Monday, January 15, 2007

The poet of loathing, part two

Part one of this piece on Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels is here.

Even as the narrative jumps ably from character to character, the sense of disdain remains, couched in lacerating descriptions, as in this introduction, from the point of view of a Melrose family friend, of an acquaintance:

His hair was blow-dried until it rose and stiffened like a black meringue on top of his skull. His clothes did nothing to compensate for those natural disadvantages. If Vijay's favorite flared green trousers were a mistake, it was a trivial one compared to his range of lightweight jackets in chaotic tartan patterns, with flapless pockets sewn onto the outside. Still, any clothes were preferable to the sight of him in a bathing suit. Anne remembered with horror his narrow shoulders and their white pustules struggling to break through a thick pelt of wiry black hair.

Had Vijay's character been more attractive his appearance might have elicited pity or even indifference, but spending just a few days with him convinced Anne that each hideous feature had been molded by internal malevolence.

Because loathing is an effective driving force of comedy, of course, the novels are funny—but they can also be drainingly unpleasant, like some of Martin Amis's darker novels. And there is where my reservations about recommending them enter. They're frequently as funny as Evelyn Waugh, who himself could be quite negative about humanity. But St. Aubyn's depictions of Patrick's father's cruelty are far more explicit than Waugh (whether because of his own temperaments or the limitations of the times) ever approached in his descriptions of depravity. Especially in the early books, St. Aubyn creates some awkward juxtapositions between truly disturbing scenes of abuse and more distanced dissections of essentially trivial human folly that are played for laughs. St. Aubyn might argue that both real suffering and the mock-horrors of a fancy dinner party share roots in a failure to conceive of the reality of other people and their pain, but that wouldn't make the mismatched tones any less jarring. It's a real problem, but ultimately it's one I'm willing to put up with for St. Aubyn's comedy and characters. I wouldn't, however, dismiss out of hand someone who wasn't.

There is a payoff, of sorts, for being willing to stomach the darkness of the first couple of novels, as in the most recent two we see Patrick—by no means free of his inherited demons—actively trying to become a better, more complete person, a person he would not instinctively loathe. Aside from the sharpness of the writing, that desire for self-understanding is the real reason to read these St. Aubyn novels. We get a sense, not just from Patrick but from other characters as well, of a real mind sifting through its impressions, feelings, and thoughts in a constant effort to understand itself, make its way forward, and both accept and rein in its worst impulses. That caliber of analysis of human consciousness and motivation is uncommon; to find it married to laugh-out-loud satire will make me forgive many a jarring shift in tone.

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