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To begin reading a contemporary novel isn’t easy, if you’re not in the habit. What, they’re still plying the old style indirect libre after all these years? Who has the patience? But in fact one does have the patience, or regains it in pushing forward. But why push? In this case, because of a friend’s strong recommendation, seconded by effusive praise (on the back cover) from so many famous writers, most of whom I’ve never read. The protagonist of these four brief novels (and a subsequent fifth) closely tracks the life of its author: “St. Aubyn grew up in London and France,” Wikipedia tells us, “where his family had a house. His father, Roger, of half-Scottish descent, was a former soldier and a surgeon. His mother, Lorna, was descended from a wealthy American family based in Cincinnati. St. Aubyn has described an unhappy childhood in which he was repeatedly raped by his father from the ages of five to eight with the complicity of his mother.” The first novel of the series, Never Mind, first published in 1992, introduces us to the poisonous atmosphere of the idle rich among whom the story is set; everyone is — here comes one of the book’s key terms — “ghastly,” even those who are not actual child abusers. Never Mind is not so much a novel as it is a kind of extended overture without much narrative impetus (the only real event, which seems to come out of nowhere, is the first rape of the five-year-old Patrick), so it makes sense that it was first published in the same year as the second novel in the series, Bad News Never Mind could probably not have stood on its own. Here, Patrick is a twenty-two-year-old junkie who must fly to New York to retrieve the ashes of his recently deceased father. This time there’s a lot going on, however futile it all is: Patrick’s endless taxi rides crisscrossing Manhattan and beyond in search of drugs and sex. And there’s more scope for stylistic elaboration. Refracted through the protagonist’s drug-addled consciousness (echoing the Nighttown chapter of Ulysses) life takes on a repulsively comical edge that makes its mark. But I still can’t help wondering why all the characters have to sound like they’re auditioning for parts in The Importance of Being Earnest without a script; it’s amazing how often they get the bitchy tone right, but do all their lines really have to sound so assiduously prepped? Maybe I’ll get used to this effect by the time I get to the end — next week, I hope

Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels (2012) is published by Picador and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...