Books May 2014

The Disillusionist

Edward St. Aubyn, who can make words do just about anything, can’t help mistrusting precisely that power.

His newest book, Lost for Words, is another comedy, a send-up of literary prizegiving in general and of the Man Booker Prize in particular, disguised here as the Elysian Prize, given by a dodgy agribusiness company that specializes in genetically modified crops like the Giraffe carrot, so long that you need peel only a single one, not a whole bag. The judges include a backbench Scottish MP, a hack journalist, an actor who never shows up for the meetings, a writer of third-rate thrillers, and a highbrow Oxford don who can’t stand any of the rest.

St. Aubyn really was raped by his father. His mother did give all her money away to New Agey causes.

As it happens, I chaired the panel that chose the winner of last year’s National Book Award in fiction, so I read of the Elysian deliberations with particular interest and a little envy. For one thing, the judges don’t feel a need to actually read many of the novels, and because betting on book prizes is legal in England, there are ample opportunities for bribe-taking and profiteering. Then again, the books they do bother to look at are not exactly page-turners. St. Aubyn, who reveals himself to be an inspired parodist, gives us passages, for example, from wot u starin at, a knockoff of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting:

Death Boy’s trousers were round his ankies. The only vein in his body that hadna been driven into hiding was in his cock.
“I told yuz nivir ivir to talk to uz when Aym trackin a vein,” snarled Death Boy.
“That way I needna fucking talk ta ya at all,” said Wanker, slumped in the corner, weirdly fascinated by the sour stench of his own vomit, rising off of his soiled Iggy Pop tee-shirt.

And here’s the beginning of All the World’s a Stage, a historical novel about Shakespeare (and perhaps a gentle spoof of Hilary Mantel):

“Do you know Thomas Kyd and John Webster?”
“Lads,” said William, giving the men a friendly nod.


St. Aubyn (whose Mother's Milk was short-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize but didn’t win) has a serious point only partially buried here: that there is something inherently arbitrary and even a little ridiculous about literary competitions, especially those that presume to identify a single title as better than all others. But this is old news, and even the deftest exposé isn’t going to make book prizes go away. What makes the book interesting is not so much its obvious message as its verbal dexterity: its mimicry, its stylishness, and an almost hectic inventiveness that has the sneaky effect of casting doubt on the whole novel-writing enterprise.

Far from being at a loss for words, most of the book teems with cleverness, with a sense that words can be made to do almost anything—and a suspicion that that may be tantamount to nothing. One of the characters, a Frenchman named Didier, is in the grip of a “perpetual semiotic frenzy” and can’t stop spouting Foucault-like paradoxes in which everything becomes its antithesis and nothing means what it says. And then there is Sam Black, a blocked writer (perhaps a version of St. Aubyn at his most self-doubting) who can barely get a word down before rethinking it and concluding that “to say anything at all would be a mistake.” At the book’s somewhat squishy end, he imagines a world from which irony and double meaning have vanished altogether, a world, though he doesn’t say it, in which there would be no need for novels at all.

For a writer whose prose is so virtuosically supple, St. Aubyn’s misgivings about language are a little surprising. Lost for Words picks up on an idea that surfaces in the Melrose books, when St. Aubyn describes Patrick’s son Robert learning to speak—the idea that when you start putting words on things, the world loses its prelapsarian shine:

In a way things were more perfect when you couldn’t describe anything … Once you locked into language, all you could do was shuffle the greasy pack of a few thousand words that millions of people had used before.

The lousy thriller writer in Lost for Words relies on a software program, Ghost, that does just such shuffling. Type in the word refugee and the algorithm will generate clutching a pathetic bundle and eyes big with hunger.

St. Aubyn himself is a conjurer, able to take that greasy deck of cards and make it perform tricks of a sort rarely seen anymore. But running through all his books, especially his newest one, is a sense that he both delights in that power and worries about it, as if the magic were a drug he could get too used to. Every now and then, like a couple of his characters, St. Aubyn seems to yearn for thoughts so pure, so unself-conscious, that they don’t need any words at all.

Presented by

Charles McGrath is the former editor of The New York Times Book Review and a contributing writer to The Times.

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