Books

Scorched Earth

Edward St. Aubyn searches for a different kind of novel after the unquenchable rage of the Patrick Melrose series.

A flower grows out of a burnt tree trunk.
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The novels for which Edward St. Aubyn is best known—the five-book Patrick Melrose series, based on St. Aubyn’s own life—are distinguished by their witty, silken prose and by their savagery. St. Aubyn mercilessly details the petty vanities and yawning stupidity of the class that produced him, British aristocrats with lineages tracing back to the Norman conquest who sometimes even still possess the fortunes to go with their storied names. Patrick Melrose himself uses his drug addictions to subdue memories of his diabolically sadistic, incestuous father and drunken, complicit mother. As dark as these novels sound, they are as inhalable as good gossip. Readers tend to tear through all five books pell-mell— that is, unless they belong that benighted tribe who insist upon likable characters.

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So it’s surprising that almost all of the characters in St. Aubyn’s new novel, Double Blind, qualify as likable. Even Hunter Sterling, a billionaire who liquidated his hedge fund just before the market collapsed in 2008, only feints at becoming the book’s antagonist. Hunter does spend a few chapters doing coke and globe-trotting to nose out projects for his new venture capital firm. Hunter wants, he explains, to own “intellectual property that makes a fundamental contribution” but that also “wins all the science Nobels across the board.” One of these outfits involves the creation of “Happy Helmets,” which, when worn, promise to reproduce brain wave patterns copied from celebrated wise men and mystics. To Hunter’s annoyance, a Franciscan contemplative refuses to leave his rustic hermitage so Hunter’s team can scan his brain. “If anybody ever doubted that humility was the ultimate arrogance,” Hunter fumes, “they should drop in on the Blessed Fra Domenico.”

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A man in an overcoat stands in front of trees.
Edward St. Aubyn Timothy Allen

No one writes about recreational drug use better than St. Aubyn. In Bad News, one of the Patrick Melrose novels, he describes the effects of heroin as “soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon, or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm.” But in Double Blind Hunter’s binging is short-lived, and even his voracious desire to acquire cutting-edge patents settles down a bit under the influence of that most anodyne of cures, the love of a good woman. The woman is Lucy, a biologist turned corporate consultant and the best friend of Olivia, a biology professor at Oxford. For her part, Olivia has just fallen for Francis, a botanist working on a “wilding” project—in which landowners allow their property to return to a carefully-monitored state of nature. These two couples serve as the novel’s center.

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St. Aubyn seems to be struggling for direction after the series that made his reputation. His one major novel between At Last, the final Patrick Melrose book, and this one was 2014’s Lost for Words, a satire on the Booker Prize that felt a bit thin (although it did feature the delicious joke of a “sub-Irvine Welsh” working-class Scottish entry for the prize titled wot u starin at). With Double Blind, St. Aubyn aims for a novel of ideas similar to those of Richard Powers, but without Powers’ intellectual density or his churning, cyclical narrative structures. St. Aubyn’s characters spend a lot of time mulling over such matters as the mind-body problem, the theory of relativity, and the relationship between nature and morality. They have an implausible tendency to think in statistics. “Schizophrenia’s reputation for violence was exaggerated,” reads a chapter told from the point of view of Martin, Olivia’s father and a psychiatrist, “except in the case of suicide, which about half of the schizophrenic population attempted, with one in twenty succeeding.” The fictional action tends to bog down when it hits these data dumps.

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But if St. Aubyn still seems to be figuring out how to integrate all this information into the smooth, elegant fiction that has been his trademark, he does often get it right. Olivia’s bête noire is the reductive belief that human behavior is genetically determined, an argument whose proponents, she (correctly) observes, make a fetish of “science” yet will bend empirical findings into tautological knots rather than admit that there’s little evidence for their pet theories. Her scorn for such hedging is bracing. There’s even a wonderfully fatuous minor character who keeps cropping up to fan the flames, a Richard-Dawkins-style genetic reductivist with a bestselling book called The Insatiable Machine whom Olivia once worked with and who is, of course, a sex pest. Francis, ruminating on the mystery of how consciousness emerged, waspishly dismisses Occam’s Razor, the rhetorical resort of such materialists, as “the minimalist aesthetic that was supposed to adjudicate over intellectual life for the rest of time, like a fashion editor in a black pencil skirt who simply refuses to retire,” denying the art department’s “longing for a little moment of Baroque excess and a splash of color.” As similes go, this is both absurdly Homeric and perfect.

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Not coincidentally, both of these examples involve conflict. The angrier St. Aubyn’s characters get, the more Double Blind comes alive. The emotion is one of the founts of St. Aubyn’s fictional gift, but a dangerous one. The Patrick Melrose series was powered, and formidably so, by a propulsive rage and grief. But such volatile passions aren’t a source of sustainable energy. Everyone who reads the Patrick Melrose series wants Patrick to get better, but as readers our relationship to him is co-dependent; what makes the novels roar along is the same force that is killing him, and, we worry, his author, too.

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Double Blind suggests that St. Aubyn has gone in search of healthier material. Happily, the moments when St. Aubyn’s main characters are quarreling with someone aren’t the book’s only high points. The loveliest parts of the novel have to do with one of Martin’s patients, a man with schizophrenia named Sebastian who may or may not be Olivia’s twin. (Both were adopted, and they bear the names of the separated twins in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.) Martin’s pro bono treatment of Sebastian involves listening to him talk about what his other doctors simply dismissed as delusions, sorting out the secret symbolic language of his fears and hopes and treating them as meaningful—even if their meaning isn’t readily apparent, even to Sebastian himself. Slowly, endearingly, the patient recovers his ability to function and communicate with others, just as the land Francis tends gradually returns to a lush, functional ecosystem once people stop interfering with it. Double Blind might not burn as furiously as the Patrick Melrose series—I suspect some fans of those books will find this one tepid by comparison—but it is nevertheless full of the tender green shoots of new life.

Double Blind

by Edward St. Aubyn. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.