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Originally published Sunday, June 22, 2014 at 6:06 AM

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‘Lost for Words:’ chasing a literary prize above all others

Edward St. Aubyn’s new novel “Lost for Words” lampoons a literary prize very much like the Man Booker, taking on both the judges and aspiring writers who hope against hope they will be the winner.

Seattle Times assistant features editor


“Lost for Words”

by Edward St. Aubyn

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 261 pp., $26

Very few people care about literary prizes, but those who do, care dearly. For many writers — a largely solitary bunch with relatively few competitive contexts in which to loose their egos — such honors are a blood sport. The prestige. The attendant book sales. The cash purses attached. And the parties, oh the parties.

Among the most chattered about is Britain’s Man Booker Prize, given each year for the best novel of the year by a writer from the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland and endowed with a 50,000 pound award by the Man Group, an investment firm.

As Martin Amis once put it, “The Booker Prize is much fetishized, and I think too much attention is paid to it. People like it because it reduces writers to the same level as everyone else. Here they are sweating in their dinner jackets and evening gowns just like any other collection of suckers.”

The petty machinations of this demimonde are the subject of Edward St. Aubyn’s astringent new satire, “Lost for Words,” in which the Elysian Prize, administered by an agriculture conglomerate, stands in for the Booker.

Like a literary “Noises Off,” the plot of the novel shuttles between the behind-the-scenes deliberations of the judges, who are mostly cloddish and careerist, and the public agonies of the writers in the running.

There are eight characters that share page time. Two — novelists Katherine Burns and Sam Black — are rendered as full humans, while the others are sort of animated one liners, though often quite comical ones. There is much lampooning of the middlebrow, but there is also the deeply eloquent writing that give St. Aubyn’s books their emotional backbone.

Of Katherine Burns, St. Aubyn writes that her “love affairs were distractions from her deeper intimacy with a feeling of absence enlivened by horror ... father’s death had ensured that she would never put herself in a position to receive another blow of that sort — or get out of the position of expecting one.”

Even more compelling is the description of one of the judge’s daughter’s eating disorder.

“They were all sticks in the whirlpool of Poppy’s ferocious will, the weaker she became physically, the stronger her psychological pull,” St. Aubyn writes. “A principled hunger strike, like Gandhi’s, which was aimed at achieving something in the outside world, looked very impure and compromised compared to a hunger strike whose sole object was to stop eating: this was the white on white of the hunger strike, the moment when it became abstract and transcended the clumsy literalness of merely representing one thing or another.”

Passages like this — though sometimes at odds with the prevailing feel of the book — raise “Lost for Words” from a lit-world frippery. St. Aubyn’s mastery of language — and the resonance it can hew — can’t help but come through.

Nonetheless, this is a slighter book than, say, any of the five installments of St. Aubyn’s masterful Patrick Melrose series. But most noticeably, “Lost for Words” is of two minds. The funny bits are very funny, and the weighty, lyrical passages are vividly compelling. What might connect them feels only sketched.

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