On Blood and the Bloodless: A Review of Edward St. Aubyn’s “Patrick Melrose Novels”
“The function of the creative artist consists of making laws, not in following laws already made.” –Ferruccio Busoni
There is an argument—we’ve all heard it—that criticism and creation are fundamentally at odds, despite their hunger for the same endpoint: good art. I used to think this was somewhat reductive and overly simplistic. I’ve always enjoyed writing criticism, and I’ve always enjoyed being creative. I’ve never understood the “critics are the enemy” idea.
And while I still don’t consider criticism to be any sort of enemy of creation, I will say that I now see how, essentially, criticism and creation have nothing to do with each other beyond the mediums themselves. Critics necessarily must identify the familiar in a work of art in order to express how it works and how it doesn’t; any newness that works must be named, and it can only be named and explained by utilizing the critic’s toolbox—a set of words and idea the critic has learned to satisfactorily define aspects of art to great effect. The critic makes the abstract concrete and puts a name to things. Critics habitually name.
Artists, however, are in search of things that have not yet been named. That is the ultimate goal, to find what has no name and somehow share it with others in some universal human language. The work has to communicate on wavelengths that critics don’t—and really should not—have access to for their own work. Artists live in a world of the sublime; a world where feelings and urges are the driving forces, and the way to share these sublime elements of life is not clear. Artists live in a world without clarity.
Criticism is no enemy; it simply operates in a separate universe. This is okay. This situation is ancient.
A problem arises, however, when artists begin to incorporate the ideas of criticism into their creative process. For that is when the imperative elements of imagination and risk-taking die. And along with that, art itself.
“No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination.” –Edward Hopper
When I asked around about Edward St. Aubyn—an author I’d never read up until now—those who actually knew his work usually responded by referring to him as some version of “the British Bret Easton Ellis, but better at sentences.”
While reductive and kind of funny, this is also a pretty accurate description. There is indeed a fair amount of rich-people activities and sinful behavior(u)rs in these stories. The point of the books, according to the jacket’s description, is to paint an accurate but still psychoanalytically stimulating portrait of “the declining British aristocracy.” What that boils down to is a lot of self-deprecating British people talking about being self-deprecating British people.
The collection consists of four short novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk, the last of which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. At the helm of this declining aristocracy is the title character and anti-hero of all four novels, Patrick Melrose. The novels appear in chronological order, ranging from 1960 to 2003, or, from Patrick’s perspective, from age 5 to 43.
Much of the 680 pages here are told from his perspective. This means there is enough self-loathing, self-consciousness, addiction and self-obsession to go around. Twice. In case it wasn’t clear enough: self-obsession is a recurring theme throughout. Patrick is a paragon of self-obsession. That said, the chapters told from outside of his perspective lend the most meaning to the stories overall.
In addition to self-obsession, there are several other—arguably more meaningful—themes of these books. One of the more fascinating of these is abuse, and the messiness that inevitably comes with it.
Patrick—as shown in the first book, Never Mind, comes from a lineage of abuse. His father, a certifiably insane and abusive narcissist, tortures both his wife and his son with mental, physical, and sexual abuse. Neither is spared any shade of it. As our own Benjamin N. Schachtman quoted in his brilliant essay on the author’s fifth Melrose novel, At Last, Patrick was “born of rape as well as born to be raped.” His mother, the household’s and the books’ doormat, is so loathe-worthy for how easily she welcomes the abuse and how sheepishly she attempts to make up for it outside of her family. She not-so-subtly contributes to the “Save the Children Fund” with an almost compulsive regularity. Ironic because, well, duh.
And while one would hope that Patrick’s horrific upbringing would lead to his consciously attempting to cultivate a gentler, more stable father figure for his own children, one of the smarter choices of Aubyn’s is that Patrick inevitably inflicts his own form of abuse on his family. Make no mistake: a life with such an intensely self-obsessed parent is one that is filled with some form of abuse. Even when Patrick recognizes his tendency to bring his own son on his side against his dying mother, who has chosen to donate Patrick’s childhood home to a New Age organization, he is helpless against the urge. He knows he is allowing his son’s young mind to be filled with toxic adult resentment, but turns to the whiskey bottle to bludgeon the realization.
And yes, it is refreshing to see brutal honesty in regards to these subjects. St. Aubyn writes with a clean, smart prose and has clearly done no small amount of observing the human mind in his lifetime. But there is still something missing, something oddly imperative, that would otherwise allow a true connection here from author to reader to Patrick/text.
“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” –Francis Bacon
I’ve so far written three false starts to this essay, trying desperately to pinpoint why it is exactly that I just don’t really like these books. This is harder than it sounds, because from a critical standpoint, everything is there: well-rounded characters with many a flaw, smooth language, snippy dialogue, believable plotlines, drugs, alcohol, sex, serious addiction, death, rape, guilt, shame, and no small amount of philosophical clout.
But I now realize that the problem, for me, does not lie within the nameable aspects of the collection; these books do work. From a critical standpoint, again, they’re actually quite an achievement. They nearly approach flawlessness on the technical level.
It could be argued that I simply have no connection with the rich and thus can find little connection with these books. Based on this, I’d have no connection with Absalom Absalom! because I’m not from the south. Holds no water.
The books are technically clean and well-rounded and fine. In workshop, they’d flourish. But I’d be the girl in the corner doodling in my notebook, waiting for the next story to come up. In a way, these stories almost feel workshopped to death.
This collection, in this reader’s opinion, has no place for the sublime, no place for the human element of art. Searching for your place—the reader’s place—in a work of art is like searching for a vein. There is something human, living, in truly good art. It has a pulse, and it is often terrifying. There is the kind of art that is alive, and there is the bloodless kind. The kind with which you can establish a human connection, as opposed to the creative equivalent of a zombie. And when you’ve found the vein—the human element—your commitment to it is redeemed. David Foster Wallace called it a click. Emily Dickinson said it was like having her head blown off. You don’t know where it came from, you don’t know what it was, even. But you’ve experienced it, and now you’re different. This is the awful power of literature.
“You are lost the instant you know what the result will be.” –Juan Gris
St. Aubyn can feasibly please many critics. He has made all of the pieces fit in all of the right places. But the vein of throbbing, hot blood is nowhere to be found. I have searched high and low in all 680 of these pages, and have found my human counterpoint absolutely nowhere.
In short, the problem with this collection is certainly not any lack of “philosophical density,” (praise from Zadie Smith), nor well-rounded characters, smooth plotlines, believability, or perfectly constructed sentences. I suppose the real problem lies in this reader’s inability to be truly affected and, thus, to give a shit.
I wish I could put this more eloquently: seriously, there’s nothing wrong with the books. St. Aubyn knows what he’s doing. But, for this reader’s money and mind, there is nothing particularly magnificent about them, either. There is plenty to read, but not much to marvel at. Plenty to recognize, but nothing to make human life any richer.
Read the books. They go by quickly. They dip into almost every single character’s mind and all of the pieces fit the puzzle. But do not expect the click. Do not expect your neck to miss your head. St. Aubyn’s world has been well-constructed, but it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with our own.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
This is a beautiful review, Kelly.
Thanks, Josh. If you were a review, you’d be the most beautiful in all the land.