Though they’ve been anthologized in a few different combinations over the years, Picador’s new The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels suggests the best way to consume these stories: all at once, for true immersion in the psychology of one of contemporary literature’s most richly drawn characters. Whether you enjoy spending 900 pages with Patrick Melrose will largely depend, of course, on your tolerance of — or perhaps your appetite for — the compulsive introspection of a brutal intellect. (For me, what makes Patrick bearable, and even somewhat likable, is his unsparing accounting of his own flaws. Just when you start to bristle at, say, his misogyny, he bristles at it too.) But there’s no denying that St. Aubyn and his alter-ego protagonist’s understandably dark worldview spare no one; in scenes of upper-class satire, these novels can be quite funny, though humorous interludes are almost always followed by a moment that will catch your laughter in your throat.
Whether you “like” Patrick or not, now that true psychological novels have given way to a more detached, postmodern form of autofiction, there’s something deeply satisfying about a character who gives such thorough attention to his own wounded mind — and whose flawed yet honest attention ripples out to the dozens of people he encounters throughout the books, just as Patrick’s parents’ behavior ripples through his own life. The Patrick Melrose Novels ask whether it’s possible to move past trauma through insight, and then reveal insight as its own sort of addiction. Whether what comes after that breakthrough is any better than what preceded it remains an open question (St. Aubyn told Parker he was “certainly not going to write another Melrose book for ages”), one that really might take a lifetime to answer.