Sunday, July 27, 2014

Edward St. Aubyn's Lost For Words

I had never read any of St. Aubyn's novels before, so when I saw Lost for Words on the "new books" shelf at the library, I grabbed it and looked forward to familiarizing myself with St. Aubyn.  Now that I've read it, I think it was probably not the best choice to introduce me to his work.

Lost for Words by Edward St. AubynSt. Aubyn's writing is sharp, concise, and precise, and I can certainly see why he is highly regarded .  Having said that, the topic and the premise of the book are thin and seem misaligned with his style.  He exhibited tremendous skill as a writer in the service of a spoof that seems, frankly, cranky and mean-spirited.  The novel revolves around a prestigious literary award, clearly intended to be the Man Booker prize.  The novel follows several novelists and judges through the selection process, from the submission phase right through to the final dinner at which the winner is revealed.  There are things that happen with the judges that shouldn't be surprising to us:  the judges take up favorite novels and try to push their favorites through; not everyone reads all the submissions; they all have different ideas about what counts as a relevant, important novel; and they all bring some kind of political agenda to the process.  I thought that the judges were simply types, not people who would interest us.  We have an academic who speaks as the worst kind of academic and pushes for abstract ideals in art; a former Foreign Office employee-turned-(awful) novelist; a journalist looking for gritty novels that will "matter" to "the People" as she defines them; an actor who is charming and never participates in anything; and the elitist former diplomat who is above it all.  They are all stiff characters and at times really ridiculous.

Meanwhile, the authors are equally ridiculous and petty.  The Indian author from an upper-class background is obnoxious and arrogant, and another author sleeps with everyone.  One of the submissions that advances--I won't spoil it--makes everyone look like a buffoon; it's a situation that seems utterly impossible.  Again, the inclusion of that submission is petty, and suggests that St. Aubyn resents the Booker and his fellow novelists.  It positions St. Aubyn as above it all, better than the rest of his peers.

Now some might accuse me of not reading the novel in the spirit of a satire.  I would disagree.  The best satires make one think seriously and perhaps in a new way about the text they are satirizing.  In Lost for Words, the satire is not sharp, insightful, or interesting; it's heavy-handed and predictable.  I came away from reading the novel feeling like I had a greater respect for the Booker prize (which is deeply flawed, I know).  Mission, therefore, not accomplished. 

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