Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn: Book Review

There’s a passage near the beginning of Lost for Words in which Malcolm Craig MP, newly appointed chair of the Elysian Prize for literature, sets out his aspirations for the committee’s eventual winner:

...young writers were the future, or at any rate, would be the future - if there were still around and being published. You couldn’t go wrong with the future... The promise of young writers was perfect as well, until they burnt out, fucked up or died - but that would be under another government and another committee.

Edward St Aubyn’s eighth novel tells the story of a hapless, self-serving jury as they cajole, compete and deceive in order to ensure their chosen titles make it on to the prize’s long list. From the opening pages we are firmly in St Aubyn territory: scathing, satirical and laugh-out-loud funny, the writing in the first half of the novel is as good as the best passages in his highly-acclaimed Patrick Melrose series. But where those five books - Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last -  dealt with the dissolution of aristocratic privilege through the self-destructive, emotionally damaged anti-hero Patrick Melrose, in Lost for Words St Aubyn brings his microscopically critical eye to bear on his own professional back garden.

The literary prize Malcolm Craig has been charged with chairing is sponsored by a fictional agricultural company clearly in need of some positive PR. Malcolm’s reason for accepting the chairmanship is not due to a love of literature but because: 

An obscure opposition MP needed plenty of extra-curricular activities to secure a decent amount of public attention.’

Malcolm’s fellow judges similarly lack virtuous reasons for accepting a place on the judging panel. There’s Oxbridge academic, Vanessa Shaw, whose pretentious pronouncements on literature will make anyone who studied critical theory at university shudder with embarrassed recognition. There’s Penny Feathers, a lowly civil servant, who has literary aspirations of her own. There’s “well-known columnist and media personality” Jo Cross who refers to her readers as “constituents”. And finally there’s an actor, Tobias, clearly appointed for his star appeal rather than his intellectual prowess, who nonetheless arrives (late and infrequently) armed with a disproportionate belief in his own intelligence.

All sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it?

Then there are the writers: competitive, egotistical, nervous, neurotic, oscillating erratically from grandiose fantasies to self-flagellating despair - there’s no doubt when reading Lost for Words that St Aubyn has spent considerable around fellow novelists.

This is not, you may have gathered, a book brimming with sympathetic characters. The only trait both the judges and the writers share is that they are all, fundamentally, selfish and they are all, for the most part, interested not in what they can do for the prize but what the prize can do for them. But whereas other novels populated by so many unlikeable characters might be a difficult read, St Aubyn creates a world that’s not only frighteningly familiar but also darkly compelling.

Some of the best - or cruellest, depending on your point of view - satire is contained in St Aubyn’s pastiches of the long-listed novels, most notably wot you starin at, which Malcolm thinks is “gritty social realism” while Vanessa claims it to be “surrealistic satire” - whichever, it’s impossible to read the extracts without thinking of Irvine Welsh. There’s also a rather brutal pastiche of third-rate crime writing in Penny Feather’s novel Roger and Out, for which she uses a computer programme, “Ghost”, to offer alternative phrases when she’s stuck on a passage (which happens to poor Penny quite a lot).

It would be a mistake to assume, however, that Lost for Words is simply a novel about book prizes. It’s a novel about literature: about how we appraise it, what we value in it and who we choose to guide us in what we read. It’s a book about the Arts, about our obsession with the next big thing at the expense of those who’ve spent years honing their craft. It’s a book about bureaucracy and it’s ability to corrupt even the most creative endeavours. And it’s a book about some of the darker aspects of humanity: vanity, pride, ego and competitiveness.

The final third of the novel loses a little of its sparkle as it edges from satire into farce and rattles towards a somewhat predictable denouement. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that the book contains some of the best writing we’re likely to read this year.

Lost for Words is clearly a novel which, on literary merit alone, should feature on the long lists of numerous book prizes next year. The question is: will any jury be game enough to include it?

Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn is published by Picador on May 8th (£10.99)

This blog first appeared on The Huffington Post