Friday, June 21, 2013

CBR5 #5 to #8: The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn

The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn go by incredibly quickly. The first four of the series – there are five total – all have titles that sound like exclamations of exasperation. Never Mind, the first novel, displays the home life of five-year-old Patrick Melrose, the son of an English aristocrat and an American heiress; Bad News follow’s 21-year-old Patrick, who’s now a heroin addict, and his drug-fuelled days in New York City when he goes to bury his father; Some Hope features him as an older, though not much wiser, man trying to come to terms with his past; and Mother’s Milk charts the summers that he and his family spend in the family’s home in France, and the declining health of his inattentive mother.

I’m gonna review them separately, even though they all came in one tome. I think this edition (where the four are actually one) was released right before the launch of St. Aubyn’s fifth and final book, which I have not read.

Never Mind

In the first book of the Patrick Melrose series, St. Aubyn introduces David Melrose, the patriarch of the Melrose family, through the eyes of others who seem eager to avoid him. His maid tries to skirt around his attention while his wife, Eleanor, often seems to stay very, very still so as not to have him notice her. Only five-year-old Patrick seems to appreciate his father, who he sees as a stern and commanding presence.

The other players in Never Mind is Jewish philosopher Victor Eisen and his reporter girlfriend Anne Moore; and Nicholas Pratt and his new young girlfriend Bridget. The three couples are meeting at the French house of David and Eleanor, and the entire book takes place in the span of a single day.

David Melrose, an English aristocratic, is seen as the top dog by all the men in terms of style and class, and all the men do verbal gymnastics around each other to try to appear clever and ironic, while also not overtly aggressive. St. Aubyn skewers the rich by portraying them as a malicious bunch – and all the ammunition is flung while they are sitting civilly to dinner. Eleanor, who is American and really the wealthy one as it is her inheritance that David and the family are living off of, often finds herself feeling left out:

Eleanor still found it inexplicable that the best English manners contained such a high proportion of outright rudeness and gladiatorial combat. She knew that David abused this licence, but she also knew how ‘boring’ it was to interfere with the exercise of unkindness. When David reminded someone of their weaknesses and failures she was torn between a desire to save the victim, whose feelings she adopted as her own,and an equally strong desire not to be accused of spoiling a game. The more she thought about this conflict, the more tightly it trapped her. She would never know what to say because whatever she said would be wrong.

The entire first book is beset with a sense of foreboding – David, as you can already tell, is a sadistic fucking dick; Eleanor is forever his victim; and Patrick – who Anne, at one point, says is the only person she likes in that family since there is still optimism in him – seems to be the vessel upon each parent’s cruelty and neuroses is spilled into.

I’m going to keep hammering on this throughout all the reviews for all four books, but St. Aubyn is unforgiving in his portrayal of the wealthy, and he manages to imbue all the characters and descriptions with such a richness of knowledge. Patrick, as a five-year-old, is largely exempt from such contempt, but his point of view is just as poignantly vivid, and it brought along a sense of almost nostalgia – I could remember feeling these emotions when my mother used to get angry at me, and I could not figure out the reasons behind her anger:

As Patrick slowly crossed the floor he tried to think of some way to placate his father. Maybe if he said something clever he’d be forgiven, but he felt extraordinarily stupid and could only think over and over: two time two equals four, two times two equals four. He tried to remember something he had noticed that morning, or anything, anything at all that might persuade his father that he had been ‘observing everything.’ But his mind was eclipsed by the shadow of his father’s presence.

Never Mind is really about the resignation of a child, at five, that things are just going to be shit for the rest of his life. His father is an asshole, his mother is a dishrag, and adults seem despicable through and through. Patrick’s world is split into half on this day with the knowledge that his parents, whom he had seen as model adults of sorts, could come to embody monsters.

Bad News

Bad news arrives in a phone call from an old family friend to Patrick, 21, as he is just about to expertly inject heroin into the crook of his arm – his father had passed away. Will Patrick stop by the funeral home on Madison Avenue in New York City?

Patrick put down the syringe he had been flushing out, and sat beside the phone without moving. Was it bad news? Perhaps he would need all his courage not to dance in the street, not to smile too broadly.

With that begins a two-day drug-fuelled existence in New York. Upon hearing about David’s death, Patrick resolves to quit using heroin. But in order to get himself off it, he’d have to distract himself with other substances – such as cocaine, quaaludes, speed, valium, and general overuse of alcohol. It doesn’t matter because he ends up using heroin anyway. In his quest to rid himself of the stench of having been fathered by a sadistic child rapist, Patrick seeks out his old “friends” – Pierre, his old dealer, a French man with the purest heroin available who scolds Patrick for always trying to seek a rush while selling it to him; and Willy, an Alphabet City dealer who is willing to invite Patrick over to his home and provide him with a much-sought-after needle.

Patrick also visits with old family friends and all in all, comes off as an entitled rich brat who is adept at having cynical conversations with “grown-ups.” It’s clear that no one knows to what extent David’s cruelty was inflicted upon Patrick; he continually has to hear others tell him what a singularly amazing man his father was.

The second book is probably my least favorite, because Patrick – while sympathetic if you had read Never Mind – is a real mess. That’s to be expected given his childhood, as well as the heroin addiction. But every time St. Aubyn seems about to redeem Patrick’s general shittiness, he’s assailed by a sudden need to be unkind or make an observation that can only be thought of as “Rich White Boy” with an eye roll.

One thing that I loved about it though was the hazy clarity that Patrick seemed to collapse into when under the influence of drugs. While reading this, all I could think was, “Holy Christ, St. Aubyn totally had a drug problem.” There was a realness to the addiction, like the way Patrick mapped out his night according to the drugs he had left, just to make sure he didn’t run out too long before his flight returning to London took off, but that he didn’t have too much whereby he’d be too high before boarding the plane. Patrick is also visited by hallucinations and voices, and there are whole pages that continue with conversations in his head with the television in his hotel room.

The whole experience made me really wish I knew what it was like to be high on heroin.

Another great thing about Bad News – you start noticing recurring characters in the Melroses’ life. Nicholas Pratt is mentioned again, and Anne returns, this time as an old friend who, despite her dislike for David, does not quite approve of Patrick’s vocal hatred toward his father. It’s sort of fun to note familiar names and recurring themes in these books – such as the appearance of an Alsatian, or a German shepherd, and how it symbolizes David’s restlessness and sudden anger.

Some Hope

I actually read Some Hope first, before I even knew that it was just one installment in a series of five. It begins with Patrick Melrose’s point of view after he had woken up from a dream, and while it may be random (especially if I came at it without having gone through Never Mind and Bad News) it was immediately gripping and interesting.

Patrick, at 28, has a singular voice and point of view. He is acerbic and humorous and self-lacerating. He is immature, sure – after all, he is a child of a trust fund and absent (slash abusive) parents – but as the chapters switch between his point of view and others within his social circle, it’s clear that the entire community of rich, well-to-doers are not even close to half as self-aware as he is.

Some Hope spans over a single day, and it’s essentially a look at various people’s lives as they prepare for a big party at night that will be thrown by Bridget (yes, young, flitty Bridget that we first saw in Never Mind) and her society husband for a princess. Patrick has been drug-free and sober for a couple years now, and his closest friend is Johnny, who seems like the most normal person in the entire book – and this is as an ex-heroin addict.

British snobbery is on full display here, with clever double-talk and the employment of crushing barbs in polite conversation. Every single person portrayed is a fucking bitch here – no one means what they say, and everything they say means nothing here because they would just twist it later when repeated to other parties. Yet St. Aubyn never makes a reader feel like that entire cast of character is a stain on humanity because we are able to see the humanness in all these deplorable characteristics. Because who hasn’t shit-talked a friend, and spoken behind their backs? And haven’t we all done it because we are all insecure in some ways, that we feel the need to crush others in our minds in order to feel good about ourselves? St. Aubyn just shows it off here to a greater, more extreme degree. 

The title this time refers to Patrick’s search for some sense of normalcy, in his mind. He is still struggling with his childhood abuse under the hands of his father, and how to reconcile it with the fact that David Melrose is greatly respected by Very Imporant People, people who never hesitate to tell Patrick what a great friend his pedophile father was to them.

If anything, the duality, and even the multiplicity, that exists within us has been a persistent theme throughout these novels. It’s trite to say, “Oh, he has characters that are not flat and are multi-dimensional.” Yes, it is a minimal requirement for an author to be able to expertly render his protagonist, and the people surrounding him, as a human being. But it’s an entirely different skill to make me seriously believe that these people are good and bad, and evil and kind; to hold these two opposing point of views at the same time in my mind. And truth be told, aren’t we all like this? I’m constantly questioning the intentions behind my actions and behind my motivations – do I do good things because I want to be good, or because I want to be perceived as good? It’s bad to gossip and shit talk and be snide, but isn’t it also just so clever to be a witty pessimist rather than an earnest do-gooder?

This was my favorite of the four books, and the one that prompted me to seek out the entire series (saving the final book, because I live in, you know, Cambodia/non-Amazon land). It works as a stand-alone book, but I re-read it anyway when I started from the beginning, if only because Patrick’s history makes me appreciate so much more the re-appearance of personalities from his past, as well as the effort it has taken for him to get to this point, where he can concretely say, “Well, maybe I could make my life about me, and not about having survived my father’s abuse.”

Mother’s Milk

The fourth book is a jarring departure from the other three. First, it is no longer set within a short period of time – it spans several summers from 2000 onwards – and also, it provides an extensive look to the people around Patrick. Now married and with a children, Patrick appears, at first to have settled comfortably into fatherhood and married life. Their summers, initially spent in the family house in France (in which Never Mind took place), were supplanted as Patrick’s mother, Eleanor, began giving the family fortune and property away to some New Age cult religion group.

St. Aubyn has focused so much on Patrick’s relationship with his absent parents – and we’ve only seen one very meek, very subservient side of his mother in Never Mind – that Eleanor’s reappearance and her portrayal is almost unrecognizable. Eleanor, after all, has always been a cipher for others to pin their hopes upon, and having each time failed their expectations, have flitted to her next goal, whether if it is being a good wife (failed), a good mother (failed failed), altruistic Mother-to-the-People (sort of failed, but who knows), and an upright Human Being Who Submits Herself to a Higher Power (failed because it’s essentially a cult she entrusts her hopes upon).

St. Aubyn juxtaposes Patrick’s neurosis and self-awareness upon the reflections of his young and precocious son – who is trying his best to emulate his father -- and his wife, who is the extreme opposite of Eleanor. This self-awareness that Patrick has carried throughout his life has now been taken up to a greater degree by his older son, Robert.

And Robert is… an anomaly. As a child, he possesses an intelligence that I sincerely doubt is possible in real life, but always seem to appear in the children of movies and books. Yet St. Aubyn does the very clever trick of having Robert’s inner thoughts seem extremely insightful and probing, while from the outside point of view have him engaging in play and childish acts. And truthfully, haven’t we all felt like this as a kid? The belief that what the adult sees is only a fraction of my capacity as a child? I remember thinking, perhaps around 5, that adults vastly underestimate children and their ability to understand that they’re just so full of shit. So maybe Robert’s portrayal isn’t that far off – it’s just more eloquently written.

For Patrick, Eleanor’s gradual descent into old age has him feeling a curious mix of hatred, compassion and resentment. How hard should he be pushing her for a slice of the family inheritance? Should he even care about it, considering how much he does not love her as a mother? If she asks for his help in killing herself, should he do it because he loves her and wants to put her out of her misery… or does he want to do it because there’s the glee of revenge that comes from a lifetime of familial betrayal? Any time you begin to judge Patrick’s motivations for his urges, don’t worry – he’s already gotten there and ran three laps around the park with them.

It’s sort of interesting, now that I am writing about these books, to clearly see how St. Aubyn has brought Patrick’s character to a full growth. In the first, he unfailingly loves his father and mother, and his world is shattered in a single day. In the second, Patrick encapsulates the rich young asshole who sees the world as being preternaturally against him and therefore he must try to shorten his life as quickly as possible through substance-abuse. And then in Some Hope, he’s taken the rashness of his youth, and is trying so hard to push life forward with an attempt at maturity. Finally, in Mother’s Milk, he’s reduced to his former child when it comes Eleanor and his wife Mary – playing the blame game – but he tries to emulate adulthood by rationalizing his reasons and putting his feelings up for full inspection.

It’s exhausting to watch, exhausting to experience, and exhilarating to have on page to see. Not only is it amazing writing, but St. Aubyn’s portrayal of Patrick just pulled so much empathy from me – the specific details of his circumstances may differ (greatly differ) from my life, but I completely saw so much of Patrick within me and his over-thinking his over-thinking touched my soul.

What a fucking corny way to end a review, huh? Well, I cannot recommend the Patrick Melrose novels enough – it’s brilliant, it’s funny, it’s painful and it will speak to you in volumes about what kind of people we individuals are. Go. Go read it, now. 

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