Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope

It occurred to me only retrospectively that the third book in Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series is the first to employ a sincere title. The first book, Never Mind, culminates in the rape of the young Patrick Melrose by his sadistic father – not something that can be casually disregarded – and the second, Bad Newsdescribes Patrick’s struggles with heroin in the wake of his father’s death – the news of which he receives with something approaching glee. In Some Hope, however, sincerity makes a first appearance, and not coincidentally, for this is the most optimistic of the novels thus far: Patrick Melrose is 30 years old, clinging to a hard-won sobriety and in search of a way of life not dependant on needles and pills.

As with the previous novels, Some Hope takes place over the course of a single day, when Patrick is at a pivotal point in his life, caught somewhere between disgust at the gradual suicide of heroin addiction and horror at the prospect of a life of sobriety, defenceless against the traumas of the past.

He was worn out by his lifelong need to be in two places at once: in his body and out of his body, on the bed and on the curtain pole, in the vein and in the barrel, one eye behind the eyepatch and one eye looking at the eyepatch, trying to stop observing by becoming unconscious, and then forced to observe the fringes of unconsciousness and make darkness visible; cancelling every effort, but spoiling apathy with restlessness; drawn to puns but repelled by the virus of ambiguity; inclined to divide sentences in half, pivoting them on the qualification of a ‘but’, but longing to unwind his coiled tongue like a gecko’s and catch a distant fly with unwavering skill; desperate to escape the self-subversion of irony and say what he really meant, but really meaning what only irony could convey.

Apart from the obvious eloquence of this passage – a hallmark of St. Aubyn’s fiction, and one of the great joys of reading him – we gain some penetrating insights into the schismatic nature of the addict’s mind. The great virtue of heroin, or of alcohol for that matter, is that it offers a temporary respite from the pains of personhood, but St. Aubyn takes us a step further, linking apathy, irony and ambiguity – the Patrick Melrose troika of traits – to this same “self-subversion,” this same escape from sincerity. Attentive readers will note that St. Aubyn doesn’t merely invoke John Milton, by referencing his famous lines, from Paradise Lost, “No light, but rather darkness visible / Served only to discover sights of woe, / Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace / And rest can never dwell, hope never comes,” but subverts those very same lines: while Milton invoked “darkness visible” as an image of hopelessness (William Styron would later borrow the same line, for his memoir about clinical depression, Darkness Visible), St. Aubyn expresses the wish to “make darkness visible,” to expose what has been suppressed and repressed to the light of his conscious mind.

An indelible aspect of the addict’s dilemma: the trouble is not merely quitting the drug or the drink, but finding some meaningful substitute. “I’ve given up everything,” Patrick tells us, “but taken up nothing instead.” This, of course, is not a sustainable foundation for sobriety, but the momentary lucidity might offer a glimpse of hope, and Patrick seizes his opportunity with extraordinary bravery. Part of this bravery, paradoxically, comes from fear, the sobering realization that the addict’s future is utterly predictable:

He knew that under the tall grass of an apparently untamed future the steel rails of fear and habit were already laid. What he suddenly couldn’t bear, with every cell in his body, was to act out the destiny prepared for him by his past, and slide obediently along those rails, contemplating bitterly all the routes he would rather have taken.

Fear compels him to an act of bravery: he tells a friend about his father’s crime, about the rapes he experienced repeatedly as a young boy. Without irony, ambiguity or innuendo, without the aid of liquor or drugs, Patrick Melrose shares his most intimate secret with another human being. Some hope, after all.