Medical-Grade St. Aubyn: On "The Patrick Melrose Novels"

May 4, 2013   •   By Adam Ross

The Patrick Melrose Novels

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 and Ladies and Gentlemen.