Edward St. Aubyn’s Bad News

Bad News, the second of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, gives us our first glimpse of the titular protagonist as an adult. He is in his mid-twenties now, and rapidly blowing through a large inheritance to feed an extravagant drug habit: uppers, downers, cocaine and heroine, in quantities large enough to alarm even his dealers. He is in the middle of cleaning out a syringe when he gets a surprising phone call, informing him that his father has passed away in a hotel in New York City – the same father who raped him, repeatedly, as a young child. “Was it bad news? Perhaps he would need all his courage not to dance in the street, not to smile too broadly.” But the death of the father, as Patrick soon discovers, does not extinguish the pain he caused, or make the problems of Patrick’s life any more solvable.

As in Never Mind, the events of Bad News take place over the course of a single day, bookended by two trans-Atlantic flights in the supersonic Concorde plane. Ostensibly, Patrick’s task is a simple one: collect his father’s ashes from a New York funeral parlour, and return them to his native England. But even the simplest of tasks can be monumentally difficult for addicts, and Patrick’s addiction is particularly all-consuming, stamped on his physical being: “Patrick caught sight of himself in a large gilt mirror, and noticed that, as usual, he looked rather overdressed and extremely ill. There was a disturbing contrast between the care with which the clothes had been assembled and the ease with which the face looked as if it might fall apart.” Like a seasoned addict, Patrick wears long-sleeve shirts to hide the injection marks up and down his arms, and favours large coats with deep pockets, the better to carry his various drugs and syringes (“Just as some men wore a handkerchief in their breast pockets to cope with the emergency of a woman’s tears, or a sneeze, he often tucked away a couple of syringes into the same pocket to cope with the endlessly renewed emptiness that invaded him”). Before he can present himself at the funeral parlour, he decides he must arm himself with a pocketful of mood-controlling drugs, and this necessitates a visit, via taxi, to the shadier parts of New York, far from the tony Pierre Hotel where he has booked a room. Patrick does not so much choose to make this detour as feel himself summoned to make the trip:

How could he ever hope to give up drugs? They filled him with such intense emotion. The sense of power they gave him was, admittedly, rather subjective (ruling the world from under the bedcovers, until the milkman arrived and you thought he was a platoon of stormtroopers come to steal your drugs and splatter your brains across the wall), but then again, life was so subjective.

A sense of power, however artificial, turns out to be more attractive than an ever-present sense of helplessness, and again and again Patrick will turn to drugs to provide him the courage he cannot muster. His other defensive strategy involves comedy: a black humour, a cutting wit, a ferocious sense of irony – anything to distance him from the dangers of sincerity. “He really ought to go to the funeral parlour now,” he tells himself, “it would be appalling to miss the chance of seeing his father’s corpse (perhaps he could rest his foot on it).” Or consider this conversation, between Patrick and his high-end, French drug dealer, Pierre:

Tu regrettes qu’il est mort?” asked Pierre shrewdly.
Non, absolument pas, je regrette qu’il ait vécu.
Mais sans lui, you would not exist.”
“One shouldn’t be egotistical about these things,” said Patrick with a smirk.

When Patrick suggests that he regrets that his father lived, Pierre responds, as anyone would, with the reminder that the father’s life made possible the son’s, but this line of argument holds no sway with a man tempted by the consciousness-obliterating power of suicide.

It should be noted that Edward St. Aubyn, like his fictional doppelgänger, spent much of his twenties addicted to heroin, and he writes about the allure of this drug, and of the difficulties of quitting it, with the eloquence of experience. Here he is, for example, describing the initial pull of addiction: “Soon enough, his synapses would be screaming like starving children, and every cell in his body tugging pathetically at his sleeve.” And here, the tragically short high, that necessitates another injection, and another, ad infinitum:

The rush was over, and like a surfer who shoots out of a tube of furling, glistening sea only to peter out and fall among the breaking waves, his thoughts began to scatter before the onset of boundless unease. Only a few minutes after the fix he felt a harrowing nostalgia for the dangerous exhilaration which was already dying out. As if wings had melted in that burst of light, he felt himself falling towards a sea of unbearable disappointment, and it was this that made him pick up the syringe, finish flushing it out and, despite his shaking hands, begin to prepare another fix.

And, finally, the shock of recognition, that rare moment of lucidity where the person inside the addict is forced to confront the painful truth of what they have been reduced to:

Looking down, he caught sight of his arms and drew in his breath sharply and involuntarily. Among the fading yellow bruises, and the pink threads of old scars, a fresh set of purple wounds clustered around his main veins and at odd points along his arm. At the centre of this unhealthy canvas was the black bulge produced by the missed shot of the night before. The thought that this was his own arm ambushed Patrick quite suddenly, and made him want to cry. He closed his eyes and sank under the surface of the water, breathing out violently from his nose. It didn’t bear thinking about.

That he could be “ambushed” by the sight of his own arm speaks to the split personality created by addiction, and faced with such ugliness, who would not close their eyes and shut off their minds? Not since David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest have I encountered such painfully poignant descriptions of the ravages of addiction, and though St. Aubyn and Wallace are, from a stylistic perspective, worlds apart, it seems strictly natural to compare them: two writers with first-hand experiences of addiction – alcohol, in Wallace’s case; heroin, in St. Aubyn’s – producing works that are by turns laugh-out-loud funny and devastatingly sad. They also share a question, articulated by Patrick, that resonated with me, as it will no doubt resonate with all of their readers: “How could he think his way out of the problem when the problem was the way he thought?”