And now for something completely different: a broad farce from a British novelist renowned for his literary subtlety and command of tone.
Having finished his five-volume series of autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels (At Last, 2012, etc.), which have been hailed as one of the foremost achievements of modern literature, what could St. Aubyn do for an encore? Though a lethal sense of humor has been crucial to his skewering of the British upper classes, here he exchanges the darkness of hell and redemption among the coldhearted aristocracy for a laugh-out-loud sendup of literary prizes. Instead of the Man Booker, Britain’s most prestigious award is the Elysian Prize for Literature, determined by one well-meaning academic and a motley assortment of philistines, sponsored by a “highly innovative but controversial agricultural company” whose chief critics are environmentalists “claiming that [its products] caused cancer, disrupted the food chain, destroyed bee populations, or turned cattle into cannibals.” The judges for the prize generally have hidden (or not so hidden) agendas that don’t require them to actually read the books, and one doesn’t even bother to attend their deliberative sessions (he’s an actor on tour with “a hip-hop adaptation of Waiting for Godot”). The plot pivots around the promiscuity of a nubile novelist who has “averaged twenty lovers a year since she was sixteen” and who is in the process of juggling three or more through most of the narrative. Both the author and the reader have great fun with this, as the virtuosic novelist provides excerpts from nominated works, including a historical novel about William Shakespeare, a pulp page-turner and a scabrous (and hilarious) spew that the highest-minded judge dismisses as “sub-Irvine Welsh.” Through preposterous plot machinations, a cookbook of traditional Indian recipes is mistakenly submitted as fiction and becomes an unlikely contender, “operating as the boldest metafictional performance of our time.” The madcap climax involves an assassination plot and a stuck elevator at the awards banquet before surprisingly resolving itself with a (tentative) happy ending.
Like a long Monty Python sketch.