Monday, March 18, 2013

I've Been Sequestered

Yes, I've been sequestered with Patrick Melrose. At least that's how it feels. Once I read Edward St. Aubyn's first book about the fictional Patrick Melrose, “Never Mind”, I was compelled to keep going. How could a writer create such a poisonous family dynamic, in which five-year-old Patrick is a helpless pawn, and still find a way to make me laugh out loud? How could I want to read more about a father like this: “He was determined to harden the calluses of disappointment and develop the skill of detachment in his son. After all, what else did he have to offer him?”. A father whose philosophy was that “what redeemed life from complete horror was the almost unlimited number of things to be nasty about”.

Not surprisingly, this wretched childhood produces an adult Patrick whose attempts to harness his rage and self-pity through drugs and booze, even as he mutters darkly funny observations about the English upper class, lead him through addictions, recoveries, affairs, relapses, marriage, and parenthood in his subsequent novels “Bad News”, “Some Hope” and “Mother's Milk”, as he is all the while unable to permanently right his own foundering ship. 

The final book in the series, “At Last”, opens on the day of the funeral of Patrick's mother. He wrestles once again with his anger and depression, but still finds time to observe of his aunt: “She stood in the doorway looking exhausted by her own haughtiness, as if her raised eyebrows might not be able to stand the strain much longer”.

So clearly this is not a book for readers looking characters they can admire, people whose company they'd enjoy. Patrick would be hell to live with, but I liked being along for the ride. St. Aubyn creates a world where each darkly comic observation is matched with moment of piercing comprehension of the effects of family violence. Patrick asks himself: “What if memories were just memories, without any consolatory or persecutory power?”. As the books ends I was left with at least a shred of hope that this might be possible for him.