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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sorrow and Pity: Trying to empathize with Patrick Melrose

The writing in Edward St. Aubyn's At Last continues to be acerbic and brainy, full of smart exchanges, acidic wit, and thoughtful reflections, but omg the novel itself is so dark and dreary, as one might expect from a novel that takes place entirely at a funeral service and the "after party." We desperately want to like the protagonist, Patrick Melrose, and as we learn more about his childhood we feel sorrow and pity toward him - what chance did he have of a normal life, with such an upbringing? - but he (or St. Aubyn) makes it so difficult to like this guy, who's the epitome of snark. In this volume, through Patrick's recollections, we revisit the horrifying incident of his early childhood when his father threw him into the deep end of a pool then calmly explained to friend Nicholas how he didn't believe in pampering children etc., that this was the way to prepare them for the world, etc. - in other words, he was literally willing to kill his son to prove a point (kill, not sacrifice - nothing Biblical about this scene). As Patrick reflects after the service, however, his absent and indifferent mother was equally to blame - it's taken him a long time to get to this point, as we have made that observation volumes ago. All that said, he continues to be self-centered, narcissistic, and full of self-pity, as epitomized by his constant yearning (carried on by his older son, btw) for the family estate in France, where he'd spent so many happy hours - or so he imagines; we see them as miserable hours. In any case: Get over it. You were born to great privilege, and you've lost some of that privilege, but you still have far more - materially, anyway - than most people, plus a fine profession, if you care to use your legal skills to do any good for yourself or others - so the novel itself continuously undermines our attempts, our desire to empathize with Patrick. Fortunately, he has it seems one good friend from youth, Johnny, a psychiatrist, who adds a note of sanity and humanity to this novel: the long drive from the funeral home or crematorium to the club where the party will gather is a strong point in the novel, partly for Patrick's reflections - mocking Garbo, he notes that he wants to be alone with his thoughts - and partly for the occasionally wise counsel - alongside some quips - that Johnny has to offer. He may to a degree be an enabler, but he's also a rare, a unique steady presence in Patrick's life.

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