Politics Magazine

The Patrick Melrose Novels

Posted on the 28 June 2012 by Erictheblue

Of two great figures in 18th-century English literature, it is sometimes said that Jonathan Swift despised the human race while esteeming individual specimens, whereas Alexander Pope had an elevated view of humankind but hated its member dunces.  I've sometimes thought that something about this is like affirming arithmetic without allowing for algebra, or vice versa, but I can see why it may seem a useful taxonomy.  While reading the five novels Edward St Aubyn has written featuring the character named Patrick Melrose, however, I felt like the author was determined to set before us a lineup of disgusting gargoyles and perhaps more willing than Pope to follow through to the natural conclusion.

In the first installment, Never Mind, five-year-old Patrick is sexually assaulted by his father.  His mother is explicitly compared to Dickens's Mrs Jellyby, but as the novels progress the reader may conclude this is unfair to Mrs Jellyby.  The Melroses' opulent friends and relatives are their near rivals in monsterhood, but, to gain a feel for St Aubyn's unrelievedly bitter misanthropy, let us take note of a few of the most minor characters who drift into the narrative before being dismissed.

(A.) The second installment, Bad News, begins with Patrick on a plane.  He's headed to New York, where his father, who molested him, has died.  In the seat next to him is a rich American, Earl Hammer.  St Aubyn's narrative proceeds:

'You know, Paddy,' said Earl, regardless of the fact that that nobody called Patrick 'Paddy', 'I've made a hell of a lot of money, and I figured it was time to enjoy some of the good things in life.'

It was half an hour into the flight and Paddy was already Earl's good buddy.

'How sensible of you,' gasped Patrick.

'I've rented an apartment by the beach in Monte Carlo, and a house in the hills behind Monaco. Just a beautiful house,' said Earl, shaking his head incredulously. 'I've got an English butler: he tells me what sports jacket to wear--can you believe that?  And I've got the leisure time to read the Wall Street Journal from cover to cover.'

'A heady freedom,' said Patrick.

'It's great.  And I'm also reading a real interesting book at the moment, called Megatrends.  And a Chinese classic on the art of war.  Are you interested in war at all?'

'Not madly,' said Patrick.

'I guess I'm biased: I was in Vietnam,' said Earl, staring at the horizon through the tiny window of the plane.

'You liked it?'

'Sure did,' Earl smiled.

'Didn't you have any reservations?'

'I'll tell you, Paddy, the only reservations I had about Vietnam were the target restrictions. . . ."


'Have you ever been to the Tahiti Club in St Tropez, Paddy?  That's a hell of a place!  I met a couple of dancers there.' His voice dropped half an octave to match the new tone of male camaraderie. 'I got to tell you,' he said confidentially, 'I love to screw. God, I love it,' he shouted.  'But a great body is not enough, you know what I mean?  You gotta have that mental thing.  I was screwing those two dancers: they were fantastic women, great bodies, just beautiful, but I couldn't come.  You know why?'

'You didn't have that mental thing,' suggested Patrick.

"That's right!  I didn't have that mental thing,' said Earl.

(B.) Three chapters later Patrick is in a restaurant, exercising the solipsistic obsessions of a drug addict.  Then:

Who else was in this ghastly restaurant?  Extraordinary that he hadn't looked before; or not so extraordinary, in fact. . . .  He swivelled his eyes around the room with reptilian coldness.  He hated them all, every single one, especially that incredibly fat man sitting with the blonde.  He must have paid her to mask her disgust at being in his company.

'God, you're repulsive,' muttered Patrick.  'Have you ever considered going on a diet?  Yes, that's right, a diet, or hasn't it crossed your mind that you're quite appallingly fat?'  Patrick felt vindictively and loutishly aggressive. . . . 'If I looked like you,' he sneered at the fat man, 'I'd commit suicide.  Not that one needs an incentive.'  There was no doubt about it, he was a fattist and a sexist and a straightist and a druggist and, naturally, a snob, but of such a virulent character that nobody satisfied his demands.  He defied anyone to come up with a minority or a majority that he did not hate for some reason or another.'

(C.) At the end of the book, he goes to a club and picks up a woman named Rachel.  She's into "neo-objectivist art" and, noting the cut of Patrick's clothes and the hotel he's staying in, thinks maybe he will bankroll her.  First, however, she persuades him to take her to a diner at two in the morning, where she gorges herself.  Back at the hotel, she uses Patrick's bathroom.  He makes use of her absence to shoot up and, enjoying his high, forgets about her while she throws up.  When she emerges, her breath smells of vomit, and she is one of those people who looks better in clothes.  An attempt at love making fails.  Patrick checks out of the hotel, leaving Rachel behind, "white-bellied and heavy breathing" on the bed.

(D.) In the last installment, At Last, Patrick inventories former girlfriends.  One of them was named Inez:

With her curling blond hair and her slender limbs and her beautiful clothes, Inez was alluring in an obvious way, and yet it was easy enough to see that her slightly protruding blue eyes were blank screens of self-love on which a small selection of fake emotions was allowed to flicker.  She made rather haphazard impersonations of someone who has relationships with others.  Based on the gossip of her courtiers, a diet of Hollywood movies and the projection of her own cunning calculations, these guesses might be sentimental or nasty, but were always vulgar and melodramatic.  Since she hadn't the least interest in the answer, she was inclined to ask, "How are you?" with great gravity, at least half a dozen times.  She was often exhausted by the thought of how generous she was. . . .

And on and on.  These novels are characterized by a bleak outlook, savage misanthropy, and a hard, glittering prose style that, in its cold intensity, may put you in mind of Swift.  Many readers will be too bedazzled to worry about whether it's really as bad as all that.

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