“Some Hope” and “Bad News” — Edward St. Aubyn

Both Some Hope (the better or at least less gross novel, since it lacks the precise drug descriptions) and Bad News are novels about nothing, or self-destructiveness, or family, or themselves, or critiques of a lack of financial need that leads to a lack of financial discipline that leads to both snobbish and waste. But it is redeemed by humor, on almost every page, though of a nasty sort. There are clever descriptions everywhere:

‘It’s too bad your not being able to come,’ said David Windfall to his wife, slipping a couple of condoms into the inside pocket of his dinner jacket, just in case.

Is “come” a double entendre here, whether intentional or not? Maybe. Or consider this this, when a girl begs her father to read a story to her, and he eventually caves:

‘Of course I will. I’d be delighted,’ said Sonny with a little bow, as if he’d been asked to address an agricultural fair.

“An agricultural fair:” he is pompous, distant, and yet slightly pleased to oblige an inferior at the same time. As a father he will inspire therapy, an inability to form close relationship, cloying clinginess, or all three paradoxically at once. One can only hope that he will spend enough of “his” money—the scare quotes are warranted—to not perpetuate the next generation of vaguely aristocratic and worthless assholes of the sort that make one see why Europeans were more susceptible to the otherwise idiotic temptations of Marxism than Americans. The U.S. has plenty of rich, pointless heirs and heiresses, but few have been enshrined in ten or more generations of land-holding assholes.

Every work of fiction creates its own moral universe. That universe may be obscured and debatable, but it’s there. In Some Hope, the good guys recognize their own snobbishness, ridiculous beliefs, nastiness, pettiness, forbidden desire, awkward desire, and cruelty (petty or mortal). If they don’t recognize those aspects of themselves, they at least recognize the search for them. Patrick and Johnny may be the only good guys in the novel. The bad guys don’t recognize their own snobbishness, ridiculous beliefs, nastiness, pettiness, forbidden desire, awkward desire, and cruelty (petty or mortal). By this definition almost everyone in the novel is bad. Like Seinfeld, there is no hugging and no learning.

No one builds or makes anything except jokes (“[Bridget] ought to get on with the arrangements, which, in her case, meant worrying, since all the work had been delegated to somebody else”). There are only parties, art, aesthetics, and jockeying for status for its own sake, rather than based on some external measure of achievement. Social form without content is meaningless and spiritually deadening, a fun place to visit—which is why the Patrick Melrose novels work—but not a great place to live. The Patrick Melrose novels can be read as an argument against large hereditary transfers of wealth and against a basic or guaranteed annual income.

There are no social obligations aside from being witty and beautiful. “Witty” usually also means “self-aware,” as only Patrick and Johnny might be.

Their lives are works of art paid for by the industriousness of their ancestors, or by others in their society. Do most people who are doing or making interesting things have time to think, “The meaning of life was whatever meaning one could thrust down its reluctant throat”? That may be true; on the same page Patrick is thinking about Measure for Measure “while he bared his teeth to rip open a sachet of bath gel.” Is this a brilliant example of the profound and banal mixing, as they do in real life, or an example of the flight of ideas and intellectual incoherence?

At one point another rich dilettante named Kitty says:

So, you see, I know what I’m talking about. Children give off the most enormous sexual feeling; they set out to seduce their parents. It’s all in Freud, I’m told, although I haven’t read his books myself.

Some Hope is filled with people who have strong opinions despite or because of not having read the books themselves. Most haven’t cooked for themselves, cleaned for themselves, or other activities that might connect them with reality, and they don’t realize how much of life’s fabric they’re missing. Their regular complete missing the point—any point—makes them funny. Kitty in context is comedic, though out of it she may not show it. Almost everyone can, in the right context, be shown to be ridiculous, but the characters in the Patrick Melrose novels need even less removal than most.

Here is The New Yorker on Aubyn. Here is Tyler Cowen, and note his genre description (“Derelict” fiction?). Most reviews and interviews focus on his life’s relationship to his fiction, which I find an uninteresting and unedifying set of concerns, yet I appear to be almost alone in that regard.

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