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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Three reasons to read St. Aubyn's Lost for Words

Edward St. Aubyn will never be mistaken for Nick Hornby but I have to say that it's looking just a little like he's heading toward a sweet, boy-gets-girl conclusion to his very funny, satirical novel, Lost for Words. For that matter, ever his bitter Patrick Melrose novels concluded on an somewhat upbeat note, with PM hoping to be a better husband and father - though I think few readers believe he would maintain that attitude beyond the scope of the novels, to the extent that characters live (on) in our imaginations. In any event, though St. Aubyn is cynical about all of the characters in the novel and contemptuous of the whole Brit-lit scene and in particular of the awards business (this novel is a satire of the process of awarding the Man Booker Prize, exposing the politics and outright corruption in the awards process - guess St. Aubyn will never win an M-B unless they want to award him one just to prove they're not corrupt, biased, and petty). The most sympathetic character is a debut writer named Sam who held off on his more experimental novel and published a more expected and conventional bildungs roman that got him onto the Booker short list (St. Aubyn calls the prize something else, but Lost for Words is obviously about the Man Booker); Sam has a huge romantic crush on Katherine, a femme fatale whose novel fell out of consideration because her publisher - who's also screwing her - sent the wrong ms into the nominee pool. Katherines is I think meant to be a sympathetic character but she does make obvious St. Aubyn's difficulty with women characters: she's meant, I think to be seen as sexually independent, adventuresome, and liberated - but in fact she comes off as a sexual slut or slave, screwing one guy after another and never feeling good about herself. Granted, none of the characters are exactly real or "rounded" - all are types, and most of them very funny types at that - but Katherine is not meant to be funny or made fun of, yet I think St. Aubyn misses the mark w/ her: she comes off as sad and empty, and perhaps as a male fantasy of the ever-available intellectual beauty. That aside, the novel - nearing the end now - is still great fun to read, with the interpolated passages from the nominated novels prize-winning satires in themselves, the blathering of the French "intellectual" Didier is hysterical and impenetrable, and the central plot mechanism - the accidental nomination of an Indian cookbook which somehow makes the shortlist despite author's protests that the book is a collection of family recipes and not a novel - is quite crazy and witty.

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