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The Patrick Melrose Novels

Edward St. Aubyn

(Picador; US: Feb 2012)

When Edward St. Aubyn wrote Never Mind, the first of the Patrick Melrose novels, he had frequent panic attacks. He imagined that friends of his father would discover the novel and kill him. He was tempted to call his publisher and ask that the novel be aborted. There were some sleepless nights.


Here’s why. Never Mind is about a little boy who is Edward St. Aubyn’s alter-ego. In the novel, the boy, Patrick, is raped by his father. The rapes continue for three years, until Patrick puts an end to them. And all of this is based on fact. St. Aubyn, like Patrick, endured years of torture. His father was depraved and deeply unhappy. When he raped young Edward, Mr. St. Aubyn said, “Don’t tell anyone.” Edward imagined that if he did tell someone, serious and possibly life-threatening problems would arise.


Happily, Edward St. Aubyn was wrong. Although some of his father’s friends stopped speaking to him after the publication of Never Mind, no one tried to assault or kill him. British critics went wild for the Melrose novels; the Booker Prize-winner Alan Hollinghurst called St. Aubyn “the most brilliant English novelist of his generation.” The final Melrose novel, At Last, was recently introduced to American readers in hardcover. To coincide with the publication of At Last, Picador released the first four Melrose books in this omnibus edition, The Patrick Melrose Novels.


These four early novels tell the story of a boy who wants desperately to escape the past. Patrick tries heroin, alcohol, and adultery to try to numb the pain his childhood has left behind—and nothing works. As Patrick wrestles with thoughts of suicide, he also enters counseling, tries on—and abandons—a marriage, and grapples with his mother, who is nearly as maddening and dangerous as her ex-husband (Patrick’s dad).


Given all the rage in St. Aubyn’s story, it’s no surprise to find that the prose is darkly funny. What’s more remarkable is that St. Aubyn is able to get inside the head of his father and explain the roles of both the oppressor and the oppressed in an abusive relationship. Lastly, and this is most valuable: St. Aubyn suggests a way out of darkness, a reason for enduring even if the world is brutally unfair. 


To live or not to live? ...At first, it seems that Patrick’s life is one long argument in favor of suicide. When Patrick puts an end to his father’s many rapes (rapes that included not just Patrick, but also some of Patrick’s friends), Mr. Melrose goes into hiding. He becomes bedridden and blames his innocent son for his unhappiness. Meanwhile, Mrs. Melrose, who conceived Patrick when she was sexually assaulted by her husband, can offer very little to anyone in the family. She ignores evidence of Patrick’s suffering. She becomes a drug addict, and eventually gets involved in a kind of new-age cult.


Heroin, too, is powerless in Patrick’s efforts to solve his problems: By his early 20s, he’s regularly hearing voices, endangering himself on the streets of the South Bronx, and noting the untimely deaths of drug-addled friends.


Trading heroin addiction for alcoholism turns out to be a bad idea. Cheating on one’s wife also seems inadvisable, from Patrick’s point of view. Having tried all of these vices—drugs, liquor, adultery—Patrick is often despondent, and even mumbles to himself, “I want to die, I want to die, I want to die.”


At the same time, there is an incredible lust for life in these novels. Patrick fights; he survives. How many eight-year-olds can say to a grown man, “Stop raping me”—and how many eight-year-olds can actually ward off subsequent rape attempts? Patrick’s will to live drags him away from drug dens and into counseling, where he begins to tell his own story. The act of articulating suffering—transforming pain into art—becomes a useful past-time. It’s even a kind of vocation.


At the end of the final Melrose novel (and you will not find it in the omnibus; you will have to pick up a separate copy of At Last), Patrick feels some compassion for his oppressors. He can detach himself from his mother and father; he can recognize that forces beyond their control shaped them into useless and deeply troubled human beings. He’s no longer inclined to blame them for the mess that is his own life. In fact, he wishes he could offer them help.


It’s been said that rage is the source of most comedy, and St. Aubyn’s writing supports this argument. There are frequent, blistering, very funny descriptions of adult cruelty and obliviousness. Princess Margaret is skewered—portrayed as a ridiculous snob: “The Princess allowed her views about the sauce to be eclipsed by the gratification of hearing England described as ‘your country,’ which she took to be an acknowledgment of her own feeling that it belonged, if not legally, then in some more profound sense, to her own family.”


Patrick’s mother is repeatedly held over the coals: “She had handed him, without any sense of irony, the task of disinheriting himself, and he had carried it out carefully.” Patrick’s father is memorably depicted with a hose, as he drowns some ants: “His technique was well established: he would let the survivors struggle over the wet stones, and regain their dignity for a while, before bringing the thundering water down on them again.” Adult behavior is so consistently ludicrous, shocking, and transparent in this fictional world, you find yourself wincing as you laugh.


Beyond the dark humor, there’s great psychological insight in each of the Melrose novels. It has been observed that the oppressor, in any abusive relationship, is just as helpless and pained as the oppressed. This is clear in St. Aubyn’s portrait of Patrick’s father. Though it’s difficult to have sympathy for a man who rapes his son, St. Aubyn bravely, compassionately describes the chaos that is eating away at this loathsome man’s brain. “It must have been hell to be him.” It’s fascinating, too, to watch the slow, triumphant progress Patrick makes toward the holy grail of detachment.


St. Aubyn is not interested in forgiveness; how does one “forgive” one’s parents, when one has parents such as these? Instead, St. Aubyn shows that a measure of sanity can be attained simply by stepping back and seeing one’s parents as helpless, addled souls. Often, people are cruel simply because they do not know how to behave in any other way, and refuse to learn or otherwise be self-critical.


Finally, the reason these novels will endure is that they manage to celebrate life while underlining many examples of ugly, destructive behavior. It’s hard to imagine a childhood more uncomfortable than Patrick’s childhood. And yet Patrick grows up and distances himself from his parents, and he even has a family of his own. Like St. Aubyn, Patrick studies his own unhappiness and learns from it. He adds beauty to the world because, ultimately, he can think of nothing else to do; the alternatives to hard work and compassion have left him frustrated, empty.


The start of the Melrose saga is among the grimmest in the history of the printed word. A young boy lies face-down on a bed and feels “a strange, worrying wetness”—his father’s semen—“at the base of his spine.” From here, it’s an extraordinary journey through drug addiction to hospitalization to despair to something like a productive life. You might occasionally struggle to believe that someone like Patrick could make it so far… but the life and career of Edward St. Aubyn will silence your doubts.

Rating:

I am a freelance writer and teacher who lives in New York.


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