PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Edward St. Aubyn Is Compulsively Readable

'The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels' is a bitter comedy of manners that takes readers on a sordid, stylish, disturbing, funny and profound moral journey.

The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels

Publisher: Picador
Length: 880 pages
Author: Edward St. Aubyn
Price: $20.13
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2015-05

A year or so ago, having encountered descriptions of it as a prose masterpiece and potential modern classic, I raced through the five largely autobiographical Patrick Melrose Novels, now collected in a single edition, and found myself responding with tremendous excitement and pleasure. The novels concern the title character’s harrowing struggles with drug addiction, mental illness and pervasive, life-destroying cynicism, all the result of a shattering sexual trauma that both the fictional Melrose and its author Edward St. Aubyn himself experienced as a child, and while the subject matter hardly seems conducive to pleasure, this bitter comedy of manners takes the reader on a sordid, stylish, disturbing, funny and profound moral journey.

At one point in this pentalogy, there's a relatively mundane moment when a heavily drugged-up Melrose is descending in a “sluggish, airless” elevator and emerges onto the pavement, where he makes note of “the shock of standing again under the wide pale sky, completely exposed. This must be what the oyster feels when the lemon juice falls.”

A clever and slightly surreal if quotidian observation, and yet indicative of St. Aubyn’s methods, in which every moment counts and in which every one of Melrose’s thoughts and actions are saturated, as they must be for him and as they are for everyone, by the unconsciously absorbed experiences of early childhood. For Melrose, like St. Aubyn, had an aristocratic sociopath of a father who picked him up by his ears when he was five years old and, shortly thereafter, raped him. The oyster -- naked, tender, vulnerable and violated -- thus is a “symbol”, though only in the sense that everything Melrose sees is doused in acid.

Melrose’s mother did nothing to protect him from this childhood abuse, which continued until he was eight, and instead childishly retreats into a world of New Age-y nonsense; as St. Aubyn said in an interview with The Telegraph, referring to his own mother and quoting T.S. Eliot, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Not incidentally, Melrose’s mother was herself raped by her husband, and Patrick, accordingly, is not only a victim of rape, but the product of it.

Eliot’s statement, from his Four Quartets, is one of the most salient observations about human nature imaginable; who among us can stare the fundamental awfulness of reality in its face, even if it may be less frightening and ugly than the version experienced by Melrose and evaded by his mother? That is why most contemporary novels resort to fantasy, gimmickry, political correctness, identity politics, therapeutic mumbo jumbo or wishful thinking.

St. Aubyn takes a different approach, and a more honorable one, unblinkingly following Melrose through his adult life as he staggers from one humiliating disaster to another. True, Melrose employs irony and wit to keep reality (and his truly egregious upper-class friends and relatives) at bay, but that irony is not only all too transparent but actually serves to magnify his misery by disengaging him from his feelings. There are no easy resolutions or pat homilies here, even when the boogeyman ceases to exist; at one point, St. Aubyn notes that “in the eight years since his father’s death, Patrick’s youth had slipped away without being replaced by any signs of maturity, unless the tendency for sadness and exhaustion to eclipse hatred and insanity could be called ‘mature.’ The sense of multiplying alternatives and bifurcating paths had been replaced by a quayside desolation, contemplating the long list of missed boats.”

So we follow Melrose through the deaths of his parents, loathsome dinner parties and charity events, severe drug addiction, marriage, adultery (also “severe”), the loss of his family inheritance, and child rearing, but we’re always, as readers, going somewhere, even if that somewhere is sometimes the toilet (where Melrose does the majority of his drug-taking). But gradually, over time, as Melrose raises his own children, both he and we begin to realize that he has “transcended his ancestral muddle and offered his children unhaunted love.” This is, put simply, a beautiful moment.

That’s not giving away too much about the plot, for Melrose’s story is St. Aubyn’s own, and in his own public accounts, he attempted suicide once and had planned a second, successful attempt if he were unable to complete and publish the first novel in the series, Never Mind. The existence of Never Mind and the other four volumes (St. Aubyn has also published several other novels) is some sort of proof that while there are no pat answers, there are, sometimes, answers; that reality can at times in the direst of circumstances be squarely faced; and that things, before they eventually get entirely worse as they must for everyone, sometimes do get better.

A final note: As you might imagine, five novels in one volume make for a pretty hefty slab, but St. Aubyn is compulsively readable, even when the subject matter is a funeral or, even worse, a dinner party. In one of the volumes, Melrose is given a big, heavy book as a gift, and he reflects, “he liked slim books which he could slip into his overcoat pocket and leave there unread for months. What was the point of a book if you couldn’t carry it around with you as a theoretical defence against boredom?” This book, though certainly a very real defense against boredom, will not fit in any overcoat and will not, once started, go unread.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.