…without thinking I reached under the grill for a second spatula and pulled my arm back streaked with BBQ sauce. I pulled a folded towel from my back-pocket and wiped away the smear. And the skin on my arm. A waitress shouted an order for two Caesar salads and some Pavlovian part of my brain new that I needed to be grilling two chicken breasts, but I could only stare down at my arm, the subcutaneous fat looking like raw yellow schmaltz. Then it pooled up with blood into a shimmering ruby oblong. I grasped – at a sort of high-orbital conceptual level – that I had just severely burned myself, but several concentric and opaque cognitive atmospheres – exhaustion, Xanax and various alcohol metabolites – protected me from any visceral connection with my maimed arm. I pulled a cigarette from the communal pack on the salad bain and wandered outside, the towel pressed against my skin turning pinkish.
I sat on a stack of milk-crates and bled slowly onto the deck. As I smoked, the restaurant owner – jangling Lexus key-chain, beige Khakis, Lacoste polo shirt un-darkened by sweat, though the whole Carolina coast was baking in triple digits – bounced up the stairs and opened the back door. He turned and looked at me – mohawked, tattooed, blood-soaked and stoned – and he smiled. He clapped his hands and rubbed them vigorously as if, improbably, he was about to get down to work. With a friendly nod he said, ‘how’s the life of the proletariat?’ He was more oblivious than malevolent, not realizing that the kitchen staff’s professed Marxism – the running joke he thought he was in on – was a thin veil for nihilism, itself a veil for self-disgust (five more veils and we’ll have had a dance number). Plus, Marx was wrong: religion is not the opiate of the masses; opiates are the opiate of the masses. Had I been merely religious, I would have gotten up off those bloodied milk crates and beaten my boss to death.
Instead, I sat there, opiated, and thought about how long it would take me to earn a million dollars, not coincidentally the market value of my boss’s beach house. At my salary then – nine dollars an hour, the highest in the back of the house after the kitchen manager – it would take me fifty-five years to make the money. That is to say that, if I could live rent and utility free, if I ate only at the restaurant, if I never took a vacation or a day off, and – most importantly – if I could find a way to get my drugs and drinks for free, then I would be a bonafide millionaire by my eightieth birthday.
A few hours later, I mentioned this to my boss. He laughed, said, ‘what about inflation?’ and went home for the day. I took a nitrous hit from a can of Reddi-Whip¸ went inside and worked the dinner shift. The next day, bandaged, coked-out and hung over, I stumbled downtown to the local bookstore. The manager, a friend, suggested a slim British import, buried in a decade’s accumulation of cigarette ash and dust. He sneered ‘read this, you’re going to fucking hate it’. It was St. Aubyn’s Never Mind, about a wealthy Anglo-American aristocrat.
I loved it.
II. The Gaping Wound
The moral of the story is this: I do not hate the rich.
My boss was, at the time, the richest man I knew. His life seemed completely frictionless, an endless montage of family vacations and luxurious, if thoughtful, purchasing. I, of course, was too medicated and self-involved to notice that he was a human being in pain: the grinding failure of his marriage, the vicious bouts of self-recrimination and rage over his developmentally-challenged son, the inevitability of financial ruin in the restaurant business and the endless parade of worthless fuck-ups – amongst whom I was but one of so many – who would constantly betray his trust and edge him closer to sticking a gun in his mouth. I saw only a ledger balance: two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year. For comparison, consider Mitt Romney – who at the time of this little yarn was working at Bain Capital – who made a quarter-million dollars in an afternoon. The outfit he wore on CNN last week cost more than I made in a year as a line-cook.
The moral of the story is also this: I could not even comprehend the rich.
When I did come in contact with the truly wealthy – a girl from a political family who slummed with me in college, a few coffee shop regulars I was friendly with, a distant relative whom I met only once – I was an aboriginal, interpreting the machinations of real capital as supernatural. If you could, for example, buy a plane ticket on the spur of the moment, it was as if you could literally fly. The rich were daemons or – if they were buying drinks – gods.
I’ve since left the kitchen, kicked the drugs and tempered the drinking. My wife and I, both former gutter punks, now make a decent living and – if it weren’t for New York’s lung-collapsing rents – we’d be middle class. I’ve educated myself on wealth – its ministers and ministrations – and you might say I grasp it conceptually. But watching it – or even its superficial effects – I still find myself mesmerized. One day, standing outside the Maserati dealership on Canal Street near Sixth Avenue, I watched a young woman purchase a GranTurismo soft-top with a Centurion card. I watched her place the black rectangle on the counter. I stared at it. Like a gaping wound.
Beneath the Savile Row suit and starched pastel dress-shirt, Patrick Melrose has the same gaping wound on his chest. There are other wounds – detailed in Edward St. Aubyn’s four previous Melrose novels (which Kelly Baron is currently undertaking the blorfing task of reviewing) – but to summarize, Patrick is “born of rape as well as born to be raped”, the product of a sadistic, pederast father and a shallow, craven mother, brought up in a world of inherited wealth and inherited psychosis. Patrick mounts the steep learning curve of self-medication early and aptly, reaching the summit of opiates – heroin – and then tumbling down into oblivion. After the Greek tragedy of his early childhood, the story is more mundane. If it weren’t for St. Aubyn’s prose – which the New Yorker’s James Wood recently lavished with near-fetishistic praise – Patrick’s story of a damaged man-child preserved in the formaldehyde cocktail of drugs, alcohol and familial wealth would run dangerously close to caricature. The scandal of St. Aubyn’s first novel was autobiographical, not representational – the common reader is not shocked to learn that the rich have been warped and mutated by wealth, but the upper-classes were shocked that St. Aubyn outed his father as an incestuous child-molester (‘tres gauche’, you can hear them say).
At Last – with echoes of Joyce and Woolf – covers a single day, the funeral and reception for Eleanor, Patrick’s mother, but also a lifetime, as Patrick – as well as his mistress, ex-wife, aunt and others – reflect on their intertwined pasts. At one level, St. Aubyn uses the occasion to put all his fish in one small barrel (a metaphor neither Patrick nor St. Aubyn would use without a protective and ironic disclaimer). Like Henry Green’s late-modernist novels, St. Aubyn’s prose is free and indirect, a detached and nameless observer that floats close to one character and then flits to another, frequently withdrawing completely leaving only torrents of sardonic dialog. At Last, like the other Melrose novels, is sharper than Amis and Waugh combined when it comes to mapping the inescapable gravity of irony in British speech (this is, I might add, the thing that made me fall in love with St. Aubyn years ago, and the thing that drug-addled line-cooks and British aristocrats have in common: an absolutist commitment to irony, the kind of irony that becomes fused to one’s sense of self and that, when challenged or put in extremis, doesn’t defer to humanism or sentimentalism, but rises up to its full height like a stubborn Spartan in his death throes). St. Aubyn’s fish – clever as they are – aren’t an aquarium of wit; they’re to be harpooned (to tweak the metaphor slightly). St. Aubyn takes apart his characters – protagonists and antagonists alike – with remorseless swipes: although Eleanor Melrose is the paragon, they’re all petty, myopic and self-serving, even when they’re involved with spiritual self-searching, artistic patronage and other ‘good works’. St. Aubyn puts the lie to altruism, charity, empathy and kindness, a task made easier by the inbred malevolence of decadent European lineages. The satire is good fun – great fun if you wear conspicuously the scars and tattoos of a low-rent life – and is a fine enough balm for the wounds of non-wealth (symptoms of financial malnourishment are almost all negative: not having a castle in Saint-Nazaire, not having a Bentley coupe for when the Rolls Royce is being serviced, not having the liquid capital to support a cocaine addiction without sacrificing most of Maslow’s hierarchy).
In a structural sense, this is the limit of St. Aubyn’s narrative. Patrick – freed from the psychological hold of his parents by their death – still needs a room of his own and gets it by coming into a ‘small’ inheritance of several million dollars. To put it poetically: Patrick can only be healed by the weapon that wounded him, because he exists on the same mythic plane as wealth itself. His freedom – like Woolf’s – makes a certain pragmatic and psychological sense, but is bound to be alienating to some readers and insulting to most leftist academics. That said, fuck the academics (I say this with all the considerable, self-lacerating irony that a graduate student can muster). Academic politics are petty – a familiar veil for impotence and self-disgust – and (let’s be honest) escapism, the Schadenfreude of the Western gentry, and beautiful prose are each good enough reasons to pick up St. Aubyn’s At Last.
But for Anobium readers, you might want something more.
IV. The Rabbit Hole
What more does At Last have to offer? Everything and nothing.
At first, St. Aubyn’s mockery comes across as cartoonish – Nancy, Patrick’s narcissistic aunt, is imagined dreaming of her own burial pyramid filled with “Things! Lots and lots of things!” – and in danger of making his characters simple extensions of their ‘type’. But, after a while, it becomes clear that this is exactly what St. Aubyn is doing. After a ruthless dissection of his family’s neurosis, Patrick thinks of his mother and aunt: “Were Eleanor and Nancy individuals at all, or were they just part of the characteristic debris of their class and family?” Marx and Freud loom large, but St. Aubyn is sharper – colder and more dangerously searching – than Dos Passos or Philip Roth. Sparing no one, Patrick turns the search-light on himself: “…[asking] himself, not for the first time, but with renewed desperation, what it would mean to be free, to live beyond the tyranny of dependency and conditioning and resentment.”
St. Aubyn isn’t trying to supplant Klein and Winnicott with Skinner and Pavlov, or Schopenhauer or Erasmus, or any of the other heady, serious philosophers that he marches through this novel; further, it’s a testament to his skill as a novelist that – although this novel has a psychoanalyst and a philosopher (named Erasmus!) – At Last rarely feels didactic or staged. In the novel’s central scene, the microscope of the narration swings around the funeral as different characters interpret funereal readings of Yeats and St. Paul differently, not as a testament to flexibility and openness of ‘great’ texts, but as a demonstrative exercise in conditioning. They characters don’t have clever readings of poetry and scripture – they can’t not read words – or the world – the way that they do. Philosophies – whether formal and written or informal and personal – of consciousness, as St. Aubyn and Patrick both point out, are too close to consciousness to examine it. Philosophies, personalities, ways of being, people – they’re all incapable of seeing themselves as ideologies, of one mode out of many, one of many possible universes.
St. Aubyn’s novel has its fun – depending on your preferences you might say ‘at the expense of the rich’ or ‘at the exclusion of the poor’ – but it real goal is to argue that there are no master theories of the self: Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Catholicism and Buddhism all avoid the question of who is asking the questions. Philosophy is a second order science. At Last can’t go all the way down the Rabbit Hole because there is no bottom: irony is a veil for sentiment which is a veil for nihilism which is a veil for ignorance (that’s, if you’re counting, six veils). At the novel’s end, Patrick comes to this conclusion: “even his fanatical desire for some margin of freedom was conditioned by the drastic absence of freedom in his early life. Perhaps only a bastard freedom was available: in the acceptance of the inevitable unfolding of cause and effect there was at least a freedom from delusion.”
The gothic appeal of Nietzsche is the void, the abyss, and the dream that it will swallow us and – in destroying us, negating us – deconstruct our questions and thus our sorrows. But even Nietzsche had his delusions, and I think of another Patrick, another creature of frictionless wealth and inherited sociopathy: our American Psycho. Patrick Bateman – not the Id but the thinly veiled Ego (the seventh veil! Cue Bowie: Let’s dance!) of Bret Easton Ellis – leaps into the abyss to avoid answering for his own construction, his own absent center. Ellis goes to the onyx oracle of nothingness and comes back with Will to Power: rape a child, butcher a prostitute, set fire to the world. Many of his readers see truth in his brutality because it does such violence to sentimentality, but Ellis still can’t stand the cold of the black sun; his ultraviolence is a retreat. St. Aubyn also retreats – he wouldn’t deny it – but in the opposite direction, towards a fragile humanism. At Last ends with Patrick Melrose reaching out to his ex-wife and children. Having denied all systems of order, all measures of morality, and all anchors of self, Patrick – in spite of everything – takes a small Kierkegaardian leap of faith, a quiet dénouement.
For St. Aubyn, things are not so easy. In his novels, consciousness is a wound – a deeper wound than any inflicted by capital – that can only be healed by non-existence (by death, perhaps, but perhaps not). St. Aubyn leaves the wound open, neither trying to suture it nor hoping it will heal on its own. I do not know if there is more to be asked of a novelist, or, indeed, more to be asked of anyone, than to bear the silence that echoes back when we ask: what would it mean to be free?
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux