Monday, January 15, 2007

The poet of loathing

One of the reasons I started this blog is that I enjoy recommending books. It was fun when I was a bookseller, and I still enjoy it, only now the beneficiaries (brunt-bearers?) are my friends and family.

But I have a lot of respect for the fact that everyone reads differently and for a wide range of reasons. People look for different things from books, and their tastes differ accordingly. So my recommendations tend to be hedged about with caveats: A Dance to the Music of Time is my favorite novel, but if you get a couple of hundred pages into it and feel like it's a slog, it's probably not for you; if uncertainty bothers you, stay away from Murakami; and if you don't enjoy the Francis Bacon biography in Aubrey's Brief Lives, then Aubrey is not for you. My caution is also driven by my knowledge that your reading time is probably more precious to you than mine is to me. After all, this is what I do with most of my free time; you, on the other hand, probably have plenty to do and don't want to waste it gritting your teeth at something I've blithely recommended.

Which brings me to Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels, the three brief books that make up his mid-90s Some Hope trilogy and 2005's Mother's Milk. Each of the novels takes up a discrete period in the life of Patrick Melrose, troubled scion of an extravagantly wealthy—though rapidly declining—English family. The first finds him as a boy of five, suffering the depredations of his astonishingly cruel father. The second, set in Patrick's twenties, is a grotesquely detailed narrative of a weekend in New York during which he tries, without openly forming the thought, to kill himself by overdosing on the heroin and cocaine to which he has become addicted. The third finds him, thirtyish and a bit wiser, attending a country house dinner party, while the fourth introduces him to the joys of parenthood while reacquainting him with the pains of being parented. We get just enough detail about the interstices of Patrick's life to get a sense of how it has unfolded when we haven't been looking, and the result is a surprisingly rounded portrait of a deeply unhappy young man trying desperately to come to some sort of acceptable terms with himself and the world.

And oh, that world. St. Aubyn has clearly made a lifelong study of loathing—self and other—and now he is both its poet and its comedian. The world as Patrick sees it is comprised of so much tawdriness, dishonesty, and just plain crap as to make a real engagement with it nearly impossible, unless modulated by drugs, sarcasm, or ironic distance; nothing can be taken on its merits, because under Patrick's unforgiving gaze, those merits will, surely, soon be discovered to be chimerical—if not sinister. And for Patrick, there are few kindred spirits, few who prefer to see the world's true, unvarnished bleakness:

Patrick took his drink over to a small book-lined alcove in the corner of the room. Scanning the shelves, his eye fell on a volume called The Journal of a Disappointed Man, and next to it a second volume called More Journals of a Disappointed Man, and finally, by the same author, a third volume entitled Enjoying Life. How could a man who had made such a promising start to his career have ended up writing a book called Enjoying Life? Patrick took the offending volume from the shelf and read the first sentence that he saw: "Verily, the flight of a gull is as magnificent as the Andes!"

"Verily," muttered Patrick.

More tomorrow.

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