Self’s the Man: In At Last, on Goes Edward St. Aubyn’s Sordid Saga of the Melrose Clan

Patrick is learning to take life less seriously

"At Last." (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Patrick Melrose used to be an alcoholic, back when he was still a husband—though some time after his stint as a heroin addict, which was when he was young. Back then, Patrick was still rich. Not, to be sure, “as rich as God,” like “the Tescos,” yet certainly rich enough for a spot of sin. “Ten thousand [dollars] in two days,” he thinks in Bad News (1992), after lighting through a gram of heroin, six of cocaine and a crowd of lesser chemicals on a trip to New York. “Nobody could say he didn’t know how to have fun.” (The exception, of course, being Patrick himself: “I might as well have been shooting up a vial of my own tears.”) It was back then, when he was in his late 20s and still measured out his trust fund with blackened spoons, that Patrick identified his “type”: the “Hiso Bitch.” “The Hiso Bitch,” Patrick reminisces, “had to be … glamorous, intensely social, infinitely rich in the pursuit of pleasure, embedded among beautiful possessions. As if this was not enough (as if this was not too much), she also had to be sexually voracious and morally disoriented.”

Patrick Melrose is the invention of the English writer Edward St. Aubyn, who has followed him from boyhood to a bedsit and middle-age over the five books in which Patrick stars. The newest novel, At Last (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pages, $25.00), begins where it ends, on the day of the cremation of Patrick’s mother, Eleanor. It is, as his ex-wife, Mary, admits, “one of the more legitimate throes of [Patrick’s] perpetual crisis.” Yet one wouldn’t want to make light of those other throes—just as it would be rash to grant special gravity to this one. “I think my mother’s death is the best thing to happen to me …,” as Patrick says, “well, since my father’s death.” That happened in Bad News, the second Melrose installment, where Patrick goes on his binge. “Thank God his father had died,” he thinks. “Without a dead parent there was really no excuse for looking so awful.” But like the Hiso Bitch, the closest Mr. St. Aubyn’s writing gets to looking awful is looking slightly overdressed. Mr. St. Aubyn is a connoisseur of bliss and malice. He is also simply a connoisseur. There are always Chippendales to look out for and Tiepolos to inspect, bottles of Burgundy beading on the table. Martin Amis once complained of a “head-in-air” quality in the novels of Vladimir Nabokov, a “supercharged vein”: “The characters … don’t walk,” he wrote, “they ‘stride’; they don’t chew, they ‘munch’; they feel entitled.” And Mr. St. Aubyn’s fiction, where characters don’t “say” things, but “gasp” them; where they don’t “enter” rooms, but “surge” into them; and where “striding,” too, usurps the duty of “walking,” can easily make such an impression. Its manners are undemocratic. And so is its cast. “I firmly believe that one should have the widest possible range of acquaintances,” says a side character, Nicholas Pratt, in Some Hope (1994), “from monarchs right down to the humblest baronet in the land.”

Yet Mr. Amis eventually circles back to retract this judgment, praising Nabokov as a “witty enemy” of snobbery. The same goes for Mr. St. Aubyn, who excoriates the manners he so smoothly mimics—the smug good breeding of the “high-net-worth community,” which expels vulgarity while laying a place for viciousness. “Eleanor still found it inexplicable,” as he writes in Never Mind (1992), “that the best English manners contained such a high proportion of outright rudeness and gladiatorial combat.” Patrick Melrose’s personality contains these proportions too; he is a martyr to the conditions his author mocks and laments. For Patrick was a “nasty little boy.” And we all know that the child is father of the man. “There was no doubt about it,” Patrick thinks, early on in Bad News, “he was a fattist and a sexist and an ageist and a racist and a straightest and a druggist and, naturally, a snob, but of such a virulent character that nobody satisfied his demands.” This Bright Young Thing with blood-dark track marks also has a “melt-down-and-die stare.”

Yet Patrick didn’t come up with this killer look on his own. The child also has a real father. “After all,” thinks David Melrose, Patrick’s dad, in Never Mind, “what redeemed life from complete horror was the almost unlimited number of things to be nasty about”—though amid this unlimited number, there are a few things of matchless potential. It is halfway through Never Mind that David first sodomizes the 5-year-old Patrick, in supposed discipline for an infraction David refuses to name. “Even at the bar of the Cavalry and Guards Club one couldn’t boast about homosexual, paedophiliac incest with any confidence of a favorable reception,” David allows. But David will do it again anyway. He was never one to flinch at what the neighbors thought. “Other people labored through the odd bigoted remark,” thinks Nicholas Pratt, now in attendance at Eleanor’s funeral, “but David had embodied an absolute disdain for the opinion of the world.”

Information Mr. St. Aubyn has made public confirms Patrick’s story to share both the marquee traumas and much of the trivia of his own. Both are articulate sons of great English families that were undone by serial disinheritance; both were raped by their fathers as young boys; both were interminably rehabilitated in early manhood; both went to Oxford, where Mr. St. Aubyn is supposed to have snorted heroin through a hollow pen during his finals. They presumably share another habit. “Forget heroin,” Patrick thinks in At Last. “Just try giving up irony, that deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.”

Patrick’s desire to be in two places at once is traceable back to his rape, when, “split in half by this incomprehensible violence,” he detached from his pinned child’s body to envision what was being done to him from the perspective of a gecko. But the tokens of this desire are omnipresent. “Speed was the last thing he wanted,” Patrick thinks after buying quite a lot of that plus some Quaaludes in Central Park, “but he didn’t like to buy a drug unless he had the capacity to contradict it.” Unlike the Melrose males, the late Eleanor rarely employed irony, probably because she was too busy running its errands. This was the woman who went to “Chad with Save the Children” while her husband was raping her son. “The absolute banishment of irony from Eleanor’s earnest persona,” Patrick thinks, “created a black market for the blind sarcasm of her actions.”

As the service yields to a party, and canapés supplant Yeats and St. Paul, Patrick finds himself yearning for an end to irony, its “consolatory system.” He has an epiphany (he is prone to epiphanies): “I just recognize how many things there are to be detached about,” Patrick says. “The incandescent hatred and the pure terror don’t invalidate the detachment, they give it a chance to expand.” He spends the rest of the novel expanding on this sense of expansiveness: “He imagined not taking life so personally, [and] the heavy impenetrable darkness of the inarticulacy turned into a silence that was perfectly transparent, and he saw that there was a margin of freedom, a suspension of reaction, in that clarity.”

Mr. St. Aubyn is an adept of these skies-asunder moments; there is, as Nicholas Pratt might put it, “a sort of swelling orchestra effect.” Yet the ability to take life less personally—the kernel of Patrick’s new outlook—may presuppose a weightier claim to personhood than Patrick has. Patrick seems to be his author’s alter ego, but of course he is not. He is Mr. St. Aubyn subtracted of novelistic talent—or rather, since Patrick is a far better speaker than most novelists are writers, he is Mr. St. Aubyn subtracted of the drive to novelize experience. But Patrick lacks more than that. A few references are made, in Mother’s Milk (2006), to Patrick’s job as a barrister, but they are half-hearted. By At Last, this afterthought of an occupation has been reduced to the vapor of an attitude: “the prosecuting style [Patrick] adopted when defending himself.”

It is not that Patrick floats above the shabbiness of money. Money is his wound and tormentor. In Some Hope he even acknowledges, “to his horror,” that “he would have to get a job.” The problem is rather that Patrick, like the vampire to which he so often compares himself in Bad News, does not exist from 9 to 5. We have seen him at funerals and dinner parties, as we have witnessed his dying falls and his falling-down drunkenness. But we have not seen his downtime. He lacks a lower key. “Nothing but the best, or go without,” went David Melrose’s credo; and Patrick’s life is like that. He drinks Champagne or eats dirt. He doesn’t take a walk unless he plans to have a Wordsworth moment. He doesn’t take a drug unless he’s willing to die. His personality is an effect of his ability to sustain unsustainable levels of personal intensity. Like the “Ah-ha Box” at his mother’s new age foundation—“for those little moments of epiphany and insight when we think, ‘Ah-ha!’”—Patrick is more of a container than a character: the place where Mr. St. Aubyn drops off his ideas, not the place he develops them.

The Melrose novels are among the smartest and most beautiful fictional achievements of the past 20 years, and it is doubtless slightly ungrateful to continue past recognition of that. But they are a mansion for a character who does not fill out a complete set of human dimensions. If Patrick Melrose is Mr. St. Aubyn’s alter ego, he is not yet another self.

Self’s the Man: In At Last, on Goes Edward St. Aubyn’s Sordid Saga of the Melrose Clan