Edward St. Aubyn’s ‘On the Edge’ Brings Some Humor to Life’s Fathomless Oddness

Here's another reasonably entertaining novel of ideas from this internationally-celebrated satirist.

A young man named Peter meets a woman, Sabine, and finds himself having sex with her. Never mind that he’s in a tepid relationship with another woman — he has to have Sabine. In fact, he will quit his respectable job to pursue Sabine, even though his mother objects to this decision. Sabine enjoys New Age seminars, and Peter travels to Esalen, a New Age institute in California, to try to reunite with her.

Meanwhile, a wealthy woman named Brooke has an interest in Esalen. Brooke’s money is a burden; it just accrues and accrues, and she cannot spend it fast enough. Lucky for her: She has a shambolic friend, Kenneth, who is happy to be bank-rolled by her in his years-long project of not writing a book about New Age wisdom. When will that book come out? When will Kenneth sit down to start writing it?

In another subplot, an aging married couple decide to go slightly wild. They shrug off their conventional pasts. They become New Age aficionados. The wife teases the husband for being too wedded to existence here on Earth in his “space suit”. When will he learn that this physical life is a mere drop in a vast, vast bucket, an experience to be enjoyed and then guiltlessly, easily discarded?

The husband is intoxicated by the Lena Dunham-esque climate of over-sharing that he discovers at New Age seminars. He falls in love with the act of telling strangers that he has been impotent for many years — maybe he is a bit too proud of this fact. As he boasts about it, his wife privately entertains thoughts of fucking a fellow New Age enthusiast, who may or may not be genuinely Native American.

Elsewhere, a duo of “teachers”, Martha and Carlos, prepare a seminar on “moving on and letting go”. Martha is fond of teasing her assistant, Carlos, who has an oh-so-typically-male habit of comparing himself to Carl Jung and Carlos Castaneda, among other luminaries. Martha’s teaching seems to consist mainly of inviting students to play-act a scenario from childhood. The students are four years old again, and they are imploring one another to “share your treasure”. It is the job of the treasure-possessor to resist these pleas. But then, in a final twist, Martha scolds the participants who have closely followed her instructions. What is wrong with sharing your treasure? If a teacher told you to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you blindly, obediently jump off the Brooklyn Bridge?

Lastly, Martha and Carlos devise a plan for enlisting their students as free labor in an effort to dislodge Martha’s vehicle from a rut. Carlos asks each student, “Is there something wrong with your back?” When the student, puzzled, says no, Carlos says, “Great! Then you will be happy to help tug Martha’s car out of its sand trap.” The student is bewildered and possibly flattered by Carlos’s assumption of his (the student’s) willingness to help, and before there is any possibility of reflection and resentment, the student is assisting in work he never actually volunteered to do.

All of this is fairly entertaining. The novel isn’t as passionate as any of St. Aubyn’s celebrated “Patrick Melrose” books, but you could read any one of a thousand other On the Edge reviews to figure that out.

Reading this book brought to mind the work that I do.

I teach at a Montessori school, and part of the Montessori school-of-thought concerns “cosmic education”. This is the idea that small children have a natural, insatiable appetite for trying to understand what their place in the cosmos is. They want to know about the origin of the universe, and about evolution. They want to know how birds arose from dinosaurs, and how flowering plants arose from bits of rootless green stuff that once hugged the Earth. Maria Montessori espoused the notion that humans are a kind of perfection of the process of evolution; humans must, as a “cosmic task”, use the gift of human consciousness to make the Earth a more perfect place.

Then Stephen Jay Gould came along and said that all of that is hogwash. There is no grand plan for us. We are simply an accident of history. We are merely insects in the grand scheme of things, and we should try to entertain one another and minimize pain for as long as our cosmically pointless lives keep us tethered to this odd little inconsequential planet.

Who knows who is right? Of course, we will never know. Or at least we will certainly not know while we are living, breathing humans, locked in our “space suits”.

Life is full of paradox. We are (maybe) both important and inconsequential.

This is the kind of mystery St. Aubyn toys with in his novel and, at least at times, he wrings some worthwhile humor from the fact of life’s fathomless oddness.

Splash image of the Atlantic Coast from Shutterstock.com.

RATING 6 / 10