Mainlining Patrick Melrose
Candles are the source of the darkness. Candles and a fluid used in the dry cleaning process, produced in a factory in Cleveland starting in the 1830s. That’s where the money comes from, and money is the curse in Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series. The cycle’s five novels – which first appeared between 1992 and 2011, and have now been re-released to coincide with a television adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch – gradually gained popularity and critical acclaim, and established their author as his generation’s Anthony Powell. St Aubyn is darker than that, more an artist of the abyss than the horizon. Time passes, but there’s no dancing. The curse brings abuse, addiction, depression and radiant damage, as wealth and its sudden absence warps the novels’ unholy trinity: the sadist father David Melrose; his wife and victim Eleanor, the unmaternal mother; and Patrick, “born of rape as well as born to be raped”. The industrial fortune (from Eleanor’s side) is far away in time and space – now a set of dwindling trusts and practically abstract – and the family home in the South of France is a theatre of cruelty. “Well, cruelty and laughter”, says a friend of David’s, “have always been close neighbours.” The adult Patrick responds: “Close without being incestuous”. St Aubyn’s innovation on the cross-generational chronicle of upper-class English social life is to put trauma at its core. But his real trick is to keep it comic in the face of psychic devastation.
The saga follows Patrick from the age of five to forty-five, from childhood horror to a “post-parental realm” where he might be liberated from dread, and St Aubyn has from the start been frank that Patrick is a self-portrait: “Yes. Why not say that?” he told an interviewer on the publication of the first book, Never Mind, in 1992. (More significant than what St Aubyn put in, which he has referred to as “reportage”, may be what he left out: unlike his author, Patrick has no living older sister, only one who died at birth; and he isn’t a writer.) The first novel unfolds on the day that begins with Patrick’s first rape at the hands of his father and ends with a dinner party at which the guests discuss the education of youth, incest among Roman imperial families and the uselessness of Freud. Dramatic irony is St Aubyn’s specialty: we see the sullen, newly damaged child sitting on the stairs while the drunken adults cackle in the dining room. Several tropes that will recur across the cycle are introduced: rape causes Patrick to dissociate, imagining himself to be entering the body of a gecko he spies on the wall and crawling away; the opium his father takes after his crime also induces dissociation. Terrible secrets are passed as casual gossip between characters. That’s how we learn that Patrick was conceived by marital rape, when a dinner guest mentions it to his date. St Aubyn maintains a firm grip on time and a tight rotation in point of view among the guests, the boy and his parents. He surveys the spectrum of cluelessness, collusion and cruelty.