Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn
Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, 2014; 261 pp
Reviewed by Winnie Khaw
From the very first look the reader will note that the diverting font design and arrangement of the book cover is perhaps a bit too zany for the dry wit of the writing style enclosed. But that's enough of superficial observations on marketing taste, though ironic discrepancy is one of the internal organs of Edward St. Aubyn's entertaining satire on the secret world of literary award decision-making, Lost for Words. A side character notes with omniscient clarity the book's essential lesson: "sometimes you have to read the judges rather than the books."
The five members of the Elysian Literary Prize committee, a number of whom are distressingly unqualified, all harbor a personal agenda at odds with the sort of objectivity hoped for in such positions. From this fount of wisdom gushes forth an amusing look at an assortment of characters ranging, briefly, from the unintelligibly pretentious Didier (writer of a unintelligibly pretentious and unreadable manuscript), the alluring Katherine Burns, an author whose submission for the Elysian prize was accidently swapped with a cookbook--to the waspish Chair of the Board Malcolm Craig, to the mopey Sam Black and pompous Sonny.
Yet, for all its farcical insanity of character profiles (who can be shallow despite marked distinctions in personality), Lost for Words seems oddly at a standstill in terms of plot. Tensions increase as Judgment Day in the form of the award's dinner ceremony draws close and there appears to be no clear winner, and yet the story, perhaps intentionally, is more of a countdown than a propulsion forward. Lost for Words, presumably referring to the panicky and banal prize-conferring speech by Malcolm at the end of the night, is in terms of narrative never at a loss for precise language that frequently ventures into hilarity. However, the inconsistent cleverness, unfortunately, unfavorably offsets "in-between" lines that approach dullness in comparison.
At the extreme last minute before presentation of the prize, Malcolm finds himself, as the title suggests, lost for words, having to "improvise a merger of two [possible book awardee] endings and present the resulting train wreck as some kind of cultural triumph." The entire process of a tiny group of probably dubious talents determining which single book out of hundreds ought to win a national literary commendation, down to the finale, is clearly ridiculous, according to St. Aubyn's portrayal. Absolutely there are inventive and perceptive lines scattered liberally throughout the text, especially due to misinterpretation, such as when one of the committee (Jo), pushes for a work which she describes as the "boldest metafictional performance of our time" but is actually a cookbook.
Unevenly shifting from one character's perspective to another, the story loses momentum as it winds down to the dinner, to the effect that there is a tremendous amount of pressure (an authorial joke?) on the final scene to bring everything to a dazzling conclusion. St. Aubyn does not wholly succeed in compensating for his earlier halting steps. Still, the robust energy of a high-jumper of an author, turning his head impossibly in mid-air to wink at his audience, is easily evident in the writing and many times deserves cheers, though not a record-breaking score.