Thoughts on Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words (by Jill)

lost-for-words coverApparently Edward St. Aubyn is quite famous, but I had never heard of him until I got this book from my boss a few months ago. Lost for Words details the process of selecting the Elysian Prize, a major literary award of the British Commonwealth. Essentially, it satirizes the British literary world and the Booker Prize. The prize is named for the Elysian Group, “a highly innovative but controversial agricultural company (2)” whose products include “giraffe carrots,” as well as weaponized agricultural agents, the scant details of which I will leave to your imagination. The company essentially sponsors this prize as a distraction from its more, erm, controversial activities. It’s a multiple perspective novel, with the bulk of the prize selection committee members as well as several of the nominees, and some of the authors who didn’t make the long list, taking turns as primary viewpoint characters.

I generally enjoy multiple perspective novels (I like that cast of thousands thing), but there were almost too many people taking turns here. I don’t think I figured out who was who until I had about thirty pages to go in the book, and that can be confusing. And I hate being confused.

I’ve been flipping back through the book while I’ve been writing, and Lost for Words is actually pretty funny. I wish that I had been less tired while I was reading it so I could have caught more of the subtle humor. My favorite part of the book was the descriptions of the ridiculous books that were nominated for the Elysian Prize. The goal for the committee (who is a motley crew of people who really should never have anything to do with picking the winner of anything, much less a major literary award) is to pick “accessible books,” which was also apparently the goal of the 2011 Booker Prize selection committee, and they picked some whoppers. There’s one that’s a cookbook, literally a cookbook, that was accidentally submitted for consideration, and some of the committee members convince themselves that it’s metafiction. But it’s not. The author even says that it’s a cookbook and doesn’t understand how she made the Long List, and then the Short List!

This book is definitely fun, and an easy read. If I hadn’t been so busy with work while I was reading it, I would have jammed through it in a few days. That being said, I’m one of those people who holds the winners of awards like the Elysian Prize on a pedestal, and it disappoints me a bit that there is likely to be close to as much politicking involved in who wins those prizes as is depicted in Lost for Words. Of course, as a cynical sort, I can’t say that I’m shocked. What I would like to do is reread this book eventually, not when I’m half asleep, and see if it’s funnier to me than it was this time around.

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