At Last by Edward St. Aubyn (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 266 pages) is the fourth novel about Patrick Melrose and his family; the others are Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk.
St. Aubyn, like the characters in the novel, comes from a wealthy English family. He, like Patrick, was raped by his father as a child. He, like Patrick, is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Indeed, given the facts of St. Aubyn’s life, it is remarkable that he is alive and functioning, let alone that he writes brilliantly.
In 2006, he told an interview from The Observer, “Once I started writing, I decided to stop the analysis. I didn’t need it any more. But I knew it was good because I went to see my analyst after making a suicide attempt. I was very, very precarious and then I felt a lot better. I stopped feeling mad; there was some sense of order.” The reporter asked whether writing is its own kind of therapy? “If it does have any therapeutic value,” said St. Aubyn, “the only way to get access to it is to write without any therapeutic intent. You transform experience into, for want of a better word, art. I’m interested in structure and character. Otherwise it would be very boring for everyone else.”
This is my feeling about alcoholic, or drug-addicted, or insane (or all three) main characters. Because they can do anything, have little or no self-awareness, and have little or no thought of consequences, they are too easy to write, and as St. Aubyn says, not interesting. It is, I think, the problem with fiction versus reportage. Our real lives are filled with accidents, extraordinary coincidences, inexplicable events. A novelist has to be careful about using these attributes of reality or readers are liable to feel cheated. Most readers expect a novel to make a certain kind of sense. A novel can do things reality cannot (for example, give us a person’s private thoughts, contradict known physical laws, invent impossible landscapes), but it has to make sense on its own terms. An extraordinary coincidence that becomes dinner table conversation in your lived life will cause a reader to throw your novel across a room.
An alcoholic, drug-addicted, or insane main character is easy to write because you have no constraints. The character by her nature doesn’t have to make “sense.” She can be one way today, another way tomorrow. Her primary wants can change five times on a page. She has no solidity, no verisimilitude. Somehow through the glitter of his writing and our access to Patrick’s thoughts, however, St. Aubyn manages to make him engaging and sympathetic.
The action of At Last takes place during a few hours of a single day—the funeral of Patrick’s mother and the family gathering afterward. While Patrick is the main character, the point of view shifts from character to character within a chapter and even on a page, although I had no trouble keeping up with who was observing what. I did have some trouble at the beginning of the book keeping the characters and their relationships straight, a problem I probably would not have had if I’d read the four earlier books.
Let me quote a few examples to suggest the kind of thing that blew me away:
“Emily Price had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions.”
“He knew as deeply as he knew anything that sedation was a prelude to anxiety, stimulation the prelude to exhaustion, and consolation the prelude to disappointment, so he lay on the red velvet soft and did nothing to distract himself from the news of his mother’s death.”
Most of the characters are thoroughly dislikable. They are cutting, snobbish (with little to be snobbish about), and self-centered. The exceptions are Patrick’s two sons and his ex-wife. Here is Nicholas, one of Patrick’s father’s oldest friends, talking about the monster father:
‘What a pity David isn’t here to enjoy his grandson,’ said Nicholas. ‘He would have ensured at the very least that they didn’t spend the whole day in front of the television. He was very worried about the tyranny of the cathode-ray tube. I remember vividly when we had seen some children who were practically giving birth to a television set, he said to me, “I dread to think what all that radiation is doing to their little genitals.”’
Part of the book’s enjoyment, of course, is the nastiness. But also St. Aubyn’s observations and descriptions. By the end, I felt that Patrick—now an orphan, now divorced, now sober, now (relatively) poor—has a positive future. Altogether satisfying.
Wally Wood, author of The Girl in the Photo
He closed the door and glanced hurriedly into the coffin, as though his mother had told him it was rude to stare. Whatever he was looking at, it was not the “her” he had been promised with solemn cosiness a few minutes before. The absence of life in that familiar body, the rigid and rectified features of the face he had known before he even knew his own, made all the difference. Here was a transitional object for the far end of life. Instead of the soft toy or raggie that a child uses to cope with its mother’s absence, he was being offered a corpse, its scrawny fingers clutching an artificial white rose whose stiff silk petals were twisted into position over an unbeating heart. It had the sarcasm of a relic, as well as the prestige of a metonym. It stood for his mother and for her absence with equal authority. In either case, it was her final appearance before she retired into other people’s memory.
He had better take another look, a longer look, a less theoretical look, but how could he concentrate in this disconcerting basement? The Willow Chapel turned out to be under a busy pavement, pierced by the declamatory brightness of mobile-phone talk and tattooed by clicking heels. A rumbling taxi emerged from the general traffic and splashed a puddle onto the paving stone above the far corner of the ceiling…. p40
Very fine review. I am glad to know some facts about St. Aubyn’s life and some of his views on writing. His Patrick Melrose novels are among my favorite.