Mama Melrose, RIP, and the Rest of Us Shall Get On with Life: Edward St. Aubyn's 'At Last'
Eleanor Melrose is dead! Her son has not felt so happy in years.
At LastPublisher: Picador
Length: 272 pages
Author: Edward St. Aubyn
Publication date: 2012-12
Patrick Melrose is an alter-ego whom the writer Edward St. Aubyn invented around 20years ago. He, Melrose, was born into extraordinary wealth, but his parents were cruel and negligent. Melrose’s father began raping Melrose pretty soon after the two first met—and the rapes continued for a couple of years. (St. Aubyn has indicated in interviews that, like Melrose, he was raped by his own father.)
Melrose’s mother, Eleanor, was lost in a cloud of alcohol and pills, and seemed not to be aware of the rapes. She did very little to protect her own child. The damage caused by these two monstrous parents was spectacular. Melrose became a heroin addict and nearly died. After heroin, he became overly fond of alcohol. He fathered two children and attempted to be around for them, as his own parents had failed to be around for so much of his own life. All of this is chronicled in the first four Melrose novels, available in an omnibus edition from Picador. (See PopMatters review here.)
In the final installment of the Melrose cycle, At Last, Patrick must cope with the death of his mother. A funeral is arranged. Ogres from Patrick’s past resurface. One, Nicholas, is a hideous snob who wastes no energy pretending to care about other people. Another, Nancy, is Patrick’s reprehensible aunt, a self-pitying idiot who complains that Patrick has thoughtlessly scheduled his mother’s funeral on the day of a royal wedding.
Friends from Eleanor’s later years also drop in on the festivities. Having been shattered by the realization that she ruined many years of her own son’s life, the aging Eleanor dedicated herself to “good works”. She disinherited Patrick and gave a good deal of her possessions to a “Transpersonal Foundation”—a ludicrous cult that sponsors explorations of “past lives” and shamanistic “healing rituals”. One representative of this cult, Annette, quotes Maya Angelou and describes Eleanor’s deep spiritual connection with water. Another of Eleanor's loony friends extols the virtues of Amitriptyline.
In the midst of all this chaos, Patrick must decide how he really feels about his mother. She was criminally negligent, surely, but she did sincerely want to be stronger than she was. She was frozen in adolescence, and in her later years, when she was semi-paralyzed and inarticulate, horrifying moments of self-knowledge rained down on her like hail. Patrick concludes that people who appear to deserve the most blame really deserve the most help. He's grateful to have survived his childhood, and he feels guardedly hopeful about his own prospects for leading a healthy mid-life.
I love St. Aubyn’s books so much, it’s possibly unfair for me to review this one. St. Aubyn is so relentlessly dry and courageous; he wrings humor from some of the darkest stories I have ever heard. I’m inspired by his wisdom and his clear-eyed prose.
Aha! Wait. I do have one grievance. I find some of St. Aubyn's philosophizing rather tiresome. It’s done through a character named Erasmus in this novel; in past novels, it has been done through a man named Victor. These characters are really an excuse for St. Aubyn to play around with philosophy. Maybe the philosophy has to be there for the book to make sense—for the story to hang together. But I could do without the occasional musing on consciousness and being. It’s like the war scenes in War and Peace, or the threshing scenes in Anna Karenina. You find yourself thinking, Can’t we just get back to the good stuff?
That said, there are many funny moments. I love the exchanges between the two young boys; St. Aubyn is good at describing the inner life and behavior of bright children. I also very much enjoy the surly character of Kettle, the mother from Hell. Kettle is Patrick’s ex-mother-in-law. She'ss astoundingly self-absorbed and clueless, and she's often depicted in scenes with Patrick’s young children, who are quite a bit wiser than her. This is notable, of course, because she is approximately 60 years older than the children.
Kettle complains in a self-pitying way that she can’t do anything right. She calls the children “childish”—when, of course, a child cannot indulge in childish behavior. Only an adult can be childish. Kettle reminds the children that their other grandmother is dead; their other grandmother has disinherited them. Kettle is like a bull in a china shop, without patience, without empathy. Yet it's an enormous pleasure to read about this ambulatory disaster.
You could argue that the kids in St. Aubyn's novels are inevitably the brightest characters—just like the fool in a Shakespeare play. Some other writers skip over the lives of children. St. Aubyn writes with patience about a child’s creative fantasies and a child’s way of observing the world.
In another memorable passage, a straying wife has her fling’s new philosophical treatise on the nightstand. The husband observes that the wife would not read this book unless she were sleeping with the author. The wife sighs and notes that it’s virtually impossible to read the book even when you are fucking the man who wrote it. The line is funny because it buries the lede. You of course want to know about the adulterous affair; the quality of the treatise in question is of secondary importance. But the wife behaves as if the primary subject here is the treatise. St. Aubyn’s writing is full of this sort of splendid wordplay. He takes delight in constructing stinging, elegant sentences.
As I read St. Aubyn's work, I was also making my way through a book of stories by Tessa Hadley. Hadley is a rather understated, somber writer. Thus, the riotous and gleeful St. Aubyn seems to be on a planet entirely separate from Hadley’s Earth. But both writers are telling the truth. They’re sharing their own unique thoughts about the world, thoughts harvested from the depths of their souls.
This kind of realization is just one of the pleasures that reading great fiction provides.