Live-blogging Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels


The Picador single-volume edition of the first four Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn — Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk — is quite the extraordinary bargain at a price of $12.98 on Amazon (although hey, you can afford to buy this one from your neighborhood store).  It had been sitting in a stack in my bedroom for quite a while because I began the first book, Never Mind, and was genuinely concerned that getting to the scene in which the five-year old Patrick Melrose is raped by his father (a scene narrated from Patrick’s own perspective) would give me such disturbing nightmares as not to be worth it.  But now I’m about halfway into the remarkable series and will certainly keep reading to the end.

James Wood describes these novels as seeming to be “not only books about trauma but traumatized books, condemned to return again and again to primal wounds.”  (The novels are apparently highly autobiographical, based on St Aubyn’s own experience of childhood sexual abuse and his years of drug addiction from age 16 to 28.) Wood adds that “St. Aubyn’s novels have an aristocratic atmosphere of tart horror, the hideousness of the material contained by a powerfully aphoristic, lucid prose style. In good and bad ways, his fiction offers a kind of deadly gossip, and feeds the reader’s curiosity like one of the mortal morsels offered up by Tacitus or Plutarch in their chatty histories.”

I’d agree that Never Mind in particular (first published in 1992 – I’d be curious to see reviews/ response to it at that point) reads like Evelyn Waugh meets Tacitus. Or, that Patrick’s father David Melrose is kind of like Wilde’s cruelly witty Lord Henry meets Caligula. The Roman references are woven into the text: David loans a “friend” a copy of Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars, of which we’re led to assume that the chapters on Nero and Caligula must be his favorites.

Never Mind is quite amazing — I can’t think of anything quite like it.  There’s witty, there’s savagely witty, and then there’s this, something beyond that. I remember a critic’s observation that Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) reads like a jaundiced, deeply disillusioned return to the Jane Austen world of wealthy, aristocratic European leisure a century later, from within the knowledge of that world and that class’s self-destruction. St. Aubyn extends this logic further in the most corrosively savage, and yet very funny, depiction of dead-end English country-house elites ever.

Here’s one dinner guest, for example, Vijay Shaw, an old Eton acquaintance of Victor, the social-climbing philosopher whose wife Anne’s perspective is articulated here (the only vaguely sympathetic characters, aside from the five year-old Patrick, are women; are the men are repellent, although Victor the least so):

[S]pending just a few days with him convinced Anne that each hideous feature had been molded by internal malevolence.  His wife, grinning mouth was at once crude and cruel.  When he tried to smile, his purplish lips could only curl and twist like a rotting lead thrown onto a fire.  Obsequious and giggly with older and more powerful people, he turned savage at the smell of weakness, and would attack only easy prey. His voice seemed to be designed exclusively for simpering… Like many flatterers, he was not aware that he irritated the people he flattered…. A little Indian guy being sneered at by monsters of English privilege would normally have unleashed the full weight of Anne’s loyalty to underdogs, but this time it was wiped out by Vijay’s enormous desire to be a monster of English privilege himself.

The Roman/ Caligula references crystallize the novel’s emphasis on social life as a species of mutual torturing, and St Aubyn also suggests that the English aristocratic fox-hunting ethos has been literally miniatured and trivialized in David Melrose’s ongoing torture of ants:

David Melrose, tired of drowning ants, abandoned watering the garden. As soon as the sport lost a narrow focus, it filled him with despair. There was always another nest, and terrace of nests. He pronounced ants ‘aunts’, and it added zest to his murderous pursuits if he bore in mind his mother’s seven haughty sisters, high-minded and selfish women to whom he had displayed his talent on the piano as a child…

David held the burning tip of his cigar close to the ants and ran it along in both directions as far as he could conveniently reach. The ants twisted, excruciated by the heat, and dropped down onto the terrace.  Some, before they fell, reared up, their stitching legs trying helplessly to repair their ruined bodies… With his cigar he caught a stray ant which was escaping with signed antennae from his last incendiary raid…. The ant ran away with astonishing speed, was about to reach the far side of the wall when David, stretching a little, touched it lightly with a surgeon’s precision. Its skin blistered and it squirmed violently as it died.

The ants/ aunts discussion also made me think of Roald Dahl, of all people.  There may be a tiny touch of James and the Giant Peach in St Aubyn’s gleeful anatomizing of the selfish cruelty of an English family.

And yes, the rape scene is hard to take, and audacious– I’d imagine many readers in 1992 of this first novel by an unknown author must have thrown it across the room.

Bad News resembles the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Philip Roth’s Paternity in focusing on a son’s experience of his father’s death, and specifically of his father’s corpse: here, David Melrose’s incinerated ashes in a can that the 22-year old Patrick carries up and down New York City with him on a celebratory heroin, alcohol, and cocaine bender.  (His appetite for drugs is bottomless enough, and his trust fund still for the time being sufficiently ample, to demand almost continual negotiation with various dealers to keep the supply coming.) Of the two novels, I found Bad News less original; what ant-torturing scenes were in Never Mind (actually way more so), excruciatingly detailed descriptions of the injection of heroin and cocaine speedballs into often recalcitrant veins are in this novel, and at times it becomes a little too Bret Easton Ellis, although it’s never less than brilliantly witty.

I’ve just started Some Hope, in which Patrick is 30 years old and struggling to stay sober after a few bouts in rehab, and — having squandered much of his inheritance — is studying to become a barrister.  St Aubyn suggests a link between aesthetic & personal style and addiction in that Patrick, off drugs, is forced to explore new attitudes, ways of behaving, forms of speech and verbal habits.  He is

trying to stop observing by becoming unconscious, and then forced to observe the fringes of unconsciousness and make darkness visible; canceling every effort, but spoiling apathy with restlessness; drawn to puns but repelled by the virus of ambiguity; … desperate to escape the self-subversion of irony and say what he really meant, but really meaning only what irony could convey.

That says a lot about the novels themselves, which seem to be, much like Knausgaard’s books, an attempt at once to tell the truth about the author’s own experience but to fictionalize, ironize, and transform it.

The year of Wrong Living: Jenny Offill’s *Dept. of Speculation*

I loved the new Jenny Offill novel Dept. of Speculation.  (Here’s a good piece on it by Elaine Blair in the NYRB, and James Wood also wrote about it recently in The New Yorker (March 31 issue)… And here’s the NYT review.)

As Blair comments, and Wood may draw the same parallel, in voice and form it slightly recalls Renata Adler’s cult novel Speedboat (recently reissued by the New York Review of Books press) and the essays of Joan Didion.  But imagine that kind of witty, cool, alienated young-female-intellectual voice combined with, I don’t know, something like Tina Fey’s memoir.  (Maybe Sheila Heti’s work would be the most obvious current analogy.)  It’s an autobiographical novel, sort of, but also can read like a philosophical essay, comprised of brief, gnomic chapters, often consisting just of an observation or two, an anecdote, decontextualized quotations, chunks of prose that seem patched in from some other genre entirely, etc.  It eventually reveals itself as the narrative of adultery and divorce, as the 40-something narrator, “the wife,” a novelist in Brooklyn struggling to write her second book, realizes that her husband is having an affair with a younger woman.  It’s also a book about motherhood, chronicling the narrator’s experience as a mother to an infant who becomes an early school-age girl in the course of the book.  It has some of the best, truest, and least sentimentalized evocations of the experience of taking care of a baby & toddler I can remember (in this and some other things it reminded me a little of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle vol 2).

Offill explains how she came to the novel’s form in a recent interview with NPR:

Well, the book came from the ashes of another book, which was much more linear in construction. But at a certain point, I realized I wanted to capture more of the fragmentary nature of thought, and especially of the way emotion moves in and out of people. And I began to write on notecards and shuffle them together; and I started to find these startling juxtapositions, which I thought were interesting, and led me down this path.

That makes perfect sense, and explains the sense of freedom the book conveys in the playful, unforced way it shifts between voices, styles, tones, and forms of address.  (Shuffling around the index cards.)  As Elaine Blair points out, the form and the approach is that of experimental, avant-garde fiction, but one never loses the thread of the story and of the organizing consciousness.

Here is the holiday letter that she would have written (her husband “won’t let me write one. We send a smiling picture instead”).  The “bugs” refers to the family’s epic struggle to rid their daughter and their apartment of lice & bedbugs.

It is the year of the bugs. It is the year of the pig. It is the year of losing money. It is the year of getting sick. It is the year of no book. It is the year of no music. It is the year of turning 5 and 39 and 37. It is the year of Wrong Living. That is how we will remember it if it ever passes.

Great material on yoga throughout, which she takes up therapeutically in the midst of the breakup:

The Yoga People always travel in pairs, their mats under their arms, their hair severely shorn in that new mother way. But what if someone sucker punched them and took their mats away? How long until they’d knuckle under?…

The wife goes to yoga now. Just to shut everyone up. She goes to it in a neighborhood where she does not live and has never lived. She takes the class meant for old and sick people but can still hardly do any of it. Sometimes she just stands and looks out the window where the people whose lives are intact enough not to have to take yoga live. Sometimes the wife cries as she is twisting herself into positions. There is a lot of crying in the class for old and sick people so no one says anything.

I wished the book had been longer (you can almost read it at a sitting)!

BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD: two great stories by Deborah Eisenberg and Kelly Link

I picked up the O. Henry Prize Stories 2013 volume and was blown away by the first two stories I read (both of which were among the three faves chosen and written briefly about by the volume’s editors).

Deborah Eisenberg describes her “Your Duck is My Duck” as being about “the ravages of climate change, including the growing populations of climate refugees; the worldwide plight of the embattled and looted middle class; the co-option and trivialization of art; and the relationships — especially in regard to the use of resources — between the middle class, the looters, the artists, and the new wretched of the earth.” It is narrated by a painter who hates her day job in a photo studio, and thinks she might get let go anyway; she is complaining at a party to a wealthy acquaintance of hers, Christa, who invites her to join her and her financier husband at their “beach place.”  This turns out to be somewhere in the tropics, where the painter is set up in a lavish guest house with another visiting artist, an avant-garde puppeteer who puts on a show about a revolution against a king and queen and the brutal subsequent repression of the revolt by the generals:

There was more mechanical moaning and creaking, and up from the earth in front of the castle rose a line of skeletons — serfs, bats, and donkeys – linked by heavy chains.  The generals, now in the highest turret, swigged from a bottle of champagne, and as the grand finale, the skeletons, heads bowed, sang a dirge in praise of martial order.

In the awkward moment after the first act, the host, Christa, comments hilariously, “We love to have artists working here.  It’s an atmosphere that promotes experimentation.”  Meanwhile, outside the estate, the island is collapsing from flooding and can no longer support the local residents, who are attempting to flee.  The story is an allegory of artists today who experience themselves as “serfs” to the wealthy, whom they are expected “to entertain, to distract, to diffuse, to buffer.”  It reminded me a bit of Eisenberg’s husband’s Wally Shawn’s blackly satirical plays.  Completely great!

And I also found amazing the Kelly Link story “the Summer People.” It’s a fairy tale with Alice in Wonderland qualities narrated by a teenage girl whose father has abandoned her, very sick with the flu, to their family’s job as caretakers for “the summer people,” who turn out not to be human.  They are never quite seen directly, but are experienced via the strange, enchanting, sometimes malevolent toys and devices they construct.  They live in a house that is marked with signs offering cryptic advice: “BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD.”

There was a sea serpent made of tubing and metal rings that swam endlessly in a circle. There was a sluggish river, too, closer to the door, that ran red and stank and stained the banks.  The summer people were always setting up miniature bridges over it, then blowing the bridges up.

Come to think of it, the “summer people” have a certain amount in common with the wealthy “looters” of Eisenberg’s story, although their motives and character are harder to assess.  They are figures of imagination and creativity: “They make things.  That’s what my mamma called them, makers.  They give away things.  Like the toys. They like children.  When you do things for them, they’re beholden to you.”  But they can clearly do harm to those who fail to follow the rules of the house, who may disappear or find themselves transformed.

It is seriously creepy and magical!  I have been curious about Kelly Link, and definitely need to read some more of his her stuff (just picked up Magic for Beginners).

Now I need to read some of the other stories in the collection, although I will be surprised if they can match these two.

I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era

David Letterman Kayaking

David Letterman on CBS’s Battle of Network Stars, 1978

Based on a passing recommendation by Marc Maron on his podcast, I just read I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era by William Knoedelseder.  It’s a juicy group biography about the late 1970s/ early 1980s scene that developed around Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store in L.A. and the emergence of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams, and Richard Lewis, along with some now comparatively lesser-known figures, like Letterman’s best friend George Miller, whose 2003 funeral begins the story, and Elayne Boosler, who is a key figure in the development of female stand-up — I wrote about her in re: the book We Killed: the Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen a while ago.  (Interesting parallel between the two book titles – a lot of killing & dying in stand-up.)  Another significant lesser-known player in the narrative is a guy named Steve Lubetkin, a comic who was Richard Lewis’s best friend and whose tragic arc of disappointment provides a throughline for the book.

Letterman and Leno both come across as, along with Richard Pryor (whom they all worship) and Robin Williams, probably the most talented of the bunch, also standing out for their sobriety (neither one did drugs, un-coincidentally) and their generally hard-working, stable qualities.  Letterman especially is depicted as a mensch who is universally liked and respected by his peers, which was a little bit of a surprise given how well-known he is today for his prickly qualities; there’s a joke in the book about how he is known for his loyalty to old friends, and for the fact that he had not made a new friend since 1979 when his career started to take off.  There are some charming photos of Letterman and various others in uniform in 1979 on the Comedy Store “Bombers” basketball team that would play pickup games at the Van Nuys YMCA.

I had not realized how close Letterman and Leno had been.  “They quickly formed a mutual admiration society, watching and learning from one another.  Night after night at the Comedy Store, when they weren’t onstage, they were standing together in the back, taking it all in, studying everything.  Their fellow comics came to think of them almost as a team, connected by an ampersand like Abbott & Costello.”  That changed later.

The second half of the book is about the labor dispute that erupted when all the comics in Mitzi Shore’s stable asked her to consider paying  a token payment (as little as $5 per set was first proposed, as gas money!) for their shows.  The concept was always that the Comedy Store was a “showcase” where comics could work on their acts and gain visibility, and thus did not need to be paid.  This stopped making as much sense when the club was grossing thousands of dollars a night, and some of the performers who had not managed to land lucrative gigs elsewhere were still sleeping in their cars because they did not earn a penny.  The strikers eventually triumph, more or less, but the book depicts the strike as a necessary and just cause that nevertheless marked the end of an era of camaraderie and relative innocence in the scene.  Letterman comments at the end, “I have undying affection for those times and for all those people, because the older I get, the more I realize that they were the best times of my adult life.”

One shocker for me was that Gary Shandling was part of the small group of comics who sided with management against the working comics who went on strike.  “Gary Shandling was the scion of a family with manufacturing holdings and decidedly antiunion views. He had not shared the struggling comic experience.”  Once he crossed the picket line, Mitzi Shore rewarded him with a regular standup gig that he hadn’t previously been able to attain.  “Regarding Gary Shandling, the only strikebreaker who went on to achieve bona fide stardom, [one of the main strike organizers Tom] Dreesan said [years later], ‘I wish him all the success in the world.  He’s a funny guy as a good writer, but as a human being, as a man, I don’t have any respect for him.'”

Very disappointed about Shandling’s role in this!

Teju Cole’s Superfluous Man: *Open City*

I  loved Teju Cole’s Open City—  it’s the best new novel I’ve read in quite a while. Everyone cites W.G. Sebald, and yes, it definitely recalls him in its wandering, melancholy, essayistic qualities (no photos, though, too bad!), and the impression it conveys of a permeable boundary between the fictional and the autobiographical– although the tone is lighter and the voice more (albeit ambivalently) American than in Sebald’s work, immersed in the media-saturated everyday of the 21st century U.S.

It would be a great novel to teach as a test case in an introduction to critical theory; it has a lot to say about mourning and melancholy, memorialization, repression, urban space, race, class, and identity, violence, whiteness, empathy, migration, nationalism. And about classical music (Mahler plays a key role) and literature, and psychiatry and medicine: its Nigerian narrator Julius is a psychiatric intern at what seems to be Columbia University, working on a research project about affect and depression in the elderly. This may all sound heavy-handed or a bit much, but these topics emerge naturally within the thought process of a narrator who simply happens to be educated, intellectually curious and interested in philosophy, theory, and such.  (Also in humbler topics like bedbugs.) The episode in which Julius, on a visit to Brussels, befriends a politically-radical Moroccan named Farouq also reminded me of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. James Wood comments about the passage in which Farouq explains how his academic advisors failed his dissertation on Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space that it is “one of the very few scenes I have encountered in contemporary fiction in which critical and literary theory is not satirized, or flourished to exhibit the author’s credentials, but is simply and naturally part of the whole context of a person.”  Nicholas Dames in N&1, similarly, counts Cole as a member of a new “Theory Generation” of novelists for whom critical theory is taken for granted as part of the intellectual atmosphere: “what allies [Sam] Lipsyte’s Milo, Cole’s Julius, and [Ben] Lerner’s Adam …is how fundamentally diagnostic they are. Theory has taught them to treat the world as a set of deceptive signs; they doubt, reflexively, the communications of others.” [I love those novels too, btw: Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.] Julius reads, among other books, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, and once back in New York, he sends a copy of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism to Farouq as a sort of guilt offering; Farouq is one of several less-privileged interlocutors who inspire guilty responses from the psychiatrist-in-training Julius, who struggles in locating himself in relation to “blackness,” class, and Africanness. The question of whom he calls “brother,” and vice versa, recurs throughout.

Another book Open City recalled for me, although I read this many years ago and so my recollections of it are pretty vague, was Saul Bellow’s early novel Dangling Man. Like Bellow’s narrator, Julius is a “superfluous man,” a free-floating wanderer in the wartime city, in danger of drifting loose from all social connections.

It’s certainly one of the best, if not the best, “post-9/11” novels I’ve read, fundamentally concerned with the question of how nations, cities, and individuals mourn, memorialize, and repress trauma. And although it can feel nearly plotless, I’ll say without any spoilers that there is more to the story than may initially appear to be the case, and that Julius emerges, only towards the very end of the book, as a more morally-complex and less “reliable” narrator than he’d previously seemed to be. It’s a novel that looks different in hindsight, so that now I feel I need to go back to reconsider various details that seemed random or happenstance when I first encountered them.

No one gives a shit about your dog: *Difficult Men*

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: from the Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  (Is it OK for a title to have two colons?  I don’t think so, personally.)  Though at times it falls into a slightly rote magazine-profile mode, I found this a pretty interesting read.  Some of the juiciest details relate to the weird and often nightmarish qualities of the some of the famous show-runners and head writers behind these shows.

So, for example, a young writer named Todd Kessler is basking in David Chase’s approval as a writer on The Sopranos.  “He became close to the Chase family, often going out to dinner with them;” he co-writes an episode with Chase that is nominated for an Emmy.  Within minutes of getting the call about the Emmy announcement, Chase calls him in and announces that he wants to fire Kessler: “I think you’ve lost the voice of the show.”  Kessler, for whom the show is his entire life at that point, is devastated; Chase ends up giving him a second chance but then fires him for real soon afterward.

A few years later, Kessler wrote the pilot for a new series of his own….The plot revolved around a terrible boss — brilliant but manipulative, vain, imperious, unpredictable — and a young, talented, but impressionable employee who finds herself seduced, repelled, and ultimately both matured and corrupted by coming into her orbit. It was, he said, based on no small part on his experiences working on The Sopranos.  The show was called Damages.

I love the thought that Glenn Close’s character is based on David Chase!

Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner also sounds like a challenging boss.  “Weiner demanded a strict protocol… based on age and experience” in the writers’ room.  There’s a story about a time the legendary screenwriter Frank Pierson started visiting the show’s writers’ room.

One day, [Pierson] was telling a story about his dog, and a young writer made the error of interrupting with a story of his own pet.  “This was somebody who was very low on the totem pole,” Weiner said.  “I literally pulled them aside afterward and said, “No one gives a shit about your dog.” When Pierson was talking, he said, “only I interrupt him.”

addendum: I’ll add that Deadwood’s David Milch comes across as a slightly quite nuts genius/ visionary (which I already knew from a memorable New Yorker profile of him years ago); Six Feet Under‘s Alan Ball and Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan as good guys/ reasonable people.

Big-bragadochio and wavelike-swelling and swaggering writings

I did a search on the university library catalogue for the new-ish Red Hook-based thriller Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda and this title (it is the actual title) from 1648, by one John Vicars, is what came up.

Coleman-street conclave visited, and, that grand imposter, the schismaticks cheater in chief (who hath long, slily lurked therein) truly and duly discovered. Containing a most palpable and plain display of Mr. John Goodwin’s self-conviction (under his own hand-writing) and of the notorious heresies, errours, malice, pride, and hypocrisie of this most huge Garagantua, in falsly pretended piety; to the lamentable misleading of his too-too credulous soul-murthered proselytes of Coleman-street & elsewhere. Collected, principally, out of his own big-bragadochio and wavelike-swelling and swaggering writings, full-fraught with six-footed terms, and flashie rhetoricall phrases, far more than solid and sacred truths. And may fitly serve (if it be the Lords will) like Belshazzars hand-writing, on the wall of his conscience, to strike terrour and shame into his own soul, and shamelesse face; and to un-deceive his most miserably cheated and inchanted, or bewitched followers.

I guess this is what I am actually supposed to read?  Sorry, Ivy Pochoda, you will have to wait.


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