Sunday, October 28, 2012

Being rich ain't all its cracked up to be (Books - The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn)

Alcohol addiction,heroin addiction, incest, your father's public humiliation of your mother - seems a small price to pay for unconscionable wealth and a villa in Provence, no?  Patrick Melrose grows up with a seemingly unreasonable share of horror on the one hand and neglect on the other, which lead to a sense of aimlessness, some very persistent chemical dependencies, and an extraordinary amount of self-disgust.  Thank goodness Melrose becomes reflective enough so that this account of his first 45-or-so years is more than a parade of ghoulish abuse.  Indeed, Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk, (The Patrick Melrose Novels, Picador, 2012) and At Last (Farrar, Straus and Grioux, 2011) are mercilessly observant of a world of advantage and indulgence, while at the same time being brutally funny. Their narrative arc traces the legacy of cruelty and narcissism that first mangles and imprisons the mind of its protagonist and eventually liberates it over nearly 900 pages that read like wild-fire consuming the lavish homes of Southern California millionaires, only here, most of the residents seem unwilling to leave their burning homes.  The events were sometimes so dreadful that I had to remember to close my mouth, which hung agape.  So precise was the scrutiny St. Aubyn gave his characters, it was like looking at a collection of extraordinarily insects, still alive, pinned inside a luxurious display case.  But the cruelty is ultimately redeemed by a vision that is humane, even forgiving, but never pacifying. Having read the first four novels collected in a single volume, as I reached the last word of Mother's Milk, I said aloud 'Oh my god,' and went out the next day to buy At Last, which had recently been published separately.

Patrick's father:
In his blue dressing gown, and already wearing dark glasses although it was still too early for the September sun to have risen above the limestone mountain, he directed a heavy stream of water from the hose he held in his left hand onto the column of ants moving busily through the gravel at his feet.  His technique was well established: he would let the survivors struggle over the wet stones, and regain their dignity for a while, before bringing the thundering water down on them again.  With his free hand he removed a cigar from his mouth, its smoke drifting up through the brown and grey curls that covered the jutting bones of his forehead.  He then narrowed the jet of water with his thumb to batter more effectively an ant on whose death he was wholly bent. 
His mother:
She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice crackling, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath.  All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth...

When she had first met David twelve years ago, she had been fascinated by his looks.  The expression that men feel entitled to wear when they stare out of a cold English drawing room onto their own land had grown stubborn over five centuries and perfected itself in David's face.  It was never quite clear to Eleanor why the English thought it was so distinguished to have done nothing for a long time in the same place, but David left her no doubt that they did.


When she had met David, she thought that he was the first person who really understood her.  Now he was the last person she would go to for understanding.  It was hard to explain this change and she tried to resist the temptation of thinking that he had been waiting all along for her money to subsidize his fantasies of how he deserved to live.  Perhpas, on the contrary, it was her money that had cheapened him.  He had stopped his medical practice soon after their marriage.  At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics.  In a sense they had succeeded.
St. Aubyn's sequence of words, whether forwarding plot or describing character, is never merely fulfilling narrative function.  Like a good actor, point-of-view is always driving the flow:
His wide, grinning mouth was at once crude and cruel.  When he tried to smile, his purplish lips could only curl and twist like a rotting leaf thrown onto a fire. 

On Patrick's neglect:
Patrick hesitated in the doorway of his mother's bedroom, waiting to be noticed.  The dimness of the room made it seem even larger, especially when a breeze stirred the curtains and an unsteady light spread shadows over the stretching walls.  Eleanor sat at her desk with her back to Patrick, writing a cheque to the Save the Children Fund, her favourite charity.  She did not hear her son come into the room until he stood by her chair.

'Hello, darling,' she said, with a desperate affection that sounded like a long-distance telephone call.  'What did you do today?' 
St. Aubyn writes in the third person, but his knowing narrator is clearly a stand-in for Patrick's view point, with the added advantage of hind-sight, making his character's neglect not merely terrible, but also funny.  In a later volume, when Patrick thinks back on his mother as resembling the character of Mrs. Jellyby from Dickens's Bleak House, St. Aubyn adds an additional layer to Patrick's insight, leaving this reader thinking that, although both Patrick's literary learning and his self-knowledge have grown, his education has done little to improve his functioning in the world - though it has served his narrative admirably, entertaining us with bitter irony.

Though I loved all five books as a series, relishing their humor, fascinated and horrified by turns at Patrick Melroses's descent and resurrection, I found At Last, in which the death of Patrick's mother leaves him in a world not only without parents, but without the driving forces behind the torment that has been his life, the least impressive.
No amount of stomach ache could make her stay now.  Not that he wanted her to stay, but his body had a memory of its ow which it continued to narrate without any reference to his current wishes.  What was it that had driven Eleanor to furnish children for her husband and for Father Tortelli, and why was the drive so strong that, after the collapse of her marriage, she immediately replaced a father with a Father, a doctor with a priest?  Patrick had no doubt that her motives were unconscious, as unconscious as the somatic memory that had taken him over in the last three days.  What could he do but drag these fragments out of the dark and acknowledge them?
St. Aubyn relies too much in his final volume on knee-jerk Freudian analysis. It's not that the language isn't justified. This is after all, a novel whose chief action is healing, whose central character's addictions are treated in NA, and whose depleted mental state is treated with psychotherapy and psychoactive medications, both self and doctor-prescribed.  But here I sometimes found formulaic psychobabble standing in for psychological insights that had, in the previous volumes been both more surprising and more thoroughly interwoven with the narrative.  This is redeemed by the fact that, despite a certain glibness, Aubyn mines rich philosophical territory and Patrick achieves more insight than some of us are willing to risk in a life time.  The writing feels lazier, but perhaps the diction should more fairly be attributed to Patrick who, in At Last, finds himself more content to occupy cliched roles as father, husband, patient, and mourner,so in some sense, he comes by this more formulaic construction honestly.

I reserve this criticism solely for the last volume, and even then it doesn't compromise the sweep of the series.  St. Aubyn's writing in the previous four volumes was uniformly eloquent and penetrating.  Here is my final question.  Numerous reviewers are quoted on the jackets praising St. Aubyn as a "one of the great prose stylists in England," Alice Sebold; "our purest living prose stylist," The Guardian; "Staggeringly good prose stylist," The Times.  What the hell does this mean?  Do they mean that he writes elegantly despite pop content?  Do they mean that his content is rich but his word choice falls short? This expression always ends up sounding like faint praise to me.  Perhaps it was defined in a class I missed, but if you're writing literary criticism and that is excerpted for marketing purposes, you would think that either the critics or the marketers could choose a phrase for which the serious reading public has a shared meaning.  If you think he's a good writer, say so. I think he's a brilliant, biting, and witty writer plumbing the kind of tough territory that puts you on intimate terms with the more tormenting aspects of being human. If you read to be calmed or comforted, you will not be.

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