Literature of the 0.1 Percent
At Last, the latest of Edward St. Aubyn’s masterful novels of privilege and the ways it warps its victims.
Patrick is stuck in time, and fittingly, St. Aubyn’s novels treat time as structure: Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope are extended vignettes that transpire over a handful of days, while Mother’s Milk stretches over four consecutive Augusts as Patrick’s ever-delightful mother forces him to coordinate the terms of his own disinheritance. At Last returns to the tighter temporal strictures of the first three books as well as to the childhood horrors of Never Mind, underlining some gruesome details and filling in new ones. (David Melrose, amazingly, was even more of a bastard than we thought.) St. Aubyn comes full circle, or perhaps Patrick is just going around in circles. He’s bored of his own grievances, and maybe, At Last suggests, boredom—not therapeutic epiphany, not substance-aided euphoria—is what will set him free.
The novel’s air of goodbye-to-all-that finality makes perfect sense for middle-aged Patrick, but it also means that Patrick no longer makes perfect sense as the protagonist of a multi-volume work of fiction. Which isn’t to say that Eleanor Melrose’s funeral should be the nail in the coffin of the Melroseiad. Given that Patrick disobeyed the cardinal rule of Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” (“Get out as early as you can,/ And don’t have any kids yourself”), the reader might wonder if his uncannily precocious sons could take up the baton—their inheritance, you might say.
Robert Melrose and his little brother, Thomas, come off as ingeniously programmed robot dandies who can pun and mimic like Robin Williams at his youthful peak, with occasional judicious pauses to ponder big questions. (“But seriously, what is the ‘consciousness debate’ that Dada gets so angry about?”) They are twee, faintly ridiculous, and weirdly affecting figures, and their flagrant departure from the author’s otherwise photorealist class portraiture reads like a specific warning to those readers who might try to line up the biographical parallels in this particular wing of the St. Aubyn estate. (For the record, St. Aubyn has a daughter and a son.) If privilege is an accusation, would these innocent sons of a deeply troubled, downwardly mobile aristocrat cop to the charge? Enough already about Patrick Melrose and his childhood. What do his children think of Patrick Melrose?