Contemporary novels anointed as worthy can seem a motley, almost arbitrary lot. BEYOND LITERARY MERIT, a vast constellation of factors like personal taste, politics, and the marketplace have the power to elevate an author above his or her peers.
Judging by his latest book, the English novelist Edward St. Aubyn finds this highly vexing. Over the last decade, he ascended to the literary elect with the Patrick Melrose novels, an astonishingly brilliant, brutally incisive series about man’s search for meaning amid the emptiness of aristocratic mores. “Mother’s Milk,” the penultimate Melrose novel, was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize (his last book, “At Last,’’ wasn’t longlisted, however).
With “Lost for Words,” St. Aubyn leaves Patrick Melrose behind, focusing instead on the inner workings of the Elysian Prize, an annual fiction award resembling the Booker. Although the result is thoroughly satiric, its depiction of the prize-selection process contains enough realistic notes to make the reader wonder whether perhaps St. Aubyn has an ax to grind. In his latest novel, the literary sphere emerges as a fetid, risible swamp of hubris, vanity, petty personal rivalry, and bad taste.
Across a broad canvas, St. Aubyn sketches portraits and scenes of judges, nominees, editors, clueless hopefuls, and hangers-on, leaving none unscathed. Disemboweled, more like — by the novel’s close, each main character has been roundly mocked, their personal failings laid bare and flayed, their most high-flown, deeply held beliefs about literature exposed as pretension, or worse, as a byproduct of their own intellectual shortcomings. Along the way, St. Aubyn lays waste to the publishing industry, various writers, and entire genres of Anglophone novels.
This is the nastiest sort of satire, one close enough to real-world people and things to singe. Its silly plot, which at times seems almost like an afterthought, makes “Lost for Words” less a novel than a jeremiad and savage field report. For that reason, those who know little about contemporary British literature should stay well away; there’s nothing for them here. But those with a working knowledge of Booker prize nominees will find plenty of nasty lagniappes.
Among the novel’s greatest assets is its anthropological bent. St. Aubyn’s characters each embody a broad — at times, too broad — literary type. There’s the Oxford don, whose quest to reward real literature is thwarted at every turn by ego and ignorance; a wealthy self-published writer with a frighteningly overinflated sense of talent; a mystery writer who hates reading anything unpleasant or hard.
The funniest of these is a Lacanian theorist by the name of Didier who spouts philosophical bromides with such vigorous conviction that even Alain de Botton would blush. “We have made a catastrophic progress since Bentham’s Panoptic prison: we no longer need the supervision of The Other, we are prisoners of our own gaze!” Indeed.
The best and meanest parts of the book are its pitch-perfect parodies of fashionable genres, presented as excerpts of remarkably terrible shortlisted titles: “wot you starin at,” a sendup of Irvine Welsh (“Trainspotting’’), had me snorting. A historical novel about Shakespeare was also a riot. (“ ‘Ho-ho,’ said goodly Master Jonson, draining his tankard of sack, ‘a battle of wits!’ ”)
Amid the chuckles, sad truths about critical favor emerge. Elysian Prize winners conform to their judges’ Orientalist sensibilities, align with their misguided notions of authenticity, or flatter their cursory knowledge of literary history.
It’s hard not to project St. Aubyn’s own views onto his characters’. For readers trying to locate the source of his ire, this cynical take on the purpose of literary prizes works just as well as any: “You couldn’t go wrong with the future. Even if it was infused with pessimism, until it was compromised by the inevitable cross-currents of unexpected good news and character-building opportunities, the pessimism remained perfect, unsullied by that much more insidious and dangerous quality, disappointment. The promise of young writers was perfect as well, until they burnt out, [messed] up, or died.”