Edward St. Aubyn's exquisitely dissolute trilogy satisfies cravings for cruelty and coke
by Joy Press
January 9th, 2004 5:00 PM
Enough of the likable heroes, the ordinary folks, the quirky losers. What contemporary literature needs is a really good misanthrope, a black-hearted cad. In Some Hope, British novelist Edward St. Aubyn creates a spectacularly toxic confection in David Melrose, an aristocrat whose pedigree stretches back to Charles II and whose primary activity is brutality. On the book's first page, he wantonly drowns ants with his hose, allowing the survivors to "regain their dignity for a while, before bringing the thundering water down on them"—and he treats humans no better. His cruelty is exquisitely calculated, applied to almost anyone who wanders too close, whether it's the maid, his wife, or his son, Patrick.
Patrick is the true subject of this trilogy (originally published in England as three separate novellas), which drops in on him at three formative moments in his life. First glimpsed at the age of five, he is a lonely, imaginative boy whose days are punctured by little bouts of torture at the hands of dear old Dad. His mother, Eleanor, offers him little succor. A drug-addled heiress crushed by her own aimlessness and her husband's malice, she has barely enough energy to make it down the stairs of their French ch‰teau. This marriage was tinged with perversity from the beginning: On an early date, David wooed Eleanor by ordering her to eat her dinner like a dog. St. Aubyn allows us a peek at this galling scene of Eleanor perched on all fours, noting that "one of her cheeks was glazed with gravy and some grains of the yellow rice were stuck to her mouth and nose. All the bewilderment was gone from her face."
The first section is so enjoyable because it luxuriates in the dissolute atmosphere. St. Aubyn (who grew up in this milieu) wrings enormous amusement from the gallery of pompous noblemen and sycophants who surround the Melroses, deftly sweeping from one narrative perspective to the next. He drolly observes without moralizing, though he does insert a few disapproving characters to help him skewer "the effortless nullity of their lives." The most appealing outside voice is Anne, an American writer who is brought into the circle by her boyfriend, Victor. A Jewish philosopher who longs to be a proper gentleman, Victor plays lapdog to the posh set and turns a blind eye to David's snobbery and callousness—something Anne cannot do. "She felt she had been subtly perverted by . . . the craving for the prophylactic of irony, the terrible fear of being 'a bore,' and the boredom of the ways they relentlessly and narrowly evaded this fate." Anne is also the only one who seems to notice little Patrick lingering on the staircase, hopelessly waiting for his mother to comfort him.
That comfort never comes. Instead, the book's second section takes a violent 20-year leap into the future, burying David Melrose, literally. All eyes are suddenly on Patrick, now a young man who's been sent to New York to retrieve his dead father's ashes. The setting shifts radically from an ossified country house in the '60s to the jangle of 1980s Manhattan, and so does the style: Mordant social dissection in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh gives way to adrenalized drug high jinks ˆ la Irvine Welsh. The sole preoccupation of Patrick, now a stunted character, is keeping the perfect combination of chemicals in his bloodstream at all times, a task complicated by his emotional confusion and the onrush of urban stimuli.
In this grand, autistic adventure, Patrick bounces between the highbrow world of his birth (nearly unraveling at the Pierre Hotel, nodding out in the bathroom of an exclusive men's club) and the streets of the Lower East Side and South Bronx, where he clumsily attempts to buy smack like the slumming junkie clichŽ that he is. This isn't as grim as it sounds, though. Our hero nearly dies several times, but the narrator injects his madcap journey with just the right dose of black humor. At one point, Patrick chokes on a Quaalude in a taxi as he rushes to the funeral parlor, where he gets out on the wrong floor and finds himself in the midst of a bizarre ceremony populated by men in kilts.
The biggest problem with Some Hope is that it can never quite recover from the loss of David Melrose. He's such a deliciously grotesque character that his death tears a hole in the narrative that Patrick can't fill. In the third section, newly sober and back in the bosom of the British upper crust (once again satirized to crispy perfection), Patrick finds himself unconsciously emulating his father, using nastiness as both a defense mechanism and a distraction from his own convoluted emotions. "Sarcasm, snobbery, cruelty, and betrayal seemed less nauseating than the terrors that brought them into existence. What could he do but become a machine for turning terror into contempt?"
Patrick's most urgent task is to shrink his father—in his mind at least—from monster to mere human being deformed by disappointment and circumstance. St. Aubyn is too cynical and acerbic to settle for a sappy redemption narrative, though. Instead, he'll accept a moment of elation and a smidgen of comprehension, as evidenced by Patrick's summation of his life late in the book: "It would probably be better if women arrested in their own childhood didn't have children with tormented misogynistic homosexual pedophiles," he notes archly, "but nothing was perfect in this sublunary world."