At Last, and Maybe Least: The Final Patrick Melrose Novel

I find I have little to say about At Last. I think this is because I said quite a lot about the first four of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, most of which applies equally well to the mixed experience I had reading this one. More awful people mostly being self-centered, self-deceiving, and self-indulgent. More self-consciously metaphorical writing  (occasionally so irritating that I wondered whether the praise lavished on the previous novels had inflated St. Aubyn’s sense of his own stylishness or just discouraged his editors’ interest in, well, editing). More barbed humor. More suspect precocity from young children, this time including one little fellow who can spontaneously pun on ‘Bin Laden’. A lot more popping in and out of different people’s points of views, which is appropriate in a series so interested in what defines identity and consciousness, and in memory and how it shapes or governs our characters.

If anything really struck me as interestingly different about At Last, it would lie in that question of memory. Most of the novel takes place at the memorial service for Patrick’s mother, so not only is this a good device for assembling everyone who remains from the dramatis personae of all the other books, but it also makes plausible a lot of flashbacks as they think back over their (mostly quite sordid and/or unhappy) lives. Ultimately for Patrick the question is how far the memory of his own appalling traumatic childhood defines him. His final meditation on this problem is by far the best part of the novel, but it didn’t seem really earned by what had come before it. At least, not by what had come before it in At Last: I can’t imagine how this novel would read on its own, but to the extent that the conclusion brings Patrick to something of an epiphany, it was the whole accumulation of what he’s been through (what he and the reader have been through!) that justifies it. I read the 250 or so pages before it with curiosity but no urgency, and that was disappointing given the intensity (sometimes quite unpleasant) of the other books.

So was my hope for a hopeful ending fulfilled? Ultimately, yes, though just barely. As the novel and the series ends, Patrick has found hope–just enough, anyway, to pick up the phone and have another try at living a life with “a margin of freedom.” Since it seems the freedom he longs for is from himself, though, it’s a thin thread. But it’s strengthened for him by compassion:

As the compassion expanded he saw himself on equal terms with his supposed persecutors, saw his parents, who appeared to be the cause of his suffering, as unhappy children with parents who appeared to be the cause of their suffering: there was no one to blame and everyone to help, and those who appeared to deserve the most blame needed the most help.

Perhaps, at last, this is the mercy he dreamed of, “a course that is neither bitter nor false, something that lies beyond argument.”

The Quality of Mercy: Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels

melrose“If I could imagine a mercy that was purely human, and not one that rested on the Greatest Story Ever Told, I might extend it to my father for being so unhappy.” — Patrick Melrose

This is the point at which I almost stopped reading Never Mind, the first of the four Patrick Melrose novels included in this collection:

During lunch David felt that he had perhaps pushed his disdain for middle-class prudery a little too far. Even at the bar of the Cavalry and Guards Club one couldn’t boast about homosexual, paedophiliac incest with any confidence of a favourable reception.

The rape itself is told, with harrowing obliqueness, from the point of view of David’s victim, his five-year old son Patrick. Patrick doesn’t know exactly what is happening to him, and he certainly doesn’t know why. He endures it by dissociating himself from his body:

He could hear his father wheezing, and the bedhead bumping against the wall. From behind the curtains with the green birds, he saw a gecko emerge and cling motionlessly to the corner of the wall beside the open window. Patrick lanced himself towards it. Tightening his fists and concentrating until his concentration was like a telephone wire stretched between them, Patrick disappeared into the lizard’s body.

It’s a scene unbearable to contemplate, and St. Aubyn presents it with clinical precision, not buffering the horror with euphemism, or with narrative intrusions to ventriloquize our shock and outrage. David’s afterthoughts (and indeed the whole of the novel) are handled the same way, with pitiless detachment, but even though I understand perfectly well that it’s David, not the novelist, being ironic here at the expense of a raped child, it’s still a sickening moment of levity. I didn’t know if I could bear another 600 pages in this company–not David’s company, as I knew he would be dead by the beginning of the second novel (though thanks to flashbacks this doesn’t altogether spare us his presence on the page, and of course his influence is pervasive) as the company of the novelist who could dedicate his conspicuous writerly gifts to creating such a bitterly unpleasant world.

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