More Pain, Better Sentences

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn
    Picador, 261 pp, £12.99, May 2014, ISBN 978 0 330 45422 3
  • Books by Charlie Hill
    Tindal Street, 192 pp, £6.99, November 2013, ISBN 978 1 78125 163 8

If Beryl Bainbridge had published, as her last novel, a satirical farce about the machinations behind a famous literary prize, she might have managed to weather the accusations of pique. Better yet if she had held it back for posthumous publication, to show that she could wait out her own ego. Anyone else is likely to be seen as settling a score rather than diagnosing the ills of the literary marketplace. Edward St Aubyn, whose new novel, Lost for Words, is a satirical farce about the machinations behind a famous literary prize, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2006 with Mother’s Milk, but lost out to Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.

‘Ego’ can hardly be a dirty word when discussing writing, any more than ‘fuel-tank’ could be when discussing cars. No novel can be written without it, though it isn’t exactly a faculty, just a reservoir of motive energy, having nothing to do with destination or direction of travel. From the point of view of the reader, what counts isn’t whether a book got its start from a sense of grievance but whether it ends as an independent artefact.

In the world of Lost for Words the Elysian, ‘the world’s most famous fiction prize’, stands in for the Man Booker. The composition of the panel is the same, with a chairman and four judges. Raising the prize money from £50,000 to £80,000 can’t count as much of a disguise. The fictional sponsor, Elysian, is a controversial hi-tech agricultural company, ‘crossing wheat with Arctic cod to make it frost resistant [and] lemons with bullet ants to give them extra zest’, while the Man Group is an investment management business, though the James Man who founded the original company was an 18th-century barrel-maker (his firm supplied the navy with rum for almost two hundred years). Touches such as Elysian’s ‘Giraffe carrot’, so large that a single specimen can fill a vegetable dish for Sunday lunch, suggest a whimsical futurism, though the action is set in 2013 and many of its underlying assumptions seem to date much further back.

It would be perfectly possible to caricature the Booker judges for 2013 or 2006, the year about which St Aubyn can be assumed to care most, though even a shortlistee has no privileged access to their discussions. Luckily there seems to be no such attempt: a cultural eminence such as Fiona Shaw, one of the 2006 judges, strongly resistant to dilution, would be hard to refract safely away from recognisability. So Lost for Words can be acquitted of being a roman à clef, the type of novel Milan Kundera compared to a jacket that everyone immediately turns inside out, since the lining is the only interesting part.

St Aubyn’s chair of judges, a backbench MP called Malcolm Craig, shows no overlap with either Hermione Lee (2006) or Robert Macfarlane (2013). The Elysian judges for 2013 are Jo Cross, a columnist whose criterion for imaginative literature is its ‘relevance’; Penny Feathers, retired from the Foreign Office and attempting to write topical thrillers; Tobias Benedict, an actor; and Vanessa Shaw, a bluestocking academic. The writers in contention (if only in their own minds) include Katherine Burns, a siren who can’t help using men; Sam Black, a tortured soul for whom writing is a salving agony; and Sonny, the 653rd Maharajah of Badanpur, who assumes that The Mulberry Elephant, a vast self-justificatory volume privately published in India, will somehow sweep the field.

If the lining isn’t the point of this garment, then how does it drape, how is it cut and shaped? Lost for Words is a curious production, both off-the-peg and strangely skewed, like some sweatshop version of Vivienne Westwood. There are jokey names (Page and Turner for a publisher, John Elton for an American literary agent with a disfiguring hair transplant) and passages of broad pastiche, such as this from a novel about Shakespeare: ‘“Fye, Will,” said Lucretia, arching backwards and pulling William towards her, “keep thy wit for thy plays, for wit is a poor actor that comes on and plays his part and is heard no more, but the part I would have you play hath more will in it than wit.”’ Has there been a year when such a book would make the Booker longlist, let alone the short? Satire isn’t supposed to make reality look good by the contrast but to skewer it. There’s a perfunctory stab at school-of-Irvine Welsh shock-horror – ‘Death Boy’s troosers were round his ankies. The only vein in his body that hadna bin driven into hiding was in his cock’ – but if Trainspotting missed the Booker shortlist in 1993 (there wasn’t a longlist in those days), why would an imitation do any better in 2013? With Welsh being the best-known chronicler of underclass addiction, and St Aubyn in his Patrick Melrose books documenting the ravages of the same habits in a more privileged milieu, there’s a hint of condescension here.

There are open seams in the plotting. Katherine’s besotted editor, Alan, works on her new novel, Consequences, till the last possible moment: ‘It had been a terrible wrench when he handed the typescript to his assistant to get it biked over to the Elysian people on that final afternoon.’ So the prize isn’t for published novels? It’s hardly a secret that the journey from MS to finished book takes many months, and if book prizes are about anything, they’re about selling books. This wouldn’t matter if it was an incidental detail, but the plot strand doesn’t end there. By farcical misfortune the manuscript actually submitted for the prize is not Consequences but a cookbook compiled (loose word, since she merely instructed the palace cook to cough up some recipes) by the maharajah’s aunt. The Elysian – and this makes it unique among book prizes – seems not to stipulate that it is a prize for published books.

The discussion of the judges’ panel in the book revolves around the question of whether The Palace Cookbook is admissible as fiction, what with postmodernism having corroded all meaningful distinctions or (if you prefer) liberated us from empty categories. Nobody mentions or seems to notice that it hasn’t been published, though the judges must be reading from photocopies. John Elton refuses to represent the work, even after it has appeared on the longlist. Despite ‘universal media derision’ for the shortlist, no one seems bothered that one of the favoured titles isn’t available, and nobody steps forward to publish it. Insult the book trade all you like, but don’t imply that no one in British publishing wants to make money from a sure thing. At this point Lost for Words drifts away from the harsh but habitable territory of satire and into the badlands of travesty or burlesque.

*

For another view of the book world, just as jaundiced but more far-ranging, it’s worth turning to Charlie Hill’s indignant romp Books, published last year. Book prizes, after all, claim an impossibly innocent relationship with the marketplace, unaffected by non-literary considerations but feeding directly into sales figures. As an ex-bookseller, Hill is well acquainted with ‘commercial pressures, declining literacy rates, the rise of the machines, yada yada’. His particular target is the genre of the male confessional, as practised by the bestselling novelist Gary Sayles, whose bibliography should ring some bells:

Our Legendary Twenties was about a single twentysomething professional Londoner looking for love. Cutting the Cake concerned itself with a late twentysomething professional Londoner unsure whether or not to move in with his girlfriend. Man, Woman, Baby took as its central thrust the dilemma faced by a thirtysomething professional Londoner whose wife was expecting a baby that was missing a big toe.

But now Gary Sayles has moved from eerie mediocrity into actively lethal banality. His new book, The Grass Is Greener, causes a fatal synaptic meltdown in anyone who reads it, and only Richard Anger, maverick bookseller, and Lauren Furrows, emotionally timid neurologist, can stop the epidemic. Balancing the figure of Gary, for whom subject matter is everything (he admires the Monet on his wall because the artist ‘painted pictures of flowers and ponds, nothing more complicated than that. And people still buy them’), are a pair of transgressive conceptual-art twerps, attuned to the nothingness beneath the surface of everything and eager to exploit it. The extremes cancel each other out, and Richard and Lauren must feel their way towards a middle ground they can share. This is an almost dismayingly sensible message. A genre whose indispensable working method is exaggeration will always sound hollow when it endorses balance and right proportion. Satire is inherently an unstable genre, defined by negativity and oppositional feeling, in which consistency of tone counts almost as a defect. A satire with one glorious moment can’t be dismissed as a failure, however, and there are several glorious moments in Books, such as this briefing for Gary about the campaign for The Grass Is Greener: ‘Online, we’ve paid for I Heart Books, Books We Love, Bookslush, Bookchat and a new site called Bookchef. As for print, in keeping with the more serious themes of the novel, we’ve decided against targeting the usual suspects. So instead of Ciao!, Single!, Girlfriend!, Spritzer! and Bloke, we’re going with Career Woman, Urban Gent, Man Hug, Pheromone and Car.’

Satirists diagnose rather than prescribe: they clear weeds with a flamethrower but offer no suggestions about planting. This is the genre that relies most on Nietzsche’s notion of the destructive impulse also being a creative one. So it’s slightly startling to find Books having a positive agenda. To contain the Sayles menace, the RAF drops emergency supplies of the good stuff:

And so it was that Jim Crace fell from the sky. Alison Moore and Henry Sutton and Hilary Mantel fell from the sky, Ali Smith and Marcus Mills too. Their books fell from the sky in their thousands, parachuted into parks and on to roundabouts in towns and cities across the barren and would-be suburban land. The heavens opened and the sky streamed ink; it poured with hope and despair, speculation and horror, it pissed down passion, intelligence and love.

This passage shows the creeping falsity that’s the likely result when satire forces itself into a positive register. Manna from heaven has an ISBN number. It turns out that the dock leaves of Mantel and Mills were growing near the nettles of not-quite-Tony Parsons all along. The list of recommended authors itself resembles a scrupulously balanced prize shortlist – three men, three women – with a corrective anti-metropolitan bias, the named writers having birthplaces in Manchester, Norfolk, Inverness, Glossop and Birmingham. It’s true Crace was born in St Albans, but he has lived down the stigma of this perceived advantage by sensibly moving north.

One constituent of the literary world that is ignored equally by Books and Lost for Words is the critic. You might think there was plenty to complain about: the tendency, for instance, of book reviewers to take in the press release, blurb and garlanding quotes before reading the novel. The practice of reviewing the reputation rather than the book certainly tends to protect authors, if only in the short term, and may in fact benefit St Aubyn in the case of Lost for Words.

Satire is supposed to bite the hand that feeds it, but for a novelist (particularly one who hasn’t been short of critical praise) to savage the world of reviewers can seem a bite too far. One character type of the satirist is the kamikaze pilot, but a kamikaze liable to pull out of the dive at the last moment. In The Roaring Queen, Wyndham Lewis saw his mission through, including a caricature of Arnold Bennett under the name of Samuel Shodbutt, here in discussion with his wife:

‘I never read more than the last page. Balzac said he knew what a book was like without even opening it. I can’t say that – that’s more than I can claim – I take off my hat to Balzac! He was a genius! No. I have to open them. It’s no use – I admit it, I have to open them. But I never need to go farther than the last page.’

‘I know!’

‘If that doesn’t stir me, I just shut it up with a bang, and mark it N.G. But give me a last page – and I’m infallible. Infallible.’

‘You would be infallible even if you never opened …’

‘No, no. Balzac – Balzac! Not me! I take off my hat to Balzac! I must open it!’

Satire can’t buy you friends but it buys you a better class of enemy (the aphorism, originally applied to money, has a ring of Karl Kraus but is Spike Milligan’s). Bennett had been dead for five years when Cape announced the imminent appearance of The Roaring Queen in 1936, but there was enough disobliging matter elsewhere in the book to alarm the publishers, and it didn’t reach print until 1973. Hill has more sense of self-preservation, and the endorsement on the cover of Books (‘Playful, unruly and bursting with generous energy’) is from the same Jim Crace whose soul-saving books were the first out of the planes.

*

In the world of St Aubyn’s Elysian Prize, the judges all have an agenda: the chairman, for instance, is covertly trying to boost the chances of The Greasy Pole, a novel written under a pseudonym by his old boss at the Scottish Office. Judges do everything they can to massage the outcome and say things like: ‘I’ll tell the others to count Conundrum out.’ Book prize committees probably are hotbeds of politicking, not because books are involved but because they are committees. In the year I was a Booker judge, 1995, there was a frustrating absence of scope for dirty tricks. That was why the panel ended up with an unsatisfactory shortlist of five books rather than the usual six (the rules are forgiving and stipulate a minimum of four). The novel I liked most wasn’t on the list. If only four books had been backed by a majority, there would have been an opportunity to advance compromise candidates (you vote for my darling and I’ll vote for yours). But with five voted through, there was only one place to fill and no possibility of horse-trading. Our low natures had nothing to work with.

If I say that the judges in Lost for Words are implausibly lazy I may seem to be defending professional standards, but it’s not quite that. It’s really the plotting that’s lazy. Farce logic is very far from the sort in philosophical treatises, but it is a real thing and needs to be worked on – there’s no point in choosing a mechanical form and then not oiling the mechanism. In the absence of dramatic plausibility there must at least be comic verve. The judge who’s an actor misses several committee meetings, since he’s touring the country ‘playing Estragon in a hip-hop adaptation of Waiting for Godot’, though a Beckett estate that authorised such a thing would have been genetically modified well beyond the Giraffe carrot.

Penny Feathers (the thriller-writing Foreign Office retiree) tries to organise a jaunt to Paris as a bonding trip for the judges. A guided tour of the city’s sewers strikes her as a suitable excursion. When none of the others signs up, she devotes the €10,000 budget she has somehow secured to staying in the Ritz, drinking cocktails and eating out. St Aubyn remembers the existence of social media near the end of the book (‘Jo Cross’s Twitter wars with critics of the longlist’), but despite the tensions within the committee judges miss meetings, fail to read books or play hooky in Paris without fear of the flash floods of gossip that accompany the smallest misjudgments in an overmediated world.

As readers of his Patrick Melrose books will know, St Aubyn’s writing is strongly attuned to the confluence of cleverness and pain when minds become addicted to their own toxic secretions. Patrick keeps the world at bay with the same intellectual knife he twists in his own guts. Penny’s solo evening at the Ritz drinking Cosmopolitans is a wan rerun of Patrick’s dinner alone at an equally distinguished New York restaurant in Bad News (1992), where he gets through two martinis, a bottle of Corton Charlemagne, a bottle of Ducru-Beaucaillou and some marc de Bourgogne. In Lost for Words, Penny ‘was just the teeniest bit tiddly and arguably should restrict herself to drinking wine by the glass over dinner. Mind you, it was rather a waste of the vintage chart to be stuck in the “by the glass” section of a great wine list.’ Bad News:

Patrick stared at his glass. The red wine was definitely beginning to unfold. Pity he had already drunk it all. Yes, it had been beginning to unfold, like a fist opening slowly. And in its palm … In its palm, what? A ruby? A grape? A stone? Perhaps similes just shunted the same idea back and forth, lightly disguised, to give the impression of a fruitful trade … The tragic limitations of comparison.

Penny has reason enough to be miserable, with a daughter who has never forgiven her for walking out of her marriage or even for being a career woman, but she’s not intelligent enough to earn her author’s respect by acquiring a connoisseurship of her own pain. He can manufacture dutiful insight, but that’s as far as it goes, and the contempt that reverberates through the Penny sections of the book is not part of the character’s relationship with herself. Why go inside her mind at all, if nothing of interest is to be found there? Wyndham Lewis proposed satire as the natural medium for the externalised view and The Roaring Queen certainly shows off the potential power of this approach. Heartless comedy is more effective without the charade of empathy.

A farcical plot puts characters under pressure, but can hardly be expected to reveal depths where the genre rules them out. Farce machinery doesn’t bottle psychological truth but lemonade. St Aubyn engineers a climax by having the Elysian judges meet for the last time shortly before the winner is announced, a bit of scheduling somewhere between risky and suicidal. Malcolm Craig gets trapped in a lift until a few minutes before he has to make the announcement, and the disarray of the judging process means that he can’t use either of his planned speeches but will have to improvise, cobbling them together somehow. This moment of public and media attention was exactly what he was looking forward to when he agreed to serve as chairman, and now it has turned nightmarish (‘He could hear a high-pitched humming in his ears, and his body was throbbing, as if it had become a kettledrum for his pounding heart’). Humiliation while speaking in public was a deeply entrenched fear even before Jim Dixon gave a speech on ‘Merrie England’. If it’s not hard-wired into human consciousness it comes pretty close. The ego is revealed as a slug fizzing under a mortal rain of salt.

St Aubyn chooses to go inward, adding new material like a nervous chef adding garnishes to a classic dish: ‘What was it in his nature that destroyed these moments of potential triumph? Why had he made his fatal speech about Scottish independence when he appeared to be rising inexorably towards a cabinet post? Why had he proposed to two women on the same day and in the ensuing muddle lost both of them, although they had both accepted?’ These additions don’t amplify but dilute the moment.

Of the judges Vanessa Shaw, the academic, aesthete and elitist, makes the strongest claim on St Aubyn’s sympathies. It’s not just that her personal problems are more acute than Penny Feathers’s, in the shape of a controlling anorexic daughter and a son who is being allowed to fall apart because, whatever happens, he will always be more functional than his sister. Her scholarly intelligence gives her the necessary ability to torture herself – more pain, and better sentences. Like Patrick alone in the restaurant, she comes up against the limits of the transforming power of language. For him it was similes that broke down, for her it is symbolism: ‘A principled hunger strike, like Gandhi’s, which was aimed at achieving something in the outside world, looked very impure and compromised compared to a hunger strike whose sole object was to stop eating: this was the white on white of the hunger strike, the moment when it became abstract and transcended the clumsy literalism of merely representing one thing or another.’ There are times when anorexia functions in Lost for Words as schizophrenia does for Kingsley Amis in Stanley and the Women, countersubject outranking the subject, the ballast that almost sinks the ship.

It’s at the moment when a literary sensibility seems confounded by reality, with Vanessa’s reflections on the vicious purity of her daughter’s desire to starve, that literature offers itself at its most basic, not comfort but company. She finds herself thinking in her distress of a line from King Lear, and decides that the only reason for any book to win ‘this fucking prize’ would be that it too had a chance of ‘coming back to a person when she wanted to cry but couldn’t, or wanted to think but couldn’t think clearly, or wanted to laugh but saw no reason to’. The canon is what you have left when you have nothing.

The two potential literary artists in the story, Katherine and Sam, are committed to writing but aware of its inevitable falling short. Early in the book Katherine thinks of

an empty train shooting through an empty station at night, an image of her mind without words. How beautifully unnecessary they seemed at that moment, but soon it would be rush hour, with hardly enough words getting off the crowded train to allow any words from the crowded platform to get on. Everything congested with words, everything spoken for; conversations, dialogues, monologues, interior monologues, all the way down, words staining the marrow, pretending that nothing existed without them.

The source of Katherine’s pain is her self-knowledge, acute enough to understand her promiscuity in terms of the trauma of watching her father die, when she was 14, from a bee sting nobody knew he was allergic to, helpless to change her ways. St Aubyn, unlike the writers he’s most often compared to, Waugh and Wodehouse (with Wilde sometimes added to produce an alliterative troika), is reluctant to mock Freudianism and its offshoots. His sentences on the subject lack the sting in the tail they seem to promise: ‘A thousand hours of psychotherapy had done their familiar work, making an intellectually obvious truth into a deeply felt one.’ The rhythm of an epigram without the pounce. Lost for Words is a much less witty book than the Patrick Melrose novels, and not just because of its intermittent status as a satire, a form more likely to reach for the bludgeon than the blowpipe and poison dart.

Meanwhile Katherine is the source of Sam’s pain. Sam is clearly school of Beckett, having ‘the obligation to write only when he had nothing to say, since only then could a new insight emerge’, and particularly concerned, like Vanessa and Patrick Melrose, with the workings of figurative language:

Comparisons didn’t bear thinking about. The ceaseless traffic of correspondences between one resemblance and another – eagle nebulae, star fruit, frog suits, foxgloves, rapier wit – generated a craving for The Thing Itself, but everybody knew, or else should know, that The Thing Itself was just another comparison, once it had been fished out of the ocean of silence by a linguistic net in which every word existed in relation to all other words.

The amateurs Sonny and Penny overrate both their competence and the medium. The disparity of tone between the sections dealing with the amateurs and the professionals in Lost for Words is extreme and almost physically distressing for the reader. St Aubyn seems to be knitting with one ball of hand-dyed cashmere and one of fluorescent acrylic.

Didier, a garrulous theorist, has the cleverness St Aubyn requires but lacks the pain that would in his terms give it depth. Didier is a minor personage in the book, and his connection with the Badanpur contingent is wildly implausible, but he’s the closest thing in these pages to a successful comic character. There’s nothing in the slightest bit original about lampooning modish French intellectualism, and God knows cod Baudrillard is as dated as cod Irvine Welsh, but there’s some vitality here, more perhaps than there’s meant to be. A paradox is only a platitude on a seesaw, and Didier never tires of bouncing up and down. He’s thrilled by his own thoughts, however apocalyptic their register. Like Buck Mulligan in Ulysses, he’s supposed to be a bore and a parasite but keeps bringing energy to the table:

We are entering the Dark Ages, my friend, but this time there will be lots of neon, and screen savers, and street lighting. This is the Dark Ages with light pollution: with the pollution of the Enlightenment! The pigs are wandering among the temple ruins; women are being raped on the steps of the forgotten Senate; there are only two or three monks who can still read in the whole of Europe; all of that, naturally, but this time it’s going to be on TV! This time it’s going to be famous! It’s going to give interviews: ‘It’s not so easy being the Dark Ages, there are many problems: I think I need some therapy, et cetera.’ You get the picture?

At the banquet for the Elysian prizegiving the Chinese plutocrat whose corporation has taken over the company puts in an appearance. Asked what direction he will take the prize in, Mr Wo makes a disconcerting answer:

It’s a prize for literature … I hope it will go in the direction of literature. My wife takes a great interest in these things. Personally I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but that it makes no sense in the arts. If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent. Only the mediocre, pushing forward a commonplace view of life in commonplace language, can really be compared, but my wife thinks that ‘least mediocre of the mediocre’ is a discouraging title for a prize.

This is partly disconcerting because the reader, having been offered a super-stereotypical maharajah and a super-stereotypical French intellectual is denied a super-stereotypical Chinese plutocrat to complete the set, but also because this is a sort of enlightened humanist deus ex machina formally restoring the balance upset during the preceding drama.

While they are considering their options the Elysian committee members discover that the author of wot u starin at, the Irvine Welsh knockoff, is not only a well-paid lecturer in medieval love poetry at Edinburgh University but ‘none other than The Mc Dougal of Mc Dougal, one of the most ancient titles in Scotland’. Malcolm the chairman is outraged at the deception, but Vanessa and even Penny take it on the chin, acknowledging that it makes no difference to the book itself. This discovery can’t reasonably be described as a damp squib, but it’s a squib that blows up in its maker’s face. If it turned out that St Aubyn had never tried anything harder than ginger ale in his life, it wouldn’t affect the literary merit of the Patrick Melrose novels but their reception in the marketplace would certainly be affected. These books were never presented as memoirs, unlike James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, whose fictional elements returned to haunt it, but from the moment in an early interview that St Aubyn identified himself, like Patrick, as having been raped by his father at the age of five, he benefited from a readership that wanted a transformation of the misery memoir it needn’t feel ashamed to be seen reading, as well as the much smaller constituency that relishes elegant sentences whatever their subject. Aesthetics and the marketplace don’t have a lot in common, and since this is one of the premises of Lost for Words it’s odd that the writer should have forgotten it.

*

Both Books and Lost for Words are dysfunctional in the way they broker their relationship with proposed consumers. Lost for Words depicts a world in which the judges of literary prizes are lazy, self-obsessed and prejudiced, unable to recognise quality when they see it, but seeks to attract a readership with the information that its author was once shortlisted by such people. It offers its readers the pleasures of a fast-moving farce plot, as long as they don’t mind this one being broken. Meanwhile Books solicits readers who are as disgusted as the author and his protagonist with trash, who want their brains ‘nourished by the ideas and emotions, the voices and creations, the quiet purpose and the hollered violence of the striven-for art’, but also want to read about not-quite Tony Parsons’s head being burst to bits between copies of David Lodge’s Consciousness and the Novel and The History of Roget’s Thesaurus.

Some of this can be put down to the impure nature of satire itself, which appeals almost exclusively to the dark side. Is there another genre that depends on a character flaw for its survival? Satire couldn’t exist without schadenfreude. This is the genre that offers least in the way of wish-fulfilment (unless putting the evil eye on someone counts). It’s a distorting mirror in which no one sees his own face – the gendered possessive adjective can probably be allowed to stand, since it isn’t a genre that appeals much to women as practitioners or even consumers. But when the satire’s target is the literary world, readers are likely to feel got at, however indirectly, even though their choices have led them to the book in their hands. Mock writers and you risk mocking the readers who keep them in business.

It may be easier to read book-world satires when you’re at a little distance from the intended audience, so as to be reasonably sure that the author isn’t glaring at you from the edge of the page. In Percival Everett’s Erasure (2001), an experimental writer and university teacher called Thelonious Ellison, outraged that We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, a book of exploitative schlock, should sell hundreds of thousands of copies and have its film rights picked up for millions of dollars, its author welcomed by Kenya Dunston – no less – onto her chat show, tries his hand at writing the brutal inner-city novel to beat all brutal inner-city novels: ‘I look at my hands and they all covered wif blood and I realise I don’t know what goin on. So, I stab Mama again. I stab her cause I scared. I stab Mama cause I love her. I stab Mama cause I hate her. Cause I love her. Cause I hate her. Cause I ain’t got no daddy. Then I walk out the kitchen and stand outside, leavin Mama crawlin round on the linolum tryin to hold in her guts.’ He calls it My Pafology and chooses the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. My Pafology is printed in full inside Erasure, on (nice touch) yellow paper.

The experiment is a disastrous success. My Pafology gets all the attention that has eluded Ellison’s avant-garde work, and nothing he does can stop it. He insists that the book is retitled Fuck, thinking this at least will be a deal-breaker with the Book of the Month club, but no demand is too unreasonable when it comes from Stagg R. Leigh. Forced to keep his authorship of the book a secret even from his agent, he gives promotional interviews for it in disguise, and then finds that the hideous book is hotly tipped for a literary prize on whose panel of judges he himself is serving. He attempts to argue against it, but his objections are assumed to be snobbish and envious.

Writers of satires tend to start off with a clear idea of what they oppose, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It can sometimes happen, though, that as the project goes along its values come to seem less self-evident – as when Mark Twain, mocking the superstitions of the early Middle Ages in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, found himself less and less convinced of the superiority of a mechanised society. Satire is a form that needs blood in the water, and the writer’s is as good as any. It helps the complexity of Erasure that the inset My Pafology has its own cartoony pace and vigour, even though the central argument of the novel stands, that America is only interested in the extremes of black experience. If you’re black and middle class, if like Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison you’re good at maths, can’t dance and are the grandson and son of doctors, if the truth of the matter is that you ‘hardly ever think’ about race then you’re a new variety of invisible man (the surname ‘Ellison’ has not been given accidentally). Erasure is a maddened bellow of cultural pain having only the smallest overlap, necessary though it is in this low-minded, rancorous genre, with personal grievance.