The Patrick Melrose Novels
What is it that makes a reader become interested in a really rather unpleasant character, especially when it’s the central character, even sometimes the narrator, of a work of fiction? The obvious examples that spring to my mind at least are the awful Bendrix in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, Tony Soprano, Sherlock Holmes or even Hannibal Lecter. There are of course pretty dreadful specimens with whom we connect out of pity or self-recognition, like the unspeakably self-obsessed George Costanza of Seinfeld fame, and in this case humor is his salvation. Not bad for someone with no sense of humor at all. And before you stop me, there are female counterparts aplenty, starting from Emma Bovary and Hedda Gabler, moving on to the Wicked Witch of the West, Velma in Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely and Mrs. Danvers in du Maurier’s Rebecca. Some of these characters exercise the kind of hypnotic fascination of a cobra, perhaps, but they all have interest. Most of them dominate the places in which they appear, though they are not the least bit admirable.
I am posing this question as I try to make some sense of why I, like so many others, find Edward St. Aubyn’s protagonist, Patrick Melrose, so fascinating. With the recent publication of At Last, a five-novel sequence comes to an end. The first four were Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope and Mother’s Milk, the last one a finalist for the Booker Prize. They tell the story of moments in Patrick’s life, as a small child, a befuddled heroin addict, an alcoholic and a middle-aged man struggling with his Mrs. Jellyby-style mother giving away his inheritance to a shady New Age Irishman named Seamus. They take place in a world of social privilege and snobbery, and now in At Last his mother’s funeral provides the context for the faint stirrings of a possible resolution.
Some things about these novels are matchless. The gift for capturing the self-involved chattering of the entirely contingent aristocratic hangers-on is remarkable, though why we should care about them any more than they would care about us is hard to say. Nevertheless, we do, perhaps because St. Aubyn makes them funny, usually despite themselves. He’s also rediscovered the Homeric simile as a stylistic device and works it just short of the point at which it would become tiresome though, of its nature, it is always noticeable. And he is witty in a way that reminds all his commentators of Evelyn Waugh. One suspects, too, that he is as caustic in real life as was Waugh. No reason, except that so much of these novels, including some of the most sordid and distasteful parts, are more autobiographical than we might want to believe.
St. Aubyn gets us into the position where we stay with Patrick through the nightmare of Bad News, by the simple expedient of having first shown us the boy who became this man and the reasons why. Bad News is hard to finish and I cannot imagine anyone picking it up and reading it out of sequence. [Warning: Do NOT read any of these books out of sequence.] But once you are rooting for the hapless child victim of a pedophile, sadistic father you are hooked enough to watch the twenty-year old dope himself to the brink of death. I think I prayed my way through this second book, though not as hard as I might have done if I had bought it when it appeared and not known that there were three to follow. Foreknowledge takes the edge off the drama but keeps you going beyond what is reasonable. No wonder that the earlier books didn’t initially sell well and have been read more since the appearance of Mother’s Milk.
Patrick doesn’t have many friends, but maybe it is befriending him that keeps us going, though we will surely suspect that for most of the novels our outstretched hand would be ignored or abused. The fragility in Patrick that goes back to a childhood of unspeakable brutality makes it easier to like him, though he is not on the whole likeable. The reader is a bit like Johnny, the psychiatrist who is the only real friend Patrick has and has had from childhood. It is to Johnny that he reveals the abuse he suffered at his father’s hands, and Johnny is there at the mother’s funeral, as unjudgmental and genuinely warm as ever. Maybe we even like Patrick a little bit because if Johnny likes him, well, there must be something about him. We also see him through the eyes of his eerily precocious children and we glimpse the capacity for greater humanity in the way he responds to them. But I’m not sure we ever relax with him and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t like us. Or me at least. On the other hand, perhaps his failure to find or give unconditional love is being turned on the reader. Everyone who stays with him through the five books, something I heartily recommend, is another Johnny.