Imagine a family like the Downton Abbey clan gone bad. By the end of the 20th century the estate has been sold off, of course, and most of the money has disappeared. The heir, bitterly dependent, as his forebears were, on infusions of dollars from a rich American wife, is holed up in an ancestral house in the south of France. There, to amuse himself, he takes to raping his 5-year-old son. That son, not surprisingly, grows up to be a raging heroin addict and also a brilliant, corrosive master of Wildean one-liners. He collects his dead father’s ashes during an epic $10,000 drug binge in New York; gets himself clean; and then watches helplessly as his marriage falls apart and his mother, a sort of New Age Mrs. Jellyby, gives what’s left of the family hoard to a twinkling Irish shaman. He ends up addicted to irony and self-pity and living alone in a London bed-sit.
That, greatly oversimplified, is what happens in Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose books—Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, and At Last—five short, remarkably compressed novels (most take place in just 24 hours or so) that follow their protagonist, Patrick Melrose, from childhood through troubled middle age. The books are both harrowing and, though you wouldn’t know it from my plot description, hilarious. St. Aubyn has a cut-glass prose style, a gift for unexpected metaphor, and a skewering eye. Describing a woman too fat to fit into her airplane seat, for example, he perceives “a special kind of tender American obesity; not the hard-won fat of a gourmet, or the juggernaut body of a truck driver, but the apprehensive fat of people who had decided to become their own airbag systems in a dangerous world.”