“I was thinking that life is just the history of what we give our attention to,” says the title character of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose Novels, just a few pages into the series’ fifth and final volume, 2012’s At Last. “The rest is packaging.” He is speaking to one of his recently deceased mother Eleanor’s silly (if sincere) friends from the New Age movement, but like most of the dialogue in these books, Patrick’s observation works on multiple levels. In this case, he’s also articulating a vital way of looking at St. Aubyn’s 20-year autobiographical fiction project, mercilessly examining his own personal history through the eyes of an equally exacting alter ego.
Though they span four decades of their protagonist’s life — beginning with the first time his father, David, rapes five-year-old Patrick and ending on the day of Eleanor’s funeral — the novels are indeed a “history of what we give our attention to.” Four of them confine their action to just one day or weekend, zooming in on moments both obviously significant (1992’s Bad News is set in the immediate aftermath of David’s death) and seemingly trivial (Some Hope, from 1994, follows Patrick to a society party at a country house). Even the Booker-nominated Mother’s Milk (2005), the penultimate and most celebrated of the five books, which spans three years, unfolds as a sequence of deliberately chosen scenes and days. Within this highly selective framework, St. Aubyn not only reaches back into an ever-expanding past to present a full picture of his Patrick’s development — including, more often than not, his failure to develop — but also traces the history of what this character gives his attention to.
For the most part, Patrick Melrose gives his attention to himself, endlessly meditating on his own predicament. In the first novel, Never Mind (1992), which is also the one least centered on Patrick’s voice and experience, we meet a rather unsentimental boy. He escapes his father’s cruelty and his mother’s liquor-and-pill-addled neglect, when he can, by hiding among the trees and animals of the aristocratic family’s house in Saint-Nazaire. St. Aubyn (who has been open about the abuse his own father inflicted on him for as long as he’s given interviews) follows up the rape scene, one made all the more horrifying by Patrick’s confusion about what is being done to him, with a dinner party that neither parent will interrupt for the sake of the “downcast” child sitting on the staircase.
Bad News jumps ahead 17 years, flying 22-year-old Patrick to New York to claim David’s body, where he survives the weekend by consuming astounding quantities of heroin and cocaine and any other drug he can get his hands on, not to mention burning through heaps of money and chasing a handful of women. This harrowing novel is the one that’s most grounded in Patrick’s consciousness — which, at this point, has fragmented into an infinite chorus of voices that torment him by commenting on his every action. In revealing his literally insatiable appetites, whose emptiness Patrick freely acknowledges, Bad News completes the picture of a childhood trauma that metastasizes into a nihilistic, decadent, depressed brand of narcissism. It also introduces the specter of suicide, which will continue to tempt him and those around him in the books that follow.
It is only in the final three novels that we truly get to know Patrick Melrose as an adult. At 30, in Some Hope, though he has cleaned up, he remains obsessed with not only his awful childhood, but also the wild years we witness in Bad News, harboring a “sense of nostalgia for a period that had made up for some of its unpleasantness with its intensity.” His project begins to mirror St. Aubyn’s own: a quest for self-knowledge. “This whole journey is toward the truth, or toward authenticity, agency, and freedom,” the author told Ian Parker in last year’s New Yorker profile, which gives a sense of just how many characters and events — and ways of processing those characters and events — made it from his own life into the novels.
“What was the thread that held together the scattered beads of experience if not the pressure of interpretation?” Patrick asks himself in Some Hope, a book that lives up to its title only in that it can’t possibly achieve the bleakness of the two volumes that precede it. The most triumphant moment in what was originally conceived as a trilogy finds the protagonist finally telling his best friend, Johnny, about his father’s abuse. In the next book, Mother’s Milk, Johnny synthesizes everything Patrick has told him to offer the revelation that, “there’s no point to your free fall unless it produces some insight.”
While every Melrose novel besides Bad News shifts narrative perspectives (Never Mind alternates between the family members and their dinner guests; Some Hope surveys the party attendees; in At Last we hear from everyone at the funeral), it’s in Mother’s Milk that Patrick’s life begins to open up for the reader, in all its complexity. He’s 40 years old and married now, to Mary, the kind of nurturing yet intelligent, not-to-be-underestimated maternal figure he’s always betraying in favor of colder women. They have two sons now, the precocious Robert and his little brother, Thomas, who has quite oedipally replaced Patrick at the center of Mary’s life.
St. Aubyn follows the family’s deterioration and eventual exile from Patrick’s haven, Saint-Nazaire, over the course of four summers, after a mortally ailing Eleanor transfers its ownership to a New Age snake-oil salesman — effectively disinheriting him. The book entails all the expected lamentations of an aging debauchee suffering from arrested development:
He tried to remind himself what his youth had really been like, but all he could remember was the abundance of sex and the sense of potential greatness, replaced, as his view closed in on the present, by the disappearance of sex and the sense of wasted potential.
But what Mother’s Milk most effectively, and poignantly, captures is a cycle of familial destruction. Patrick Melrose, for all his self-obsession and self-pity and self-disgust, is nowhere near the monster his sociopathic father was; his inability to make space in his existence for his wife and children doesn’t even compare to his mother’s gross negligence (not to mention what he will realize, in At Last, is her deep, sick complicity in David’s abuse). Still, through Mary’s clear eyes and Robert’s perceptive innocence (which St. Aubyn renders believably without ever slipping into obnoxious gifted-child dialogue), we see the effects of Patrick’s own calamitous upbringing on the people to whom he’s supposed to be a husband or a father, even as he continues to experience new indignities at the hands of his mother.
It makes sense that his first real glimpse of freedom can’t come before both his parents are dead. In At Last, which fans out among the crowd of haughty relatives and flighty New Agers who have assembled for Eleanor’s funeral, 45-year-old Patrick is at what might be his lowest point since the period covered in Bad News. He is divorced (though Mary has still dutifully stepped in to plan the day’s festivities) and reduced to living in a bedsit, “only a year away from his latest visit to the Suicidal Observation Room in the Depression Wing of the Priory Hospital.” Forced to greet not only those who thought his charitable mother was a saint, but also those who still fondly remember his father, Patrick begins to understand some harsh truths about his mother that he couldn’t begin to let himself consider while she was alive.
With this newfound clarity comes the hope of seeing past his obsessive self-analysis, which has become a crutch of its own: “Patrick asked himself, not for the first time, but with renewed desperation, what it would mean to be free, to live beyond the tyranny of dependency and conditioning and resentment,” St. Aubyn writes. Instead of continuing his hapless search for comfort in the infantile indulgences of substances and sex and suicidal ideation, Patrick now wonders, “What would it be like to live without consolation, or the desire for consolation?” — and realizes,
He would never find out, unless he uprooted the consolatory system that had started on the hillside at Saint-Nazaire and then spread to every medicine cabinet, bed and bottle he had come across since; substitutes substituting for substitutes: the system was always more fundamental than its contents, and the mental act more fundamental still.
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.