Reviews — From the May 2014 issue

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Last fall, the Man Booker Prize, the premier award for fiction in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, announced that it was coming to America. Presumably Edward St. Aubyn had already finished his fictional send-up of the Booker, lost for words (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26), or else he would have included a ten-gallon tale in full Texas drawl on his short list for the made-up Elysian Prize. Get it? Elysian? Literature is dead.

The Elysian is funded by a “highly innovative but controversial agricultural company” of the same name, whose mandates go beyond genetically modified crops into “weaponized” agents that cause “any vegetation on the ground to burst immediately into flame, forcing enemy soldiers into open country where they could be destroyed by more conventional means.” A prize is good P.R. in real life too, where the Man Group manages $52 billion a year and bestows $80,000 on the Booker. Of course, as the Austrian irritant Thomas Bernhard knew, starving artists can’t be choosy. As he wrote in My Prizes, still the best take on renown shamefully accepted, “No one reproaches a beggar on the street for taking money from people without asking where they got the money they’re giving him.”

Still Life of Books (detail), by Charles Emmanuel Bizet d’Annonay © Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York City.

Still Life of Books (detail), by Charles Emmanuel Bizet d’Annonay © Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York City.

St. Aubyn’s committee is dysfunctional when it isn’t outright corrupt. The chair is a cheat of an MP, and the other members aren’t any prizes (ahem): a “media personality” obsessed with “relevance”; an English professor whom nobody, especially her own daughter, can stand; somebody’s ex-lover; and that same somebody’s godson, an actor too busy with rehearsals to get himself to the meetings. They’re fighting over an Irvine Welsh rip-off (wot u starin at), a “literary” bildungsroman (The Frozen Torrent), some nonsense about Scotland (The Greasy Pole), historical fiction about the life of Shakespeare (All the World’s a Stage), and a collection of Indian recipes that’s been mistakenly labeled an experimental novel (The Palace Cookbook). That last one should raise an eyebrow or two. Yes, he went there.

St. Aubyn is known for going there, though thus far the target has been closer to home. In his Patrick Melrose quintet, victim became executioner as St. Aubyn fictionalized his upbringing at the hands of a sadistic, child-raping father and an emotionally absent mother, his years of drink and drug, and his own marriage, divorce, and turn at fatherhood. If you can bear the abuse, his skewering of the vanity and habits of his parents’ milieu is sheer nasty pleasure. Lost for Words abandons the comedy of manners (and sophistication, both subject and style) in favor of another British tradition, the broad satire. Character here is shorthand and stock-type. The Frenchman is the semiotics-obsessed author of Qu’est-ce la Banalité? The Indian prince — the cookbook was written by his aunt — is a madman and a clown. The female writer is a lonely nymphomaniac whose brilliant novel never made it to the judges because her publisher, whom she was bedding (he thought it was love!), asked his assistant to send it, and the assistant sent the cookbook by mistake. When the MP takes the podium to announce the winner, he has no idea what’s in the envelope — the committee was trading votes backstage until the very last minute.

Occasionally a surprise issues from an unexpected corner, as when Mr. Wo, the cheerful chairman of Shanghai Global Assets, Elysian’s parent company, opens his mouth. “If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent,” the avant-garde Wo says.

Only the mediocre, pushing forward a commonplace view of life in a commonplace language, can really be compared, but my wife thinks that “least mediocre of the mediocre” is a discouraging title for a prize.

Finding this funny requires holding a certain view of the kind of people who run companies with names like Shanghai Global Assets, but satire does usually depend, somewhat, on stereotype.

Blast #3, by Geert Goiris. Courtesy the artist and Art: Concept, Paris

Blast #3, by Geert Goiris. Courtesy the artist and Art: Concept, Paris

Lost for Words has special ire for “personal taste,” that sacred cow of entertainment’s consumer-driven content farms. But its one argument for what might pass as a standard (or at least expectation) for literature is undeniably personal. Vanessa, the much-maligned English professor, catches herself thinking about King Lear in reference to some ongoing family strife.

And then she found herself wondering why any book should win this fucking prize she had become involved with unless it had a chance of doing what had just happened: coming back to a person when she wanted to cry but couldn’t, or wanted to think but couldn’t think clearly, or wanted to laugh but saw no reason to.

Not that she’ll have her way in the end. The MP puts it like this:

Vanessa 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. Frankly, he felt rather sorry for her.

The waning power of the novel is surely less related to “multiculturalism” and cultural studies, St. Aubyn’s too-easy targets, than to technological change and television. But there is no need for pity. The happy few will muddle on, same as it ever was. Literature is one arena in which history is not written by the prizewinners.

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