45. Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn (Patrick Melrose # 1)

Published in 1992. This edition: Picador, 2012.

I feel compelled to share with you that my hands are shaking, a little, as I write this down. Reading books like these pry at the elusive answer to the unspoken question of how deeply an experience, literary or otherwise, can mark us, until we begin to chafe gracelessly against the semaphore of its instruction.

Never Mind is the first of British author Edward St. Aubyn’s novels centred on his alter ego protagonist, Patrick Melrose. I came to these books because I was curious about Patrick, about what fictional forces have led to the concretization of his status as one of contemporary English literature’s most formidably-hewn characters, and his author as one of the best living English writers producing work in that language.

I stayed out of horror and awe, both infused with the kind of reverence you don’t even realize you’re giving up willingly while you read. Whether you levy your slackjawed, glassy-eyed admiration freely or with begrudging restraint, it takes no more than a very few pages to realize that prose, in St. Aubyn’s hands, is effortlessly sovereign. He writes with the sort of sleight of hand beauty that might make poets weep, and he has the good grace to wipe his plate clean of indulgent treatments in diction, in the assignation of flasks to purses, of wineglasses to fiercely shaking digits, of bespoke canes to corridor umbrella stands,  immutable and indifferent, receptacles cast in porcelain, green glass and untraceable decay.

Though the origins of decrepitude evade certain timelines, the origin points of disease in the novel’s chief players are subject to a much more rigorous scrutiny. St. Aubyn uses fiction like a paring knife, cunningly training the blade on a single day in the lives of five year old Patrick and his parents, David and Eleanor. The Melroses are expecting a small contingent — two other couples — of dinner guests, a pleasant, intellectually undemanding evening at Eleanor’s family house in the South of France.

Cognizant of the frequently baffling starts and stops of adult humours, the self-sufficient Patrick easily ventures into his private world of childhood play, roaming the grounds of a vast garden that extend into the Melrose holdings. In the imaginatively fertile clutches of this verdant terrain, Patrick is the undisputed king. There is an unashamed curiosity, fringing on tenderness, that the young boy conducts with members of the animal family — behaviours notably missing from his interactions with his parents, or the vaguely warm yet mostly distant maid, Yvette.

“…Patrick had only seen the tree frog twice, but he had stood still for ages staring at its sharp skeleton and bulging eyes, like the beads on his mother’s yellow necklace, and at the suckers on its front feet that held it motionless against the trunk and, above all, at the swelling sides which enlivened a body as delicate as jewelry, but greedier for breath. The second time he saw the frog, Patrick stretched out his hand and carefully touched its head with the tip of his index finger, and it did not move and he felt that it trusted him.”

On this day, Patrick doesn’t espy his favourite lucky tree frog. A different sort of visitation awaits him, one that will alter the pattern of his internal weather, not simply for the remainder of the evening’s social pleasantries, but for a time we cannot, with the limitations of our gaze, yet glimpse.

It would be difficult enough to bear if Patrick’s parents were uniformly, homogeneously wicked, but the inverse is true. Eleanor mires herself near-constantly in drink, to escape the cruelty meted out by David, who administers amoral punishments in line with what he considers his judicious purview. During the course of the miserable spectacle of a dinner party, Eleanor’s miseries are relentlessly pursued across the page. The stifling tedium of her emotional subservience to David is measured out as if in stiff fingers of drink, each furtive gulp of liquor entering her gullet an ineffective balm against days and nights laced with peaceable terror.

Reading David is a master class in pain – in the gnarled roots of its provenance, and in the steady, wincing gait of its unsteady yet triumphant time on earth. We learn more, reading David, than is easy or comfortable to hold, and the more we know about him, the less we wish we knew. In the crucible of his motivations, he reads like an aged Briton of a Patrick Bateman, with his bloodlust diverted into a series of grotesque amusements best served over a course of game and unpalatable, expensive wine. During dinner, having perceived himself vaguely slighted by the antics of his subordinate colleague’s comely-but-gormless girlfriend, David plots.

“Never mind, thought David, I can get her later. In the pursuit of knowledge, there was no point in killing the rabbit before one found out whether its eyes were allergic to shampoo, or its skin inflamed by mascara. It was ridiculous to ‘break a butterfly upon a wheel.’ The proper instrument for a butterfly was a pin.”

Immediately following a calculated act of brutality upon which the novel’s scope and shape hinges, I shared this feverish message with a St. Aubyn devotee: “Reading the first of the Patrick Melrose novels is destroying me in the most delicate of increments. I feel like I’m being precisely gutted, every nick and scrape of my emotional defenses perfectly tallied in this… god, this assiduous, bare-but-gleaming prose. It’s beautiful and terrible, and in the full vein and spirit of so many things I want to do with my own writing that I could weep. It’s a treasure. It’s like reading horror stories in the bright sunshine and feeling ghosts slide up and down your spine like inky regrets. I can’t wait to see how Patrick survives, what he survives. What he becomes. I dread it and I long for more.”

It’s true. It’s all still true. What St. Aubyn proves, in Never Mind, is that there be monsters everywhere, verily, in the safest of places, in the most simperingly polite of cloistered alcove repartee. The writer, you feel, is pinning down an entire poisoned institution to the mat, forcing it to rap its perfumed knuckles to bitumen, snarling at it to give.

4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Published in 2006. This Edition: Picador, 2007.

Winner of the 2006 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction.

The Times’ Book of the Decade.

Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, 2006.

“I will do what I promised, he whispered. No matter what. I will not send you into the darkness alone.”

A man and his son travel through a burnt and ravaged America, moving slowly towards the coast. On their journey, they are beset by threatening, sickening remnants of their dying landscape. They forage for food and supplies with varying degrees of failure and success. Their main objects of quotidian significance are a squeaky-wheeled shopping cart and a gun running low on bullets.

The unnamed father-son pair inch laboriously towards the warmer sea climate, since they both know that another frigid winter in their current environment will be the death of them. The father intermittently hacks up blood in heaving spasms, signs of an illness that he attempts to hide from his child. His wife has deserted them through suicide, her self-perceived last humane act in a world that was crumbling into fire and ruin, even before her son was born into it.

The man and his son have no dearth of reasons to be feckless, foul, feral. Instead, perhaps slightly implausibly (but only to the jaded), they are good. They affirm to each other that they ‘carry the fire’, that they are lightbringers, of a kind, in a time when thick clouds of falling ash darken the skies and men dine on each other – literally – to fend off starvation.

What makes The Road remarkable? Why does it stand out from the groan-worthy stack of literary post-apocalyptica that fawningly reuses the same three and a half tired tropes with fervent aplomb, gore and sexy zombie mayhem? This book isn’t like that. There’s no tastefully deformed protagonist, boot planted atop a still-spasming cryptwalker, musket smoke melding into a chemical induced fog. There are no blade-brandishing, half cyborg, half humanoid babes with rapier wits and… well, rapiers?

The Road can seem pretty damned irritating at first, with its truncated sentences, abrupt pauses, stops and starts, its jerky narrative openings, which also feature a distinct disregard for contraction-specific apostrophes. Once you accustom yourself to the manner in which McCarthy tells the story, however, it is unlikely that you’d want it told any other way. The prose is not just sheer minimalistic brilliance—that on its own would be accomplishment enough. The narration is shot through with spare, elegantly-wrought images, recollections and half-starved thoughts from the father which stun doubly: for their enchanting and harrowing symbolism, and for their startling beauty. The father’s ruminations are borne of starvation, hypothermia, desperation, and threaded together with an undeniable nostalgia for times without atrocities, in a way that provokes tears… tears and thoughts of what our own wonderings might be.

Who will benefit the most, from a reading of this novel?

A mother. An environmentalist. A thinker of quiet and often desperate thoughts. A person who thinks environmentalism is a waste of time. An over eater. A carrier of light. A thief. A person who has been close to death. A person who barely considers death. A person who cannot conceive of a time where money and books will be useless. An anti conspiracy-theorist.

Anyone who thinks that humanity is reckless. Anyone who thinks that humanity is visionary.

A father and a son.

I cannot remember encountering a book that has so strongly deserved to be read, for all its tender warning, its horrific spectacle, its imaginings of things that are awfully credible, for a very long time. This is a book that deserves your attention. My only regret? That I didn’t read it sooner.

“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.”