By Edward St. Aubyn
More than most novelists, Edward St. Aubyn seems chained to his biography. His justly celebrated Patrick Melrose novels alchemized horrific experience — St. Aubyn’s repeated rape by his sadist father during childhood — into incisive fictions through which the author wrote his way out of (de)formative trauma. Whenever St. Aubyn has strayed beyond the scathing upper-class satire and moral searching of the Melrose series, though, the results have been markedly less well loved.
“Double Blind” sees St. Aubyn strike out for unfamiliar territory — science, ecology and venture capital. It is distinctly the product of a mind processing some very big data. As in the Melrose novels, lusty descriptions of drug use pepper insights on the lives of the rich, the satire spiced with characteristically zestful metaphor. That said, the flaws are considerable. “Double Blind” is an often cluttered work crying out for tighter narrative control and thematic unity. Two-thirds of the way through, I still had the impression of a throng of subplots in search of a story.
A mellower affair than the precision-strike vengeances of the Melrose series, “Double Blind” follows a cast of well-to-do characters over a period in which multiple strands — illness, romance, pregnancy, research, investment, psychopathology — entangle them in fictively expedient ways. Francis is a 30-something botanist living off-grid on a rewilding reserve named Howorth. As he falls in love with a biologist named Olivia, her best friend, Lucy, begins working for Hunter Sterling, a billionaire alpha-philanthropist who lives in Big Sur on a ranch he calls Apocalypse Now. The book’s most entertaining character, Hunter is rarely seen without a crack pipe, pill, bottle of bourbon or line of coke. (Having beaten the addictions he explored in novels like “Bad News,” St. Aubyn can still write a tasty freebasing scene.) Hunter is set to finance a bleeding-edge virtual reality device that mimics the exalted inner states of saints and mystics. Meanwhile, Olivia’s psychoanalyst father begins treating a young schizophrenic whose bizarre lingual associations contain coded, plot-furthering truths.
The breadth and density of scientific knowledge crammed into “Double Blind” can make for hard going, and the material does not always fit naturally into the novel’s social-realist structure. Francis is a somewhat disembodied vessel for ruminations on everything from the hard problem of consciousness, to quantum physics, to research into treating depression with psychedelic mushrooms. When the appearance of the sexually charismatic Hope draws Francis’ vital energies away from his brain and below the waist, it comes as a relief.
Snatches of inner monologue such as “In the extreme case of 22q11.2 deletion syndrome there were 180 clinical associations” are not uncommon, yet their accumulation builds to no particular thesis. On the plus side, St. Aubyn is rare among contemporary novelists in being imaginatively engaged with psychoanalysis; the dramatized treatment of a young man on the far shores of psychosis stands out amid the lashings of lab talk and research riffs.
For all the promiscuous surveying of contemporary scientific thought, St. Aubyn is at heart a very English traditionalist of the social novel, and “Double Blind” is most satisfying when the big ideas make room for depictions of intimacy, professional striving, family, hedonistic appetite and sexual confusion. The scenes of broad satire — not least the one in which a Vatican emissary gets unwittingly high on MDMA while Kraftwerk performs at a private party — generally hit their targets, even if some of them are sitting ducks. St. Aubyn must resent it when readers confess they are only really passionate about his Melrose books, yet there’s no getting around it: While commendable in its intellectual ambition, “Double Blind” fumbles in its delivery.