Lost for Words
by Edward St Aubyn
If there's anything Edward St Aubyn's eighth novel is not, it is lost for words. The work dazzles with its verbal dexterity and, it must be said, toys wickedly, cleverly, with the notion that words can be made to do anything, but in the end can amount to nothing.
But then which novel written by St Aubyn, author of the superb Melrose series, hasn't elicited delight and wonder with its verbal virtuosity? Hailed as Britain's greatest living prose stylist, he can do almost anything with words. As The Spectator once said of his writing, "he takes us to the very limits of the expressible".
But a word of caution for Melrose fans. Lost for Words is a world, indeed an entire emotional register, away from the quintet of novels about St Aubyn's alter ego, Patrick Melrose, and his dysfunctional aristocratic family. An ambitious and ultimately transformative literary project about reconstructing a life, an identity after psychological annihilation, these novels are among the most lavishly praised literary works of the past decade, with Mother's Milk, the fourth in the series, winning the prestigious 2007 Prix Femina Etranger after making the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize in 2006.
However, while the Melrose novels are awash with irony, wit and comedic flair on the surface, they revolve around an achingly tragic core. Lost for Words instead cavorts recklessly between satire, comedy and farce as it sends up our obsession with literary prizes in general, and the Man Booker in particular. Along the way it also has a mischievous dig at just about every preoccupation in our contemporary consumer-driven society.
It begins with Malcolm Craig, an obscure opposition MP, reflecting on his very real but altogether fleeting doubts over accepting the chairmanship of the committee for the Elysian Prize for literature. First of all he resents, even loathes, Sir David Hampshire, the "cold war relic" who has not only selected him as chair but appointed the entire committee. Then there are his misgivings about the sponsor of the prize, the Elysian Group, on whose board Sir David maintains a position. A key producer of some of the world's most radical herbicides and pesticides, Elysian was also a global leader in the field of genetically modified crops whose shortcomings had come to the fore after "some regrettable suicides" among Indian farmers whose crops had failed when they were sold wheat designed for colder climes.
You get the picture. St Aubyn mines the reality of recent events to create his fictional realm so audaciously that a few pages into the novel readers will find themselves engaged in the added pleasure of guessing which real-life corporation he is referring to, what actual living character is being sent up or whose novel he's parodying in Lost for Words.
Of course, not even Malcolm's privileged parliamentary knowledge of the terrible effects of Elysian's weaponised agricultural agent, Checkout, is enough to make him turn down the chairmanship. After all, what obscure politician can afford to turn down an opportunity for a "decent amount of public attention?" Yet what continues to irritate Malcolm is having to deal with committee members who he hasn't chosen. But as he has no intention of reading more than a small proportion of the novels that are submitted, he is determined to draw on his proven skills "to inspire, to guide, to collate and above all, to delegate".
His special interest is anything with "a Scottish flavour" and he delegates his secretary to come up with a couple of serious contenders including The Greasy Pole, a novel about Scottish independence, and wot u starin' at, which he believes to be a work "that really hit the spot when it came to new voices, the real concerns of ordinary people", but is declaimed by committee member and Oxbridge academic, Vanessa Shaw, as "sub Irvine Welsh".
Vanessa decides to back Malcolm over wot u starin' at for "essentially political reasons", but intends to fight for "good writing" when it comes to selecting the shortlist. Media personality Jo Cross declares her interest in "relevant fiction" but is open to Malcolm's deal-making, while actor Tobias Benedict has already confessed to "being in love with" All the Worlds a Stage, a novel written by a young New Zealander from the point of view of William Shakespeare. Malcolm finds Tobias the easiest to deal with as he is touring the country in a hip-hop adaptation of Waiting for Godot, and therefore doesn't attend meetings but sends effusive apologies instead.
Malcolm reserves particular resentment for Sir David's old girlfriend, crime writer Penny Feathers, who he nevertheless invites to dinner at the House of Commons at least once a fortnight in the interests of making sure her vote goes his way. He knows that Penny, who notched up a career in the Foreign Service before taking up crime writing, will welcome this brush with the corridors of power.
Penny turns out to be the most malleable of the committee members, but frets that reading novels for Elysian consideration will take precious time from her current thriller, Roger and Out. The sequel to Roger That, which has secured a smashing review in the Daily Express, Roger and Out betrays her unholy addiction to a software package called Gold Ghost Plus, which dishes up useful adjectives and phrases for a particular word.
It is difficult to tell which St Aubyn has more fun in sending up: the foibles of committee members or those of the writers who are desperate for Elysian recognition, or, indeed, their novels. His parodies of the long-listed novels are laugh-aloud funny. Then there is his riff on anorexia and a sneaky aside on psychotherapy. But much of the action and, indeed, the plot, revolves around the bedding and travel habits of up and coming novelist and femme fatale Katherine Burns, "who has averaged 20 lovers a year since she was sixteen" and is, having just returned from a trip to India, making do with the attentions of loquacious former lover French novelist Didier Leroux until her current squeeze, Alan, who also happens to be her editor, returns from a conference.
Didier, whose incessant semiotic ramblings include some of the novel's snidest comments on global capitalism and consumerism, insists that while in India Katherine meets up with Sonny, a wealthy Indian prince who is so convinced his vast and yet-to-be-published opus, The Mulberry Elephant, will win the Booker Prize. She also meets his equally royal aunt, and agrees to submit a volume of her family recipes, anecdotes and portraits to her own publisher for consideration on Auntie's behalf.
But instead, her own manuscript, Consequences, and Auntie's The Palace Cookbook are erroneously submitted to the Elysian prize by Alan's secretary. Katherine dumps Alan, who has left his wife for her, and sticks, for the time being at least, with Didier and another former ex, Sam Black. It is left to the lovelorn Sam, another contender for the Elysian and Katherine's affections, to win his way back to her bed after his novel, The Frozen Torrent, a metaphysical musing on the nature of art and words, makes the shortlist.
Needless to say, in the first of a series of stinging upsets, Auntie's cookbook also makes it to the shortlist thanks to Jo, who believes The Palace Cookbook ticks all her required boxes. "It's important that it works at a realistic level," she gushes, "while simultaneously operating as the boldest meta-fictional performance of our time."
Add an assassination attempt, a dramatic lift rescue and a betting scandal and this already fast-paced novel gallops towards a farcical but happy ending. In its ridiculously enjoyable wake, Lost for Words asks questions of art and literature, words and meaning.
Most of all it questions our preoccupation with comparisons, a perniciously vacuous human trait which manifests most obviously, most insidiously, in our ongoing obsession with literary prizes.