Do you ever find yourself reluctant to review your favourite authors, because what you could write about them would pale in comparison to their actual greatness? Yeah, me too. Edward St. Aubyn could write a book about limescale and I would be riveted.
Lost for Words is Aubyn’s latest novel, it tracks the progress of the Elysian Prize, a literary fiction award. While it didn’t grip me in the way his Patrick Melrose novels had, his hilarious take on the egoism of agenda* and thorough characterisation won me over.
“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.” Synopsis from GoodReads.
It’s not often that you encounter a novel with numerous characters that give an air of authenticity. Usually I find it is only the protagonist who feels three dimensional – it’s their world and you don’t get to delve within other minds. And if you do, their heads aren’t often much fun. Aubyn defies this preconception of mine. Each of his characters are different and in each I see characteristics and motivations I recognise from my own world.
Penny the ex-Home Office employee, rose up the ranks due to an affair with her boss, sacrificing her home life for her work. Malcolm – Chair of the Elysian Prize – charges his secretary with reading the submissions on his behalf. In fact, none of the judges are reading all the books. Each character has problems interfering with the selection. Egos pushing and pulling at a prize where literature doesn’t seem to matter at all. Even English professor Veronica, the academic with a drug addicted son and an anorexic daughter, pushes her own elitist agenda.
Aubyn has an astute ability to push perceived greatness from its pedestal. Taking baseless prestige and stripping it of infallibility. As this is a tongue in cheek novel – or so I hope otherwise, how awkward – each character is an exaggerated example of who may be involved in such a prize. The board of judges are engrossed in their own bias and petty rivalry. The authors conversely are consumed by their novels, full of rhetoric and willing to do whatever it takes to be heard. Aubyn demonstrates how great works of fiction, worthy of accolades, can be missed for the silliest of reasons. Not to mention that the choice of winner can be an example of politics and appearance rather than the written word. Aubyn challenges our modes of distinction on what may or may not be of literary worth.
Unfortunately, there was a lack of depth to the story that stopped me adoring the novel. A lot happens within fewer pages than I think the story needed. In terms of characters it bothered me that all three female characters with careers and children failed at sustaining a family. There were times where Aubyn’s characterisations were overladen with undesirable traits.
That aside Lost for Words was an enjoyable read and had me interested throughout – I even laughed, and that rarely happens.
*I’m channelling Didier.