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the complete review - fiction
Lost for Words
Edward St. Aubyn
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B- : some fun bits, but falls rather flat
See our review for fuller assessment.
No consensus: some very amused, others think the humor doesn't work at all.
(Bizarrely, many also go on at great, great length about St.Aubyn's other novels.)
From the Reviews:
- "What makes the book interesting is not so much its obvious message as its verbal dexterity: its mimicry, its stylishness, and an almost hectic inventiveness that has the sneaky effect of casting doubt on the whole novel-writing enterprise. Far from being at a loss for words, most of the book teems with cleverness, with a sense that words can be made to do almost anything -- and a suspicion that that may be tantamount to nothing." - Charles McGrath, The Atlantic
- "(A) brisk, ultimately farcical satire that is ideal for the sun lounger and unlikely to earn the author further heavyweight comparisons. (...) (T)his entertaining novel is a slight one by the usual standards of an author who at his best can be an exhilarating master of irony." - Henry Hitchings, Financial Times
- "(S)tony-hearted and gruellingly unfunny (.....) The problem isn't that the book's evocation of cynicism -- itself a kind of cynicism -- is so unremitting, but that it is so lacklustre. (...) Unfortunately, the fantasia that St Aubyn has spun around these events, as well as indulging in all the lowest comic impulses, never sets down a confident diagnosis." - Leo Robson, The Guardian
- "Lost for Words is a witty, often excoriating, riposte to the phenomenon and workings of major book awards. (...) Part of the delight is trying to identify models for St Aubyn's satirical targets. (...) The novel is so broad in attack, it loses just some of the elegance of the semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels for which St Aubyn is acclaimed. But for all the occasional doubts that the polemic is too unsubtle, the author turns in sentence after sentence to savour." - Louise Jury, The Independent
- "Too often, though, Lost for Words is crocked by lame jokes (...). The farce, when attempted, is half-arsed (.....) Satire is at its most fiery when it takes on the robust and powerful. But books are an increasingly marginal cultural medium and publishing is on its knees. Although its idiocies certainly need chastising, there is a queasiness in watching a bloodied man being kicked while on the floor (perhaps to mitigate the sense of cultural marginalisation, none of the writers appears to be in any financial difficulty)." - Jonathan Beckman, Literary Review
- "The theme of St. Aubynís latest novel is the way in which, in our time, and in part at least through the literary prize system, opportunists, charlatans, and fools have been allowed to set themselves up as arbiters of literature. (...) The book overall is a curious combination of earnest literary endeavor and the kind of pranksterish, public schoolboy humor to be found in, for instance, the satirical magazine Private Eye. (...) Lost for Words, although uneven, is an entertaining squib, and it is obvious that St. Aubyn had a wonderful time writing it. The caricatures are painted with a broad brush, and the jokes too are broad, or the ones we can get are, anyway" - John Banville, The New York Review of Books
- "Mr. St. Aubyn has a lot of fun giving us samples from these novels that underscore his gift for mimicry and parody, while at the same time charting the political alliances and alliances of convenience that develop among the judges as they jockey for position and influence, extracting -- and trading -- promises of support as if they were Iowa caucus voters, not judges of literary merit. (...) And while Lost for Words doesnít have the depth or resonance of Mr. St. Aubynís Melrose novels, itís not meant to. Itís simply an entertaining cartwheel of a book with a glittering razorís edge." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "Everything St. Aubyn writes is worth reading for the cleansing rancor of his intelligence and the fierce elegance of his prose -- but rollicking, he is not. A knockabout comic novel needs a plot that believes in its own twists and turns, and that is not on offer here." - Anne Enright, The New York Times Book Review
- "What makes a good novel ? What is literature for ? Who decides? Should anyone be judging ? This novel is a pleasure to read, although St Aubyn is too languid to answer questions. His punishment for writing Lost for Words should be the enforced chairing of next year's Booker prize." - Kate Kellaway, The Observer
- "What we're left with is an absurdist, satirical lark. (...) Lost for Words, I suspect, will appeal to a relatively narrow literary constituency: those who can't get enough of the politicking and backbiting that seem to define so much of the literary world. But if you are of this constituency, if you're the kind of person who follows Booker odds and gets exercised about an unworthy Pulitzer winner, then Lost for Words will be catnip. (...) Lost for Words is pure, farcical pleasure. And there's nothing wrong with that." - Anthony Domestico, San Francisco Chronicle
- "(A) jauntily malicious satire on literary prizes in general, the Man Booker Prize in particular and, it may be presumed, the 2011 Man Booker Prize in especial particular. (...) But as satire Lost for Words is only semi-effective because it cartoonishly sends up whatís already a cartoon version of the prize. The fish are vaporised; the barrel is shot to splinters. (...) So this is great fun to read but not, in the end, all that much of a novel." - Sam Leith, The Spectator
- "St Aubynís most straightforwardly comic book and his least empathetic and subtle. Its narrative skips so indefatigably between perspectives -- an Indian princeling, a dysfunctional academic, a beautiful inconstant writer and her desperate admirers -- that the book spins wildly free of any emotional centre. This, in turn, puts unconscionable stress on its tissue-thin strands of plot." - Tim Martin, The Telegraph
- "To call this a thinly veiled attack on the Man Booker Prize -- of which it was my privilege to be a judge last year -Ė would be a disservice to veils and how diaphanous they might be. (...) Lost for Words is brash, clumsy and thunderously unfunny. (...) (W)hat St Aubyn offers is recycled and delivered with a sneer rather than subtlety. A literary satire is not a literary satire if one ends up feeling sorry for the author." - Stuart Kelly, Times Literary Supplement
- "Lost for Words, about the farcical deliberations of a Man Booker-lookalike called the Elysium Prize, may then be a bit of authorial retribution. But if so it is a curiously tame revenge, more clownish caricature than incisive satire. (...) The trouble is that Mr. St. Aubyn isn't any good at writing badly. An air of scornful indifference hangs over his parodies, as though the material is beneath him. The novel's most engaged sections are largely unrelated to the Elysium Prize" - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
- "(H)is voice has lost none of its distinctiveness as he has ventured into new territory. Lost for Words is a withering satire of the vicious, back-stabbing process out of which literary prize winners emerge, most particularly the process by which Britainís Man Booker Prizes are chosen" - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Author Edward St. Aubyn was in the close running for the 2006 Man Booker Prize (his book was shortlisted) and his At Last was widely considered one of the best eligible books that was snubbed -- not even getting longlisted -- by the 2011-prize committee (infamously chaired by former MI5 director and would-be spy novelist Stella Rimington).
Lost for Words isn't exactly a roman à clef, but it is a satire that is pointedly directed at the Man Booker and, in characters such as the very Rimington-like Penny Feathers, one of the judges for what is here the Elysian Prize, St.Aubyn is clearly offering a very personal take on how the prize and its judging procedures function (and don't).
This make for a fairly straightforward set-up, and St.Aubyn follows the fairly easy path from introducing the judging committee and the company behind the prize to what limited deliberations there are, the announcements of the long- and short-list, and then the grand finale where the winner is crowned.
St.Aubyn keeps things moving by shifting his story among a large cast of characters that includes the judging-committee members, various authors -- both overlooked and entered -- a few other publishing types, and the new owners of Elysian (taken over by Liu Ping Wo-led Shanghai Global Assets, so that the Wos can play a prominent role at the awards-ceremony).
In Shanghai Global Assets the prize is then ultimately in the hands of what is presumably a company very similar to the controversial "world-leading alternative investment management business", the Man Group, that bankrolls the Man Booker, but Elysian is a prize of a company in its own right, a "controversial agricultural company [...] a leader in the field of genetically modified crops" (think Monsanto -- though Elysian seems a step ahead in: "crossing wheat with Arctic cod to make it frost resistant")).
The judging -committee is headed my "obscure opposition MP" Malcolm Craig, and includes "a well-known columnist and media personality", an "Oxbridge academic", Vanessa Shaw, the ridiculous (and very Rimington-like) Penny Feathers -- who writes her own books relying on the help of a software-program called 'Ghost' (and Gold Ghost and Gold Ghost Plus) --, and an actor.
(And, yes, some of these correspond very closely to recent Man Booker judges .....)
A number of authors figure prominently as well -- including two whose books aren't even in the running.
One is Katherine Burns, whose Consequences -- considered a leading contender -- is mistakenly not submitted; Katherine is juggling several men, among them Sam Black, whose novel very much is in the running.
There's also Lakshmi Badanpur -- called 'Auntie' -- whose The Palace Cookbook mistakenly is entered for the prize, despite actually being a cookbook; academic judge Vanessa Shaw is rather insistent that it shouldn't be considered for the prize because it so obviously is a cookbook, but media-personality Jo sees it differently:
You claim to be an expert on contemporary fiction and yet, faced with a ludic, postmodern, multi-media masterpiece, you naively deny that it's a novel at all.
There's also Sonny, the six hundred and fifty-third maharaja of Badnapur (whose 'Auntie" is the successful cookbook author ...), whose The Mulberry Elephant -- 'privately' published in India, "twice the size of War and Peace", and "clearly unpublishable" -- also doesn't get the due Sonny expects, leading him to contemplate rather drastic action.
Titles that do get more attention include wot u starin at -- "just sub-Irvine Welsh", opines Vanessa, but a favorite of some of the judges -- and a Shakespeare-novel called All the World's a Stage.
St.Aubyn has some fun offering excerpts from a variety of the novels under discussion -- amusing enough, as they're all bad in rather predictable sort of ways, but also rather easy targets.
Complications also abound, including the various overlapping personal and professional relationships (making the 'literary' world look even more incestuous than it actually is); there's also a militantly anorexic daughter; the "hot tip" that one of the judges gives her daughter about the book she thinks will win (with the predictable results and consequences); the team-building exercise -- to the sewers of Paris ! -- that winds up not including much of the team; and all the unread books (yes, even Vanessa doesn't bother with one until after it's made the shortlist).
As far as the judging itself goes, Vanessa does try her best but it's a hopeless cause; she:
had taken on the role of a doomed backbencher, making speeches to an empty chamber about values that simply had no place in the modern world.
Already at the outset the chair of the judges knows what he wants from this prize:
The point was to build a consensus and come up with a vision of the sort of Britain they all wanted to project with the help of this prize: diverse, multi-cultural, devolutionary, and of course, encouraging to young writers.
After all, young writers were the future, or at any rate, would be the future -- if they were still around and being published.
You couldn't go wrong with the future.
It's the sort of vacuous ambition that so easily goes all wrong -- as it also does here, of course.
St. Aubyn shows some decent comic touches, but on the whole Lost for Words isn't nearly as funny as one would hope -- and parts are decidedly and awkwardly unfunny.
There are some stabs at biting satire, but these in particular fall rather flat -- as does the novel as a whole.
The generaly busy-ness of the novel keeps the action moving, and there are some interesting storylines and characters -- or glimpses of them -- but St.Aubyn is committed to his prize-focus, and that's done, at best competently, and never really rises much beyond very basic comic writing.
Yes, literary prizes are already little more than jokes, so it's hard to satirize them -- or how seriously some of those involved take them -- but St.Aubyn's insights and approach offer nothing new (or particularly amusing).
Those who like to closely follow literary prizes, or the literary scene in general (as I certainly do), will find enough here to very modestly amuse them, but the novel as a whole is rather a disappointment.
- M.A.Orthofer, 23 July 2014
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Lost for Words:
Edward St. Aubyn:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
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About the Author:
English author Edward St. Aubyn was born in 1960.
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© 2014 the complete review
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