Lost in Words a Wicked and Delicious Take-down of Man Booker Prize

Edward St. Aubyn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, # 978-037428091, 261 pp.
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Edward St. Aubyn was once short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s version of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Don’t look for his name again in the near future—not after his acidly funny thinly veiled take-down of the Man Booker in Lost for Words. His is a whistle-blower’s satire of the award, one that says the prize has less to do with literature than with boardrooms, bedrooms, horse-trading, and horseshit. It’s a work of fiction, but just barely. Former judge A. L. Kennedy called the Man Booker "a pile of crooked nonsense" awarded according to "who knows who, who's sleeping with who[m], who's selling drugs to who[m], who's married to who[m], whose turn it is." A look at past winners certainly gives pause. Amidst the distinguished—V.S. Naipul, Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Nadine Gortimer––one finds an awful lot of one-hit wonders and dross: Arundhati Roy, Anita Brookner, Kiran Desai… And I've yet to meet anyone who thinks that Hilary Mantel's novels are even readable, let alone worthy of winning two Man Bookers.  

Those who know British culture will have great fun matching the fictional characters vying for and judging the Elysian Prize to the real-life characters that inspired them. For example, one of the Elysian judges is a handsome young actor Tobias Benedict, a dead ringer for 2012 judge Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey). Other elements of Kennedy’s blast are also at play. The Man part of the Man Booker is the investment firm that administers the prize, as is the Elysian Prize corporate sponsor. Both prizes are often headed by politicians, Scottish MP Malcolm Craig in the case of Lost for Words. Other members of Craig's contentious committee include: Benedict; social media guru Jo Cross; Oxbridge scholar Vanessa Shaw; and Penny Feathers, the ex-mistress of both Craig and Sir David Hampshire, whose firm funds the award. Everybody has an agenda. Craig is partial to wot u starin at, a foul-mouthed look at Glasgow’s working-class underbelly; Cross seeks “relevance,” though what she means by that is anyone’s guess; Shaw wants stellar literature, though one suspects she doesn’t think any has been written since the Edwardian age; and Feathers––modeled after Dame Stella Rimington, another Booker apostate—just wants a good read and good luck with that. She’s also hysterically writing an execrable mystery of her own with the aid of software that helps choose words and phrases. As bad as that sounds, she comes close to being the sanest one of the lot! 

Add to this unruly lot the writers on the short list, those spurned, publishers, and hangers-on. Many of them circle like buzzards around the gorgeous Katherine Burns, a writer of some renown, though it's not clear if it's because she's really all that good, or if it's because she has no qualms with sleeping with whomever she finds useful. At one point she's simultaneously bedding her publisher, Alan Oaks; French rapscallion Didier Leroux; and novelist Sam Black. Oaks loses her affection when one of his aides mistakenly submits an Indian cookbook for the Elysian Prize instead of Burns' novel; and Black loses out to professional jealousy when his The Frozen Torrent makes the shortlist. Leroux claims Katherine, though he's a poor man's Foucault, a pseudo-intellectual happy to expound about all of the major points and many of the minor ones from his postmodern work of theory What is Banality? Poor man—he could answer that question by gazing into a mirror!

Lost for Words has its flaws. Like some of his characters, St. Aubyn occasionally goes over the top. It contains one worthless and ridiculous personality—solipsistic Indian aristocrat Sunny Bunjee who has come to England to claim a prize he knows he should win, though no one has heard of him or his self-published tome. He happens to be the nephew of the woman whose cookbook is mistakenly viewed as literature. We really don't need much of Sunny and St. Aubyn strolls into cheap satire when trying to flesh out Sunny's tale. And, yes, St. Aubyn is open to charges of cattiness. Still, his snippets of novels within the novel works well enough to show that the emperor has no clothes. I roared over how Vanessa Shaw defended All the World's a Stage, a really insipid tale narrated from William Shakespeare's point of view. If you've ever had the experience of picking up a Man Booker Prize winner and wondering why on earth it was even published, let alone honored, Lost for Words explains it all. At its best, this is a laugh-out-loud farce.   Rob Weir

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