All of the current enthusiasm for Edward St. Aubyn’s latest novel At Last made me curious about the earlier Patrick Melrose books — curious but nervous. On the one hand, they were supposed to be dazzling dissections of emotional disarray in the English upper class. But on the other hand, they featured harrowing episodes like five-year-old Patrick’s rape by his father, or a luridly drug-fueled weekend in New York some years later. Stylish, disturbing, mordantly funny; eventually I had to try them. So I picked up the elegant omnibus edition that contains Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk. That was three days ago, and I’ve hardly been separated from the volume since. Some readers have compared St. Aubyn’s work to Evelyn Waugh’s books and superficially, that makes sense. St. Aubyn writes of Waugh’s aristocratic world, but with a kind of despairing rigor, exposing the emotional emptiness and dishonesty that used to pass for upper-class style. He’s angry; he’s funny; he steers clear of self-pity and his authority over the material is complete.
We begin, in Never Mind, at the beautiful Melrose house in the south of France, watching the magnetic and dashing David Melrose torturing ants with a hose on the terrace. Oh, great — an idle sadist. We meet his drunken and wealthy wife Eleanor, her purse clanking with liquor bottles. And little Patrick, whose wariness betrays the damage that’s already been done. It’s only 132 pages, but I couldn’t have taken any more. St. Aubyn drifts adeptly from one point of view to another, managing to elicit both sympathy and horror. Patrick’s parents are monsters, but you can sort of see why. (From Some Hope: “Perhaps he would have to settle for the idea that it must have been even worse being his father than being someone his father had attempted to destroy.”)
Bad News was the hardest of the four to get through; David Melrose is now dead and Patrick, a 22-year-old heroin addict with too much money, has to go to New York to pick up his father’s ashes. We’re in Patrick’s sorry consciousness for every moment of a vile weekend. Yet somehow St. Aubyn has built enough sympathy for his character that you feel you need to stay with Patrick. He shows his hand at one point: “… he again wondered what kept him from suicide. Was it something as contemptible as sentimentality, or hope, or narcissism? No. It was really the desire to know what would happen next, despite the conviction that it was bound to be horrible: the narrative suspense of it all.” (What happens next: his heroin dealer telephones.)
Some Hope is an interlude of sorts: Patrick is now thirty, and the narrative circles around a big country-house party. The social comedy is broader (if no less dark), and Patrick has managed to kick the drugs and attract a genuine friend, Johnny Hall, to whom he actually reveals the story of his father’s abuse. By Mother’s Milk, he’s taken the daring step of marrying and having children. It’s not going particularly well:
He had made it out of Zone One, where a parent was doomed to make his child experience what he had hated most about his life, but he was still stuck in Zone Two, where the painstaking avoidance of Zone One blinded him to fresh mistakes. In Zone Two giving was based on what the giver lacked. Nothing was more exhausting than this deficiency-driven, overcompensating zeal. He dreamed of Zone Three. He sensed that it was there, just over the hill, like the rumor of a fertile valley.”
His mother has given away the French house to a “Transpersonal Foundation,” has had a pair of strokes, and wants him to help her commit suicide. He loves his children, cheats on his wife, drinks way too much. He sees, already, the damage he’s doing to his older son. He tries to do better.
And sown throughout these books are throwaway bits of brilliance like a horrid woman at the party in Some Hope, talking about incest carelessly, confessing that she never sees her son in Australia:
Fergus took me to the coast and forced me to go snorkeling. All I can say is that the Great Barrier Reef is the most vulgar thing I’ve ever seen. It’s one’s worst nightmare, full of frightful loud colors, peacock blues, and impossible oranges all higgledy-piggledy while one’s mask floods.'”
Metaphor? Reality? Funny? Tragic? Brilliant, really.