The Short Version: Patrick Melrose’s father has died. The 22-year-old Patrick flies to New York to collect his ashes and embarks on an epic drug binge over the space of the 50 or so hours before he has to fly back to England.
The Review: Where the first novel was a Pinterian sonata of menace, this is a Sebastian Horsley-ian aria of addiction. St. Aubyn has managed an impressive feat: the novel feels totally different and yet a logical progression. It isn’t about the time change or the shift in location – but it’s just about the characters. Or, should I say, the character. Anne briefly makes an appearance near the beginning of the novel but beyond that, Patrick is the only holdover from Never Mind.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Of course his father (and his mother) play large roles in the novel… but they aren’t there. I suppose it could be argued that Eleanor was never really there – but David Melrose’s unstoppable presence looms large over this novel even in death. Patrick’s refusal to think about his father is, in its own way, a considered course of action relating to David. He is inescapable, even as a box of ashes.
But the novel isn’t really about Patrick’s relationship with his father. It’s about Patrick and drugs. The aforementioned Horsley (may he rest in fabulous peace) turned my stomach several times when I read his memoirs – but this outdoes that book in every possible way. The way St. Aubyn writes the drug experience is… well, it’s incredible. The visceral realities of drug use – syringes, blood, nasal passages, etc – are all on display here and there are no punches pulled. There’s a description, at one point, of a dealer/junkie friend of Patrick’s named Pierre and, more specifically, Pierre’s arm. I won’t go into it here as even just attempting to think about it makes me a little nauseous (and I have quite a high tolerance) but let’s just say that it involves how he takes his drugs. And the dotting of blood in the syringes, Patrick’s several missed veins, his two near-death experiences… it’s horrifying.
And yet. Perhaps I’m just unusually empathic at the moment, I don’t know – but I found myself wondering about that age old question of what it’d be like to take some drugs. Not in this way, of course – and, wait, what am I saying, not at all! Jesus, it’s terrifying just to think about it: but the magic of St. Aubyn’s prose is that you do think about it. And there’s the trick: he pulls off the outsider’s terror and the junkie’s euphoria all in one fell swoop. He writes both things all in one go and as a result it’s some of the most impressive writing I’ve ever seen.
There’s one sequence in the novel that is truly virtuosic – the best writing on drugs since Hunter S. Thompson was on the edge of the desert. Patrick, flying high, is in his hotel room is is bombarded by a series of aural hallucinations. The cast of characters in his psyche spring forth and propagate and nearly drive Patrick insane. It’s hilarious, it’s scary, it’s sad, and above all it is smart. It is deftly handled, because it could so easily’ve been a joke. Hell, it could’ve spelled disaster for this quintet: fail at that high wire act and it’s going to be difficult to get your readers to take you seriously again. Instead, St. Aubyn trots across that wire with a laugh and leaves you smiling in awe.
There’s a bit of an Ellisian thing here – that sense of wanting to get clean but not knowing that you can, because who are you without? How can you exist without? But where Ellis and McInerney and the like have a slight sense of hopelessness, St. Aubyn feels more matter of fact here. Patrick nearly dies twice and he’s clearly a horrible person – but he’s, perhaps, not extraordinary enough to actually feel bad about it. As a result, it feels far more authentic and far more realistic.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. It’s not quite as potent as Never Mind, perhaps because it’s a bit more insular and the territory feels, at this point, a little more familiar. I mean, 1982 New York is a wonderfully seedy place to visit briefly – but I feel as though I’ve been there enough times now that I’m a little bit over it. Still, the wit is sharp as ever and the writing as fantastic as before. I’ll be interested to see where things go as Patrick gets older…