The Short Version: Every year, the prestigious Elysian Prize committee must select a short list and winning novel from hundreds of submissions. Malcolm Craig, the chair of the 2013 committee, must wrangle his quirky group of judges into choosing a winning book while various hopeful novelists wait in anticipation and make a hash of their personal lives in the process.
The Review: The cover for this book makes me laugh every time I look at it, because I always think, for a split second, that the round gold seal is in fact an award seal. Clever graphic design that immediately makes you chuckle and sets up the expectation for what’s coming – and it’s good to set up a sense of humor, as St. Aubyn’s most well–known work was not exactly laugh out loud. That’s not to say that The Patrick Melrose Novels don’t have a good amount of humor in them – it’s just that the point isn’t the humor, rather the beautifully awful life of this family. Lost for Words, on the other hand, is meant to bring the funny. Lots of folks have described it as Wodehousian and it, in fact, won the Wodehouse Prize last year. Having never actually read any Wodehouse (although I’ve read some pastiches), I can’t speak to the Wodehousian nature of the text – I can only say that I found it delightfully fun and funny.
Paying attention to arbitrary literary prizes is, of course, something that we book-types enjoy doing. I complained about the Pulitzer this year, was pleasantly surprised by the NBA the last two years, and am a devout follower of the Tournament of Books – and the list goes on. Awards are ridiculous and important at the same time – it’s just that we sometimes overlook the ridiculous part, which St. Aubyn seems hellbent on illuminating here. His Elysian Prize seems to be a riff on the Man Booker Prize (best Commonwealth novel) and it’s funny to think that the Booker, one of the four most prestigious literary awards, could be decided in such a way as the Elysian is decided here… and yet, that’s more likely than not exactly what has happened.
Okay, maybe not exactly. St. Aubyn’s version is a little too satirical for life (I hope) – it’s unlikely, for example, that the cookbook would ever be seriously considered and the five panelists all have a larger-than-life Hilarious Quirk or two. But the horsetrading and backroom decision-making absolutely happens in real life. I mean, how often have you said “really, that’s what won?” and later heard on some blog that it was because votes were split and so the consensus pick won instead of the actual best work? It happens not just in books but with film awards and music awards and probably most awards in general. Awards are weird and while the platonic ideal of altruistically choosing the most worthy work will always exist, I’m not sure it’ll ever really happen in reality.
Speaking of reality, it was interesting to see St. Aubyn writing about writers. There are, of course, plenty of mocking sendups here as well – the delusional author who thinks his work is the best thing ever, the tormented author who is uncomfortable with success, the critically successful author who ends up also being a tabloid fixture – but he subverts them carefully and with real care. The latter, in the form of Katherine Burns, is not quite like any fictional writer I’ve seen. Usually, it’s the male character who is the “serial heartbreaker” but St. Aubyn blessedly flips the script and never comments on it. Katherine just is this character and her reasoning, her rationale, her behavior all seems pretty understandable. St. Aubyn does nearly fall into the trap of explaining-it-all-away with a psychological thing, but it doesn’t undercut Katherine’s humanity when he does so.
The book dissolves into the British equivalent of a French farce at the end, with characters rushing towards one moment or another and thrown together by fate or on purpose – and the ultimately happy ending feels a little unexpected, based on the author, but it isn’t a bad ending. On the contrary, the ending is pretty much the only ending that we could’ve had in a novel sending up literary prizes. You’ll see what I mean when you get there.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I needed something light and funny and St. Aubyn’s novel delivered in spades. His sharp, acerbic writing is still on display here – but he’s not taking things as seriously as he did in the Patrick Melrose novels. Instead, he’s having fun with the literary establishment in general and reminding everyone that, at the end of the day, we’re all just in the art business. We aren’t curing cancer or discovering a way to reverse climate change – and, as such, we can afford to be a little less serious now and again. If you like the literary scene and want a laugh, I can’t think of a more perfect book than this – even if, in the end, it might be little more than a comic footnote in an author’s more serious literary canon.