Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words is a breezy, yet biting satirical novel about the internecine intrigue that unfolds behind the scenes of a major book award that is clearly a thinly disguised version of the Booker Prize. St. Aubyn, whose own novel, Mother’s Milk, was shortlisted for that honor, writes in the great pithy British tradition of David Lodge and Muriel Spark, infusing a deceptively lighthearted surface wit with more trenchant intent.
The committee for the prestigious Elysian Prize (funded by a multinational that, among its many controversies, genetically modifies crops by crossing vegetables with animals) is headed by Malcolm Craig, a backbench MP hoping to raise his public profile. The rather ragtag team of judges includes a popular newspaper columnist, an actor, an Oxbridge academic (who, no doubt rightly, believes she is the only member who knows anything about literature) and the ancient prize committee chairman’s erstwhile secretary/mistress, who now writes popular thrillers. None bothers to read more than a handful of the hundreds of books submitted, embracing titles to which they are already predisposed. The inevitable alliances form amid polite quarrels.
The proceedings reach a fever pitch, albeit in a restrained, polite English manner, as the longlist becomes the shortlist and the winner proves difficult to decide. No one is spared as St. Aubyn skewers the literary “elite” and aspirants alike. In one typically sly development, one of the presumed frontrunners, literary star Katherine Burns, is not even in the running. An editorial assistant mistakenly sent in the manuscript for a cookbook instead of Burns’ novel (the cookbook, viewed as a postmodern experiment in narrative, makes the list).
Delightfully entertaining, Lost for Words nonetheless casts a cold eye on the very nature of awards, and questions whether they in any way reflect the quality and permanence of the art they ostensibly celebrate.