JUNE 21, 2014
ON THE OCCASION of an award, the pleasure of the winner is perhaps surpassed only by the self-satisfaction of the giver. There’s an intoxicating power in defining “Excellence,” selecting “The Best,” or appointing “The Voice of a Generation.” The task presupposes a near omniscience on the part of the judge or the organization he fronts. Days before the announcement, one nominee might turn to prayer; another might glance at the bottom of his teacup. But the judge? He just knows.
We’d like to believe in this judge; his apparent omniscience is comforting, even if it’s a delusion. While we enjoy the pluralistic possibilities of the Amazon review and sites like Goodreads, we continue to surrender our books, paintings, and films to the ultimate assessment of institutions and Big Names because we want them to matter — artists and arbiters both. We might pillory Jonathan Franzen in private, yet feel oddly pleased when we see him captioned “Great American Novelist” on the cover of Time, simply because we want literary significance to exist. We complain about the irrelevance of the Oscars, but still peak curiously at the winners. We legions of office workers have witnessed the often haphazard nature of boardroom decisions, how lunchtime gossip and uninterrogated opinions somehow emerge — what hidden sorcery! — as irrefutable fact on glossy letterhead.
Deserved or not, institutionally assigned badges of honor lead stubborn lives. Cognizant or not, a consumer of books, paintings, and films may find it impossible to make a clear-headed evaluation (or to answer a question as simple as “Did I enjoy it?”) of works whose verdicts have already come to pass. Maybe there’s no way around this, but that doesn’t make the situation any less stifling.
Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words is a story about how those badges of honor get passed down. In the novel, we meet a panel of judges charged with selecting a work of fiction for the Elysian Prize, which is apparently very prestigious. No more than a chapter passes, however, before St. Aubyn has dismantled the credibility of the prize with the quiet, but ruthless, efficiency of his satire. Elysian is an agricultural company behind “some of the world’s most radical herbicides,” and it specializes in creepy biological magicking, like the crossing of wheat with Arctic cod to create frost-resistant crops. The absence of literary relevance aside, the company’s work — namely, the invention of an incendiary warfare agent — can be downright troubling.
The prize, whose pool of candidates is “confined to the Imperial ash heap of the Commonwealth,” seems to have been modeled on a well-known British award that, despite the criticisms perennially lodged against it, has entrenched itself as a barometer of literary achievement. If the comparison stands, the antics of the Elysian judges may have been preempted by their real-life analogues. The writer A.L. Kennedy, an erstwhile judge of the Man Booker Prize, once described it as “a pile of crooked nonsense” that depends on “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.”
The Elysian committee worships at this altar of Who. Two of the judges arrive at the deliberation table by way of connections. One is an actor, another a bored ex-politician. (Reality perhaps takes the absurdity even further: this year’s Booker panel features its “first pure scientist.”) With the exception of a perpetually exasperated Oxbridge academic, the judges consider reading the books at all secondary to their personal agendas.
The novel’s underlying irony is that, despite their belief to the contrary, the judges of the prize and the writers who want it do not concern themselves with literary merit. But that is an elusive beast, and St. Aubyn has an easier time conveying its absence and the various failures it strews along its path. His characters treat literature as formula, as though the right words and the right styles exist to be “arrived” at. The muse is no longer a mysterious force. She is now Gold Ghost Plus, a computer program that detects the word “refugee” in your masterwork and offers suggestions like “clutching a pathetic bundle” or “eyes big with hunger.”
St. Aubyn provides “excerpts” from the worst of the bunch. There’s the crime thriller that features misplaced over-descriptions and requisite stormy weather: “Sitting in her battered grey Audi A6 3.0 litre TDI with all leather seats, Jane Street was ready to call it a day.” There’s the novel of “gritty social realism” that trades in polish for grotesquerie, treating shock value as an automatic means to authenticity: “Wanker […] wasna in the mood for a fight, being skag-sick, and pissed at the world on account of his AIDS test comin back positive.” St. Aubyn whips these hapless literary enterprises together with evident relish; all he has to do is boost the ingredients of an old recipe.
In the kiln of readers’ overactive imaginations, the ordinary becomes the exceptional. An Indian cookbook accidentally makes it into the Elysian slush pile and is recast as “the boldest metafictional performance of our time.” Textuality, logocentrism, and Derrida are invoked repeatedly, like spiritual watchwords for the cult of the hyperintellectual. In the thick of Lost for Words, you might start to feel claustrophobic. Is it possible to read or write a book in a vacuum, disregarding public opinion, academic discourse, or artistic precedent? How do we shake off the pervasive self-consciousness of the literary establishment? Do we dare trust its declarations of greatness? St. Aubyn’s novel shows us how literature and its readers run circles inside a hall of mirrors that reflects hundredfold our expectations of what a novel should be and how it should be read.
But more fearsome than staying within this literary feedback loop is opting out. Where would you go? What would you do? One choice is to say nothing at all. In a 1967 essay, Susan Sontag describes an “aesthetics of silence” in modern art, wherein a writer, frustrated by the simultaneous inadequacy and contamination of language, circumvents his tools and pursues “the cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge” and “the silence beyond speech.” In this project of “anti-art,” the artist renounces the obligation to express and the inadequate methods at his disposal. “What’s envisaged is nothing less than the liberation of the artist from himself,” Sontag writes, “of art from the particular artwork, of art from history, of spirit from matter, of the mind from its perceptual and intellectual limitations.”
In Lost for Words, this struggle for liberation unfolds at the writing desk of a promising young novelist named Sam Black, whose musings on the value of literature, particularly as it relates to empathy, act as ballast against the Elysian judges’ bilge. He is fed up with “the treachery of words,” as Sontag describes it — that futile orbiting around what he calls “The Thing Itself” and the redundancy of applying “layer after nacreous layer of aesthetic distance” from the emotion at hand. In response to this frustration, Sam attempts “a meticulous negativity” in his unpublished work False Notes:
Like a man walking backwards along a path, erasing his footsteps with a broom, he had tried, through contradiction, negation, paradox, unreliable narration and every other method he could devise, to cancel the tracks left by his words and to release his writing from the wretched positivity of affirming anything at all. He hoped that by stripping all forms of belief from his sentences, he could evacuate his cluttered mind, leaving it empty and clear. […] Nothing could hold him or trap him — except his belief that freedom could be achieved by simply refusing to be held or trapped.
Silence becomes a way of regaining control — of boycotting the system. But Sam’s silence is clearly not literal; it’s given body through words. As Sontag emphasizes in her essay, the aesthetics of silence does not produce a pure void, but “an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence” that is itself a form of speech. Consider the title of the novel: to be lost for words is to suffer the failure of language. The phrase evokes thought or feeling that is beyond language, falling through the cracks of articulation. But there’s a kernel of hope here as well. To say that one is “lost for words” is to demonstrate, at the very moment that one pushes up against the limitations of language, that its inadequacy can be conveyed. One falls back into language’s arms. After all, there exist words like “not, neither, nor, nothing, less, without,” which Sam writes out as a warm-up exercise.
It’s hard to imagine a no-name, straight-to-paperback writer producing a book like Lost for Words. This is the work of a very successful writer — one who, in fact, has been short-listed for the Booker, a detail amusing to read in the accompanying press material. St. Aubyn consciously invites meta-examination: readers will inevitably subject the novel to the questions that it itself raises. One might see that the genre of satire — “militant irony,” as Northrop Frye described it — bears glimmers of the dialectical relationship between silence and speech. After all, irony operates at two levels: the meaning intended by the writer, and its contrary expression. The process depends on the power of suggestion; a point is delivered, fully and effectively, in absentia. Like Sam, St. Aubyn seems interested in the verbose possibilities of silence. He executes his irony with phlegmatic and tightly controlled prose, underneath which lurks the trenchant exasperation of a veteran.
St. Aubyn’s critique is aimed at the circus and the spectacle, not literature itself. Fortunately, there is a world outside of the hall of mirrors that he evokes; there is, in short, true greatness. St. Aubyn suggests that the essence of great art is its total singularity, its breach with formula. “If an artist is good,” as one character says, “nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent.” Notably, we are never treated to an excerpt from Sam’s long-listed novel. Compared to the others, he seems untouchable. Sam mercilessly interrogates his motivations for writing, and his thoughts of success are outweighed by his love for a fellow novelist, whose success he’d prefer over his. If we are to trust the strong suggestions of Sam’s literary brilliance, then The Frozen Torrent can have come from one person only — and it’s not St. Aubyn. The character might be his, but the creative vision isn’t. St. Aubyn has only himself to reckon with. Let us be glad for it.