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A Serious Business

Brian Davey

Lost for Words, by Edward St Aubyn, Picador, 272 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0330454223

When Penelope Fitzgerald was nominated for the 1979 Booker Prize (then referred to as the Booker McConnell), it was certainly not expected that she would win. Her entry, Offshore, was an oblique novella that had received mixed notices in the press. Frank Kermode guessed it would only make the shortlist “to be eliminated at the last moment”. Journalists covering the prize ceremony simply did their write-ups on VS Naipaul (the favourite for A Bend in the River) and then felt free to spend the evening getting drunk. Writing to a friend shortly afterwards, Fitzgerald gave her impression of the whole affair: “I’m afraid Booker Mc rather wish they’d decided to patronise show-jumping or snooker ‑ the novelists are so difficult and odd.” Much to everyone’s surprise, Fitzgerald won.

That same year, one of Fitzgerald’s star pupils, Edward St Aubyn, would do his Oxford entrance exams and subsequently embark on the frenzy of self-destruction and substance abuse that would be channelled into his semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels. This turbulent, vicious and darkly humorous pentalogy of books has been deservedly lauded, with the fourth in the series, Mother’s Milk, even being nominated for the 2006 Man Booker Prize. It ended up losing out, by a vote of 4-1, to Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.

With the announcement of the longlist in July this year, the Booker caravan rolled into town with all the usual kerfuffle in tow. There is a sort of grim predictability to the annual event, which was memorably dubbed by the 2011 winner, Julian Barnes, as “posh bingo”. Every year there is the same debate about longlists, shortlist, who was included and who omitted, while five judges decide which novel is to be set above all others. For anyone involved in the book industry, or even for the casual reader of fiction, the whole scenario can seem entirely absurd and the prospect of a St Aubyn-penned skit is a promising one.

Lost for Words arrived in May, cresting a wave of critical adulation for the Melrose series, which has also carried St Aubyn into the literary mainstream. The book came billed as satire revolving around a thinly-veiled take on the Booker called the “Elysian Prize”, “the world’s most famous fiction prize”. The judging panel are, by and large, unsuited to the task entrusted to them and far more interested in their own selfish manoeuvrings. The chair is a manipulative MP named Malcolm Craig and the panel consists of modish columnist Jo Cross, inane thriller writer Penny Feathers, frustrated Oxbridge academic Vanessa Shaw and actor Tobias Benedict. Panel members proceed to doublecross, plead and bargain with one another in the hope of advancing their own interests, literary or otherwise. Malcolm sees his role as chair as being “to inspire, to guide, to collate and above all, to delegate”, Jo is most interested in the “relevance” of each book to her own readers and Vanessa struggles in vain to make the case for good writing. All the while a cookbook that has been mistakenly submitted stands the best chance of coming out on top.

The nominated authors, who are portrayed as being vain, insecure and even downright murderous, don’t fare much better. They include Sam Black, a complete neurotic who dreads the thought of either winning or losing, Sonny, “the 653rd Maharajah of Badanpur”, who has written a ridiculous-sounding volume called The Mulberry Elephant, and Katherine Burns, who manages to completely overwhelm every man that crosses her path.

However, despite St Aubyn having all these elements in place the whole premise fails to jumpstart. Plotwise, the novel simply plods along in different directions, taking the occasional slovenly potshot at easy targets, while many of the characters involved are drawn so broadly they’ve reached breaking point. Although the use of one-dimensional types is entirely excusable in comic fiction, the book brings to mind EM Forster’s judgement that Dickens’s “flat” characters are best when they are comic and that serious or tragic flat characters are apt to be a bore. Forster goes on to say that Dickens deals in types but manages to achieve effects beyond these limitations. But in St Aubyn’s hands the limitations are very tangible; his characters sometime seem to chafe within their confines and there’s often a sense of three-dimensional human beings been flattened into comic strip characters.

It is rather jarring then when we do encounter moments of genuine emotion in Lost for Words, as in, for example, the relationship between Vanessa and her anorexic daughter, Poppy, or Sam Black’s romantic despair:

He found that he had been heated beyond his melting point by romantic love and, although it had failed, it still left him inclined to rush towards other kinds of love more readily than before. When he saw the news and heard the widow of a policeman, shot in Northern Ireland by the ‘Continuity IRA’, say that her husband had been a ‘good man’ and that her life was ‘ruined’ by his death, he burst into tears, watching carefully to see if his grief was exploiting hers.”

In the context of the book it is entirely unclear how we should read this passage. Should we empathise with Sam or are we to laugh at his pain? This is doubly confusing as Sam’s plotline carries a residue of St Aubyn’s more well-drawn (and presumably autobiographical) male protagonists. Sam, who appears to be a gloss on Beckett (Sam Black, geddit?), is one of the more likeable characters and, along with Vanessa, seems to actually be invested in the ideals of literature. Indeed, his chapters appear to be written in a sort of imitation Beckettese:

Sam sat at his desk, his middle finger dented by the pressure of the pen he was pressing against the almost blank page. A small stain had spread around the pen’s eager nib. Above it, scrawled diagonally across the right-hand corner, was a list of words that failed to form a sentence but represented a kind of warm-up for the nauseating responsibility of writing one: ‘not, neither, nor, nothing, less, without, and above all, no’.

Sam’s anguished relationship with Katherine provides some emotional wattage, but as she is so thinly drawn her characterisation never really advances. She is, we are led to believe, irresistible to men and “would rather not get too close to anyone who might really understand her”; but really she seems to be more transparent than enigmatic. There is also a plotline involving an editor named Alan Oaks, whose life descends into chaos after Katherine leaves him and a French poststructuralist lover named Didier who is Sam’s main rival for her affections. But all this simply bounces around for a bit, to no discernible effect.

That is not to say that the book is entirely lacking in wit. There are indeed some brilliant flashes of the old humour. Like the Sam Black chapters, the extracts from the books in contention allow St Aubyn to show off his wicked skills of mimicry. A particularly successful example is wot u starin at, a thinly veiled spoof of Irvine Welsh, written in a phonetic Scots dialect:

‘Wot u starin at?’ sais the red-haired cunt at the bar.
‘Ay wasna starin at anythin,’ sais Death Boy.
‘Listen, mate,’ sais Wanker, who wasna in the mood for a fight, being skag-sick, and pissed at the world on account of his AIDS test comin back positive, ‘there’s nae cunt staring at nae cunt.’

Most of the humour in the book, however, revolves around the self-serving interests of everyone involved in the book industry (editors, authors and judges) and their lack of interest in literature. Jo Cross’s comments regarding a book’s “relevance” are strongly reminiscent of the brouhaha surrounding the 2011 Booker Prize, when one of the judges, Dame Stella Rimington said that there would be an emphasis on “readability”, a comment that seemed somehow symptomatic of attitudes at large about fiction in the mainstream. Indeed, given St Aubyn’s own history with the Booker Prize, reviewers had to ask: is Lost for Words simply an excuse to vent spleen across two hundred and fifty pages? It’s easy to see why it would garner this sort of reaction and one wonders if that’s what the author had sort of hoped. St Aubyn had previously savaged the aristocratic world he grew up in, so why not the publishing world too?

Throughout the book St Aubyn portrays the establishment as being indifferent, if not downright hostile, to any idea of literature. Penny thinks that Proust “was a long-winded snob, with far too much private money and some very unconventional sexual taste”, critics can’t tell the difference between a work of fiction and a cookbook (“By appearing to use language for the most banal purpose, for the maintenance of our material existence through eating, we are thrown into a crisis of meaning.”) and overall there’s very little consideration of what makes a good novel. But it’s difficult to square up St Aubyn’s intentions with the outcome. Surely the greatest defence we have of literature is the great works themselves.

One cannot but help feel that Lost for Words is a missed opportunity. This is a shame, as St Aubyn had previously exhibited a fine eye for the vagaries of pomposity and hypocrisy in his other novels, whether the entitled British upper classes in the Patrick Melrose books or Californian new age quackery in On the Edge. This propensity to deflate pretension works best when it has a worthy. As William Blake wrote, corrosives in Hell “are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away”.

All this is a way of saying that there’s nothing wrong with broad satire per se, but execution is key. In Lost for Words, St Aubyn seems to have jettisoned many of the human elements that made his work so humorous to begin with. This sort of flat spoofery had occasionally reared its head in the Patrick Melrose books but had been tempered by the novels’ dramatic heft. James Wood pegged this tendency in an essay in the London Review of Books where he noted that while Some Hope was undoubtedly a very funny book about a dinner party gathering of toffs, with St Aubyn very much enjoying “the repulsive spectacle of so many mediocre reactionaries in one place ... his writing suffers for the enjoyment, and coarsens sometimes into bouncy satire. David Windfall is ‘squeezed into dinner jacket trousers that seemed to strain like sausage skins from the pressure of his thighs’ and looks ‘like a hippopotamus with hypertension’; Aurora Donne’s sniggering laughter is ‘reminiscent of a hyena’, and so on.” With Lost for Words, St Aubyn seems to have given these worst impulses free rein.

This inclination can easily turn into grotesquery, as is seen in the portrayal of foreign characters in the Melrose books. One thinks of Seamus Dourke, the Irish “shaman”, who swindles Patrick’s mother out of a fortune and gets her to convert the Melrose family home into a new age retreat. St Aubyn doesn’t miss an opportunity to skewer the hippie claptrap and has Seamus speak in a thick brogue. Americans don’t fare much better in Bad News: “[T]hey talk all the time about individuality, but they don’t have an idea unless everybody else is having the same idea at the same time.” This can be funny, but it’s also a risky manoeuvre. St Aubyn has always written as an insider- ‑ to the upper classes, to wealth, to literary success ‑ but with the savagery and observational powers of an outsider. So at what point does satire dissolve into mere snobbery? St Aubyn goes close at times, but in his other books his style redeems him.

Partly, I think the problem with Lost for Words is one of invention. The books have always been more assured when they have hewn closer to reality and, one would presume, to St Aubyn’s own lived experience. As Adam Mars-Jones observed in his review: “Lost for Words drifts away from the harsh but habitable territory of satire and into the badlands of travesty or burlesque.” What one feels is most lacking here is precision: St Aubyn’s previous writing always worked best in its accumulation of detail. Parts of Lost for Words are just too fantastical to be enjoyable and there’s an obvious mismatch between St Aubyn’s undoubted comic abilities and the material on offer, a bit like watching Peter Cook in the local Christmas panto.

St Aubyn has admitted that the book was written quickly in a giddy rush, which is evident in the slack plotting and confused characterisation. As is frequently the case, the thrill of composition seldom translates into something that’s fun to read. Reaction to the book in the press has been, on the whole, negative, a spirited defence by John Mullan in the Guardian notwithstanding. Lost for Words has however gone on to win an award of its own, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction though this may say more about the famished state of contemporary satire than anything else.

In a recent New Yorker profile, St Aubyn claimed that the impetus for Lost for Words was not revenge for his own Booker miss but rather a newfound appetite for fun: “I rather missed out on play … but why not start now? If not at five, then at fifty.” Given his troubled (and well chronicled) upbringing, one can sympathise with this desire for frivolity and games. Seen in this light, Lost for Words may be a necessary exercise as St Aubyn develops his writing talents away from the Melrose series. However, one hopes that next time he takes his satire more seriously.

Brian Davey is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and a freelance writer. Originally from Sligo, he now lives in London and you can follow him on Twitter: @b_davey

3/11/2014

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