The judges of the Wodehouse literary prize must have an appropriate sense of humour. This year's award went to this satirical look at the absurdities involved in literary prizes, the whole nature of which is finally summed up by one of the characters. "Competition ... makes no sense in the arts. If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisions are incoherent."
The main target is the Man Booker, here named the Elysian Prize, an award for which St Aubyn was controversially overlooked when the last volume of his critically lauded Patrick Melrose series of novels was published.
St Aubyn sets to work on both the judges and the contestants. The former include a former civil servant turned thriller writer, echoing the Booker appointment as judge of Dame Stella Rimington. There is a hack politician, an actor, a popular columnist and an Oxbridge academic, each with their own agenda.
The authors, whose works are excruciatingly quoted, include a seriously introspective novelist in love with a compulsively promiscuous writer whose own book accidentally misses inclusion among the entrants. There is a young New Zealand woman whose effort is historical and written in pastiche archaisms. Another contestant is wot u staring at, an Irvine Welsh-inspired work written in demotic Glaswegian and which predictably turns out to have been composed by a lecturer in medieval love poetry at Edinburgh University.
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St Aubyn hits the targets often enough but they are sitting ducks and there is a hint about the whole of taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Most of it is cheerful, knockabout stuff with his French post-modern theorist Didier being one of the livelier examples of this much satirised breed. I enjoyed the Rimington character's use of Ghost, a phrase-generating software program, an IT version of Myles na Gopaleen's wonderful Catechism Of Cliche.
But St Aubyn is essentially a serious writer and the tone wavers unnervingly. There are passages that seem to have wandered in from another book, most strikingly about the academic's anorexic daughter, and other sections where the fun is distinctly bitter.
The Wodehouse prize panel may have enjoyed the pastiches and the great man himself was a prolific producer of fiction, such as the works of the immortal Rosie M. Banks. He famously parodied A.A. Milne and St Aubyn even has a larger than life Auntie although she doesn't measure up to Aunt Agatha or Aunt Dahlia.
But a reader expecting the sunny amiability of the Master will find Lost For Words something of a mixed pleasure.
Lost for Words
by Edward St Aubyn