At Last by Edward St. Aubyn is the fourth novel about Patrick Melrose and his family; the others are Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk. You don’t need to read them to enjoy At Last although it would help.
St. Aubyn, like the characters in the novel, comes from a wealthy English family. He, like Patrick, was raped by his father as a child. He, like Patrick, is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Indeed, given the facts of St. Aubyn’s life, I find it remarkable he is alive and functioning, let alone that he writes brilliantly
In 2006, he told an interview from The Observer, “Once I started writing, I decided to stop the analysis. I didn't need it any more. But I knew it was good because I went to see my analyst after making a suicide attempt. I was very, very precarious and then I felt a lot better. I stopped feeling mad; there was some sense of order.” The reporter asked whether writing its own kind of therapy? “If it does have any therapeutic value,” said St. Aubyn, “the only way to get access to it is to write without any therapeutic intent. You transform experience into, for want of a better word, art. I'm interested in structure and character. Otherwise it would be very boring for everyone else.”
Which is my feeling about alcoholic, or drug-addicted, or insane (or all three) main characters. Because they can do anything, have little or no self-awareness, and have little or no thought of consequences they are too easy to write, and as St. Aubyn says not interesting. It is, I think, the problem with fiction versus reportage. Our real lives are filled with accidents, extraordinary coincidences, inexplicable events. A novelist has to be careful about using these attributes of reality or readers are liable to feel cheated. Most readers expect a novel to make a certain kind of sense. A novel can do things reality cannot (for example, give us a person’s private thoughts, contradict known physical laws, invent impossible landscapes), but it has to make sense on its own terms. An extraordinary coincidence that becomes dinner table conversation in your lived life will cause a reader to throw your novel across a room.
An alcoholic, drug-addicted, or insane main character is easy to write because you have no constraints. The character by her nature doesn’t have to make “sense.” She can be one way today, another way tomorrow. Her primary wants can change five times on a page. She has no solidity, no verisimilitude. Somehow, however, through the glitter of his writing and our access to Patrick’s thoughts St. Aubyn manages to make him engaging and sympathetic.
The action of At Last takes place during a few hours of a single day—the funeral of Patrick’s mother and a family gathering afterward. While Patrick is the main character, the point of view shifts from character to character within a chapter and even on a page, although I had no trouble keeping up with who was observing what. I did have some trouble at the beginning of the book keeping the characters and their relationships straight,
I’ve mentioned St. Aubyn’s writing. Here are a couple examples:“Emily Price had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions.” “He knew as deeply as he knew anything that sedation was a prelude to anxiety, stimulation the prelude to exhaustion, and consolation the prelude to disappointment, so he lay on the red velvet soft and did nothing to distract himself from the news of his mother’s death.”
Most of the characters are thoroughly dislikeable. They are cutting, snobbish (with little to be snobbish about), and self-centered. The exceptions are Patrick’s two sons and his ex-wife. Part of the book’s enjoyment, of course, is the nastiness. But also St. Aubyn’s observations and descriptions. By the end, I felt that Patrick—now an orphan, now divorced, now sober, now (relatively) poor—has a positive future. Altogether satisfying.