The Disillusionist

Edward St. Aubyn, who can make words do just about anything, can’t help mistrusting precisely that power.

Paul X. Johnson

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.”

Because he writes so knowingly about the British class system (Some Hope revolves around a country house party at which a supercilious Princess Margaret makes an appearance), St. Aubyn has frequently been compared to Evelyn Waugh. The difference is that Waugh yearned to be like the people he made fun of, and as soon as he had the money, he set himself up as one of them. St. Aubyn, descended from a family that has been in England since the Norman Conquest, has none of that nose-pressed-against-the-glass wistfulness. His aristos are not cartoonish, like Waugh’s, but funny in their horrificness, like the people Dante encounters in the lower basements of hell. Here, for instance, is a dinner guest at that ancestral house in Provence:

His wide, grinning mouth was at once crude and cruel. When he tried to smile, his purplish lips could only curl and twist like a rotting leaf thrown onto a fire. Obsequious and giggly with older and more powerful people, he turned savage at the smell of weakness and would attack only easy prey.

The Melrose novels began appearing in England in the early ’90s. The first three were published here in 2003, and gradually it emerged that they were partly autobiographical. St. Aubyn really was raped by his father. His mother did give all her money away to New Agey causes. And for years he was an addict, famous at Oxford for taking his exams while snorting heroin from a Bic pen. He writes about drug-taking like someone who knows what he’s talking about:

Heroin landed purring at the base of his skull, and wrapped itself darkly around his nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favorite cushion. It was 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.

Patrick’s other problems—his lusts, his depressions, his temper, his feelings of failure and inadequacy, his suicidal thoughts—seem similarly authentic, and reading the Melrose novels, you sometimes sense that the writing of them may have been a kind of catharsis. The final book in the series, At Last, published here in 2012, is set at the funeral of Patrick’s mother, where he says to a friend: “I think my mother’s death is the best thing to happen to me since … well, since my father’s death.” For once, he’s not being ironic. There is about this fifth book, which ends on a partly optimistic note, a feeling not just of finality but of relief, of a story over with at long last.

But does St. Aubyn have another story worth telling? While working on the Melrose series, he also wrote two other novels, which were not as successful. One of them, On the Edge (1998), presumably a by-product of his thinking about that fraudulent shaman, is a good-natured comedy about New Ageism in general. The other, A Clue to the Exit (2000), is a novel about how hard it is to write a novel, and is obsessed with one of St. Aubyn’s favorite themes, the problem of consciousness: What is the self, and how can we think about it without our thoughts getting in the way? There are moments in the book when St. Aubyn, an immensely gifted writer of realistic fiction, seems to be suffering from the postmodernist’s ailment: a crippling awareness of the made-upness of novels.

His newest book, Lost for Words, is another comedy, a send-up of literary prizegiving in general and of the Man Booker Prize in particular, disguised here as the Elysian Prize, given by a dodgy agribusiness company that specializes in genetically modified crops like the Giraffe carrot, so long that you need peel only a single one, not a whole bag. The judges include a backbench Scottish MP, a hack journalist, an actor who never shows up for the meetings, a writer of third-rate thrillers, and a highbrow Oxford don who can’t stand any of the rest.

St. Aubyn really was raped by his father. His mother did give all her money away to New Agey causes.

As it happens, I chaired the panel that chose the winner of last year’s National Book Award in fiction, so I read of the Elysian deliberations with particular interest and a little envy. For one thing, the judges don’t feel a need to actually read many of the novels, and because betting on book prizes is legal in England, there are ample opportunities for bribe-taking and profiteering. Then again, the books they do bother to look at are not exactly page-turners. St. Aubyn, who reveals himself to be an inspired parodist, gives us passages, for example, from wot u starin at, a knockoff of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting:

Death Boy’s trousers were round his ankies. The only vein in his body that hadna been driven into hiding was in his cock.
“I told yuz nivir ivir to talk to uz when Aym trackin a vein,” snarled Death Boy.
“That way I needna fucking talk ta ya at all,” said Wanker, slumped in the corner, weirdly fascinated by the sour stench of his own vomit, rising off of his soiled Iggy Pop tee-shirt.

And here’s the beginning of All the World’s a Stage, a historical novel about Shakespeare (and perhaps a gentle spoof of Hilary Mantel):

“Do you know Thomas Kyd and John Webster?”
“Lads,” said William, giving the men a friendly nod.

St. Aubyn (whose Mother's Milk was short-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize but didn’t win) has a serious point only partially buried here: that there is something inherently arbitrary and even a little ridiculous about literary competitions, especially those that presume to identify a single title as better than all others. But this is old news, and even the deftest exposé isn’t going to make book prizes go away. What makes the book interesting is not so much its obvious message as its verbal dexterity: its mimicry, its stylishness, and an almost hectic inventiveness that has the sneaky effect of casting doubt on the whole novel-writing enterprise.

Far from being at a loss for words, most of the book teems with cleverness, with a sense that words can be made to do almost anything—and a suspicion that that may be tantamount to nothing. One of the characters, a Frenchman named Didier, is in the grip of a “perpetual semiotic frenzy” and can’t stop spouting Foucault-like paradoxes in which everything becomes its antithesis and nothing means what it says. And then there is Sam Black, a blocked writer (perhaps a version of St. Aubyn at his most self-doubting) who can barely get a word down before rethinking it and concluding that “to say anything at all would be a mistake.” At the book’s somewhat squishy end, he imagines a world from which irony and double meaning have vanished altogether, a world, though he doesn’t say it, in which there would be no need for novels at all.

For a writer whose prose is so virtuosically supple, St. Aubyn’s misgivings about language are a little surprising. Lost for Words picks up on an idea that surfaces in the Melrose books, when St. Aubyn describes Patrick’s son Robert learning to speak—the idea that when you start putting words on things, the world loses its prelapsarian shine:

In a way things were more perfect when you couldn’t describe anything … Once you locked into language, all you could do was shuffle the greasy pack of a few thousand words that millions of people had used before.

The lousy thriller writer in Lost for Words relies on a software program, Ghost, that does just such shuffling. Type in the word refugee and the algorithm will generate clutching a pathetic bundle and eyes big with hunger.

St. Aubyn himself is a conjurer, able to take that greasy deck of cards and make it perform tricks of a sort rarely seen anymore. But running through all his books, especially his newest one, is a sense that he both delights in that power and worries about it, as if the magic were a drug he could get too used to. Every now and then, like a couple of his characters, St. Aubyn seems to yearn for thoughts so pure, so unself-conscious, that they don’t need any words at all.