of the prize committee. An obscure opposition MP needed plenty of extra-curricular activities to secure a decent amount of public attention. Who knew what opportunities his new role might bring? His moment in the pallid Caledonian sun as Under-Secretary of State for Scotland had been the climax of his career so far, as well, he hoped, as the climax of his self-sabotage. He had lost the job by making a reckless speech about Scottish independence that ran directly contrary to his party’s official policy and ensured that he would have to resign. He hoped he might one day return to his old job, but for the moment it was time to put away affairs of state and take up childish things, to look through a glass darkly – over a long lunch. When he rang Hampshire to tell him the happy news, he couldn’t resist asking why the prize was confined to the Imperial ash heap of the Commonwealth.
‘Those are the terms of the endowment,’ said Hampshire drily. ‘On the wider question of why an institution as vacuous and incoherent as the Commonwealth continues to exist, my answer is this: it gives the Queen some pleasure and that is reason enough to keep it.’
‘Well, that’s good enough for me,’ said Malcolm, waiting tactfully until he had hung up the phone to add, ‘you silly old twat.’
Broadly speaking, he did not regret his decision. His secretary was busier than she had been for a good while, collecting newspaper clippings and recordings of radio interviews. Malcolm noticed an increase in the ripple effect of his presence in the Commons bar, and an added liveliness to his conversations at dinner parties. The only aggravating aspect of the process was Hampshire’s refusal to consult him about the other members of the committee.
As a well-known columnist and media personality, Jo Cross, the first to be appointed, made sense by raising the public profile of the prize. She turned out to be a veritable geyser of opinions, but once Malcolm managed to make her focus, it turned out that her ruling passion was ‘relevance’.
‘The question I’ll be asking myself as I read a book,’ she explained, ‘is “just how relevant is this to my readers?”’
‘Your readers?’ said Malcolm.
‘Yes, they’re the people I understand, and feel fiercely loyal to. I suppose you would call them my constituents.’
‘Thanks for putting that in terms I can easily grasp,’ said Malcolm, without showing the patronizing bitch the slightest sign of irony.
The presence of an Oxbridge academic, in the form of Vanessa Shaw, the second recruit, was probably unavoidable. In the last analysis, Malcolm felt there was no harm in having one expert on the history of literature, if it reassured the public. When he invited her to the Commons for tea, she kept saying that she was interested in ‘good writing’.
‘I’m sure we’re all interested in good writing,’ said Malcolm, ‘but do you have any special interest?’
‘Especially good writing,’ said Vanessa stubbornly.
The committee member Malcolm most resented was one of Hampshire’s old girlfriends from the Foreign Office, Penny Feathers. She had neither celebrity nor a distinguished public career to recommend her, and a little Googling soon established the emptiness of Hampshire’s claim that she was a ‘first-class’ author in her own right. Malcolm couldn’t look at her without thinking, ‘What in God’s name are you doing on my committee?’ He had to remind himself that she had one of five votes and his mission was to make sure that her vote went his way.
The final appointee was an actor Malcolm had never heard of. Tobias Benedict was a godson of Hampshire’s who had been ‘a fanatical reader ever since he was a little boy’. He missed the first two meetings, due to rehearsals, but sent an effusive apology on a handwritten card, saying that he was there ‘in spirit if not in the flesh’, that he was reading ‘like a madman’, and that he was ‘in love with’ All the World’s a Stage, a novel Malcolm had not got round to yet. The truth was that he had no intention of reading more than a small proportion of the two hundred novels originally submitted to the committee. His role was to inspire, to guide, to collate and above all, to delegate. In this case, he asked Penny Feathers to look into Tobias’s choice, feeling that one lame duck should investigate another.
He asked his secretary to skim through the early submissions looking for his own special interest, anything with a Scottish flavour. She had come up with three novels of which he had so far only had time to look at one. A harsh but ultimately uplifting account of life on a Glasgow housing estate, wot u starin at really hit the spot when it came to new voices, the real concerns of ordinary people, and the dark underbelly of the Welfare State. He intended to lend it his support and start a discreet campaign on its behalf. He was also pleased, for personal reasons, that she had unearthed The Greasy Pole, a novel by Alistair Mackintosh, but he must be careful not to support it too overtly.
When it came to running a committee, Malcolm favoured a collegiate approach: there was nothing like proving you were a team player to get your own way. The point was to build a consensus and come up with a vision of the sort of Britain they all wanted to project with the help of this prize: diverse, multi-cultural, devolutionary, and of course, encouraging to young writers. After all, young writers were the future, or at any rate, would be the future – if they were still around and being published. You couldn’t go wrong with the future. Even if it was infused with pessimism, until it was compromised by the inevitable cross-currents of unexpected good news and character-building opportunities, the pessimism remained perfect, unsullied by that much more insidious and dangerous quality, disappointment. The promise of young writers was perfect as well, until they burnt out, fucked up or died – but that would be under another government and under another committee.
Copyright © 2014 by Edward St. Aubyn
Meet the Author
Edward St. Aubyn was born in London in 1960. He is the author of a series of highly acclaimed novels about the Melrose family, including At Last and Mother's Milk, which was short-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, as well as the novels A Clue to the Exit and On the Edge.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >