Friday 28 July 2017

Funereal fun thanks to St Aubyn's caustic style

Witticisms pepper this look at gallery of near-grotesques, writes Ronan Farren

Ronan Farren

At Last

Edward St Aubyn

Picador, £15.49

DYSFUNCTIONAL families are all different and can be great fun at a distance -- as Tolstoy might have remarked if he had lived a bit longer.

As Patrick Melrose's relatives and old family friends gather for the funeral of Eleanor, Patrick's mother, black comedy enlivens the lugubrious day at the London crematorium and the post-funeral reception, as Patrick, bearing the considerable weight of his troubled past, considers going back on the drink -- but manages to work up the enthusiasm to ask a passing waitress for her phone number.

Fresh from a fashionable drying-out clinic, Patrick finds the day a bit of an ordeal, not helped by the appearance of a deranged woman (an alumna of the same hospital), who informs anyone who will listen that she feels so well she has no need to take her medication, and goes on to diagnose a severe degree of mental disturbance in one of the mourners. He promptly collapses and is rushed away by ambulance.

Lots of fun, then, at Eleanor's wake. She has in life aroused a mixture of reverent awe and indignation among those who knew her: the former from the beneficiaries of her philanthropy, the latter from her kin who regret her habit of giving away money and property in noble causes.

A cynical observer of the scene is the aged Nicholas Pratt (the one who collapses), from whom come some of the best lines -- though in life we'd probably cross streets to avoid him. He ghoulishly relishes funerals and visits to dying friends in hospital. "I've become rather a memorial creeper," he announces. "One's bound to at my age. It's no use sitting at home guffawing over the ignorant mistakes of juvenile obituarists, or giving in to the rather monotonous pleasure of counting the daily quota of extinct contemporaries." Later, he launches a verbal attack on "Freudian mumbo-jumbo", the vocabulary of which "is emptied on to every conversation, like vinegar on to a newspaper full of sodden chips".

"The sophisticated cherish their 'syndromes', and even the most simple-minded fool feels entitled to a 'complex'. As if it weren't ludicrous enough for every child to be 'gifted', they now must be ill as well: a touch of Asperger's, a little autism; dyslexia stalks the playground ... " And much more in this vein.

Patrick wanders around the peripheries of the party, trying to avoid almost everyone, momentarily distracted from his melancholy broodings by the waitress, but affected almost in spite of himself by his eccentric mother's death. And thinking, too, of his monstrous father, violent and abusive, and her failure to stand up to him when Patrick was a helpless young victim.

Nancy, Patrick's half-cracked aunt, is there, failing to forgive her dead sister for reducing her to penury, Nancy's idea of which is being reduced to five grand or so a week, which she has to collect in person from her New York bank, as they've taken away her credit card and chequebook. "They said it was the only way to stop her running up debts," she thinks indignantly, "but the best way to stop her running up debts was to give her more money."

Amid this gallery of near-grotesques, the life-battered Patrick seems the soul of reason and calm philosophical acceptance. Most readers, I suspect, will take to him despite his self-absorption, which is, however, laced with wit and something like grace.

Many readers will be familiar with Patrick Melrose and family from Edward St Aubyn's previous novels, starting with the Some Hope trilogy and including Mother's Milk (2006), which was short-listed for the Booker. This one ends the Melrose saga: and readers new to St Aubyn's witty, caustic style will be likely to go in search of the earlier novels.

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