Edward St Aubyn
Lost for Words

If you’re even halfway inclined to suspect there’s something dodgy about literary prizes, Lost for Words is just the book for you. Edward St Aubyn enjoys a stellar reputation for his series of novels about a dysfunctional upper-class English family. He now turns his sights on a softer target, one that goes down on its knees and begs for satirical skewering. 

Lost for Words revolves around the Elysian Prize, an award along the lines of the Man Booker. Its sponsor is a controversial agricultural company whose genetically manipulated products are accused of causing cancer, destroying bee populations and turning cattle into cannibals. None of which makes its money any less desirable to the literati.

Chairman of judges is a bored and irrelevant backbench MP. His selection committee consists of a “well-known columnist and media personality”, a veritable geyser of opinions with a passion for “relevance”, a retired bureaucrat busy writing her own action potboiler, and “somebody’s godson” who can’t come to meetings because he is playing Estragon in a hip-hop adaptation of Waiting for Godot. An Oxbridge academic, detested by all, is there “to reassure the public”.

The shortlist narrows to a scatological Irvine Welsh rip-off called wot u starin at, a literary coming-of-age novel, a forsooth-strewn sub-Mantel historical saga about Shakespeare, and a collection of Indian recipes mistaken for an example of postcolonial meta-fiction. 

St Aubyn sprinkles his clever confection with a recognisable assortment of neurotic novelists and philistine flounderers. These include a vain French semiotician, a bonkaholic author whose publisher is too busy bedding her to submit her novel on time, and a demented Indian prince who believes his unreadable magnum opus, The Mulberry Elephant, is poised to take the world by storm.

As the announcement approaches, authorial anxieties and committee machinations move into high gear. The farce grows ever more farcical. The barmy prince, appalled to discover he’s not even on the shortlist, plots to assassinate the chairman. Even as the hapless politician takes the podium at the announcement dinner, he still doesn’t know what is in the envelope. 

But we’ve got a pretty good idea. The result isn’t so much inevitable as irresistible. Lost for Words won’t win any literary prizes. It fails a fundamental requirement. It’s very, very funny.  PV

Picador, 272pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 10, 2014 as "Edward St Aubyn, Lost for Words".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.