This is your brain on Edward St. Aubyn
By Edward St. Aubyn
More than most novelists, Edward St. Aubyn seems chained to his biography. His aptly celebrated Patrick Melrose novels alchimized the gruesome experience – the repeated rape of St. Aubyn by his sadistic father as a child – into incisive fictions through which the author wrote out of (de) formative trauma. . Whenever St. Aubyn has moved away from the scathing upper-class satire and moral research of the Melrose series, the results have been far less appreciated.
“Double Blind” sees St. Aubyn tackle uncharted territory – science, ecology and venture capital. It is distinctly the product of a mind dealing with very big data. As in Melrose’s novels, the vigorous descriptions of drug use provide a glimpse into the lives of the wealthy, the spicy satire of a distinctively playful metaphor. However, the flaws are considerable. “Double Blind” is an often cluttered work that calls for tighter narrative control and thematic unity. Two-thirds of the way, I still felt like a bevy of story-seeking subplots.
A sweeter affair than the precision revenges of the Melrose series, “Double Blind” follows a cast of well-to-do characters over a period in which multiple strands – disease, romance, pregnancy, research, investment, psychopathology – intertwine them all. fictitiously timely. Francis is a botanist in his thirties who lives off-grid in a rewilding reserve called Howorth. While he falls in love with a biologist named Olivia, his best friend, Lucy, begins working for Hunter Sterling, an alpha-philanthropist billionaire who lives in Big Sur on a ranch he calls Apocalypse Now. The most entertaining character in the book, Hunter is rarely seen without a crack pipe, pill, bottle of bourbon, or line of coke. (Having conquered the addictions he’s explored in novels like “Bad News,” St. Aubyn can still write a tasty freebase scene.) Hunter is about to fund a cutting-edge VR device. technology that mimics the exalted inner states of saints and mystics. Meanwhile, Olivia’s psychoanalyst father begins treating a young schizophrenic whose bizarre language associations contain coded truths that push the plot forward.
The breadth and density of scientific knowledge crammed into the “double blind” can make things difficult, and the material does not always fit naturally into the social-realist structure of the novel. Francis is a somewhat disembodied vessel for ruminating on everything from the difficult issue of consciousness to quantum physics to research into treating depression with psychedelic mushrooms. When the appearance of the sexually charismatic Hope pulls Francis’ life energies away from his brain and below his waist, it is a relief.
Snippets of inner monologue such as “In the extreme case of 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, there were 180 clinical associations” are not uncommon, but their accumulation does not justify any particular thesis. On the positive side, St. Aubyn is rare among contemporary novelists to be imaginatively engaged in psychoanalysis; the dramatized treatment of a young man on the distant shores of psychosis stands out among the lashes of lab talk and research riffs.
Despite all the promiscuity of contemporary scientific thought, St. Aubyn is at heart a very English traditionalist of the social novel, and “Double Blind” is more satisfying when big ideas give way to representations of intimacy, of professional effort. family, hedonism. appetite and sexual confusion. General satire scenes – most notably one in which a Vatican emissary unwittingly takes drugs on MDMA while Kraftwerk performs at a private party – usually hit their mark, though some of them are sitting ducks. St. Aubyn must be resentful when readers admit that they are only truly passionate about his Melrose books, but there’s no getting around that: although laudable in its intellectual ambition, “Double Blind” fumbles in its delivery.