LOST FOR WORDS. By Edward St. Aubyn. FSG. 259 pages. $26.
In "At Last," the final volume of his Patrick Melrose quintet, Edward St. Aubyn has his hero describe irony as "the hardest addiction of all ... that deep down need to mean two things at once." St. Aubyn's new novel, "Lost for Words," is a bright sendup of the literary prize system. It's also a book that relies on deep incongruity for its effect.
St. Aubyn stakes his claim at the spot where art and commerce meet, a place that one character describes as "pure casino." At bottom are important questions about tastemaking in literature, the absurdity of competition, and the sometimes wayward distribution of laurels. But mostly, fun trumps anything serious. St. Aubyn shreds the literary prize industry with manicured talons. It's the kind of performance that ought to win an award, and it did: the P.G. Wodehouse Award for Comic Fiction.
The action of "Lost for Words" centers on the judges and contenders for the Elysian Prize for Literature, a fictional award that seems very like the Booker. In St. Aubyn's telling, no one gets off, but no one gets hurt either.
He assembles an easily caricatured judging panel: Malcolm Craig, the chairman of the committee, is a back-bench politician whose heyday came during a brief stint as under-secretary of state for Scotland. His sole aim, aside from alleviating back-bench boredom, is to honor a Scottish book (such as the gritty "wot u starin at") and reposition himself in that country.
Jo Cross, a columnist and media personality, is a "veritable geyser of opinions" whose sole literary standard is "relevance." Vanessa Shaw is an Oxbridge academic whose special interest is in "good writing."
Penny Feathers is a relic of the Foreign Office who cranks out thrillers with the help of a highly addictive software called Ghost. If she types in the word "shoes," for instance, up pop a few options: "badly scuffed," "highly polished," "seen better days."
Tobias Bennett, the final member of the committee, hasn't been able to make any of the meetings because he's on tour playing Estragon in a hip-hop version of "Waiting for Godot."
No one is willing to read all the books. St. Aubyn offers up funny samples of the major contending works so we can see what the committee is missing.
The whole system is a nesting box of frauds within frauds. Cynicism, political handshakes, and oddball coalitions decide winners. The pool of artists is decidedly dodgy as well. St. Aubyn flies from one short chapter to the next, inhabiting briefly the mind of a writer or judge before moving to the next. We meet Sonny, an Indian prince and first-time novelist, who cooks up an assassination plot when "The Mulberry Tree," his magnum opus, doesn't make the longlist. A surprise inclusion on the list is a "novel" by Sonny's Auntie. Through a series of goofs and misinterpretations, Auntie's cookbook is labeled "a ludic, postmodern, multi-media masterpiece" - "fiction artfully disguised as culinary fact." It turns out that the Scottish favorite "wot u starin at" isn't what it seems either. Its gritty author is a lecturer in medieval love poetry at the University of Edinburgh.
Prize winning and awarding are farcical activities in St. Aubyn's book, but he has nothing but tenderness for the true artists caught by the lure of recognition. Sam Black and Katherine Burns are sometime lovers and full-time writers. Each uses words to strip away the world's noise. When he writes, Sam is "like a man walking backwards along a path, erasing his footsteps with a broom." His immaculate texts leave him feeling "empty and clear." Katherine finds "everything congested with words, everything spoken for." By making a kind of separate peace with language, they end up as the novel's real winners.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.