Medical-Grade St. Aubyn: On "The Patrick Melrose Novels"
By Adam RossMay 4, 2013
The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
SO I JUST CAME OFF a protracted Edward St. Aubyn bender, his Patrick Melrose Novels the literary-fiction reader's drug of choice these days, since it seems everyone I know is repeating the Brit's name in hushed tones like Central Park’s dealers used to pawn pot (smoke, smoke). Sharing this rec, then, is about as original as snorting coke in the 1980s. Still, they’re purely cut stuff, as knock-your-head back powerful — their highs as euphoric — as the speedballs our hero horrifyingly mainlines in Bad News.
US consumers have, I think, the nearly unfair and delightfully addictive pleasure of reading the quintet of a piece, what with Picador releasing the first four as a quartet to mark the publication of the final novel, At Last — which is how I read them, how I binged on them, to the neglect of my children, my marriage, and the novel I’m writing, as did most other readers I discussed them with. (And how can you go Kindle when you've got the quartet’s beautiful pink spine to contemplate across the room, where it sits on your nightstand like some sort of brightly colored sex toy, the rough-front pages as fun to thumb as a flip book? And that semi-trashy cover with the attractive brunette laughing in the arms of her beau, either pulling his tie off to speed things on their way to bed or re-knotting it after some boozy, post-party fucking, her hair flung back and her pelvis pressed to his, her pearl choker’s clasp facing front above her angelic collarbone and hint of cleavage. It's perfect.)
For me the cycle reads like one giant novel, this magnificent bildungsroman so supremely post-post-modern in its brand of cutting-edge psychological realism combined with high class taxonomy, each as neatly presented via the formal challenges St. Aubyn sets himself book to book not only to keep the reader on her toes but also to subtract weight from their heavy subject matter (incestuous buggering, adultery, heroin addiction). He steals, say, the best of Gaddis when he gathers his characters to a party in Some Hope and plays out the whole fête in dialogue. Or returns, in a Kierkegaardian experiment in repetition, to a summer home three years running in Mother's Milk, trusting the reader to delineate the differences.
If these descriptions sound daunting, rest assured: I'm not alluding here to the recent recrudescence Darin Strauss noted of James Joyce's polyphonic influence (see Will Self's Umbrella, Zadie Smith's NW, or Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue). I'm talking about something simpler and, by dint of near-perfect execution, more readable straight through than Ulysses. In the end, St. Aubyn's novels are just so damn fun, so cuttingly comic, so wicked and quick. So perfectly short. ("Keep it short," rightly declared Italo Calvino in Six Memos for the Next Millennium.) I couldn’t read anyone else after St. Aubyn for several weeks. Like life after rehab it all seemed so, well, dull.
Adam Ross is the author of Mr. Peanut, a 2010 New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New Republic, and The Economist. Ladies and Gentlemen, his short story collection, was included in Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2011. His nonfiction has been published in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, The Wall Street Journal, The Nashville Scene, and Tin House. His fiction has appeared in The Carolina Quarterly and Five Chapters. Adam lives in Nashville with his wife and two daughters.
LARB Staff Recommendations
HERE'S THE LAMEST review equation in the world: Musician X + Filmmaker Y = Writer Z. So, forgive me this transgression (I just can’t help myself): Karen Russell is like some weird, perfect blend of singer-songwriter Neko Case and Studio Ghibli mastermind ...
THE RECEPTION THAT GREETED The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao showed us that perhaps all anyone needs to become a literary star is an "impressive high-low dexterity,” in A.O. Scott’s words, and, as per Michiko Kakutani, a "slangy, ...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.