Project: Catch Up On Review Backlog, review #10 out of 16
Pretty much ever since I abandoned grad school before I completed my doctorate (English lit!), I have been allergic to lit-fic. There is just something about modern literary fiction that hits me the wrong way. Most of it feels to me like the author is trying to impress me, to say something PROFOUND, and a heck of a lot of it is just middle aged white guys having mid-life crises in exactly the same way. I find it pretentious and samesy. There are, of course, exceptions.
I do respond well to literary fiction that feels genuine to me. Like the writer just needed to write the story, and tell it to tell it, and not so people can think they are smart and important and A Writer of Our Own Time. I recognize that this is a bias, but I firmly believe that literary fiction is a genre (whose proponents frequently diss other genres as lesser), and a genre whose conventions I don’t always respond well to. For whatever reason.
The point is, this book is most definitely out of my wheelhouse. Middle aged white guy working through his demons.
First of all, someone on CBR read these books within the last couple years or so and I loved their reviews, but I CANNOT FIND WHOSE IT WAS. If it was you, send help. They just made the books sound so appealing. This series of five novels, of which Never Mind is the first, is semi-autobiographical, as St. Aubyn works through his traumatic childhood, his resulting hang-ups and addictions, and they are a story of personal growth, and an indictment of the inhumanity of the upper classes. Each book covers a day or two over the course of main character Patrick’s life. (And yes, it was Benedict Cumberbatch’s TV show that finally prompted me to give them a try, but first credit goes to that unknown reviewer!)
This one takes place when Patrick is five, on a day in the south of France. Patrick is the son of a wealthy American daughter of a British duchess, and a failed British aristocrat with all the wrong priorities, who is cruel and all kinds of fucked up. The Melrose’s are set to host a dinner party, and guests are coming from England and just across the field. It’s very much a portrait of the day, with Patrick running around the edges, until the climactic incident, which sets the tone for the rest of the books, when his father SPOILERS rapes him END SPOILERS and then goes on with his day. We get POVs from all the characters, though, which is effective because you see all the different mindsets and ideals that motivate them, all culminating in a dinner party that is simultaneously disastrous and incredibly banal.
You come away from the book thinking, these are the kinds of people who live in this kind of world, and the things they care about and the systems that support and/or oppress them, and this is how the cycle perpetuates itself, with the figure of five year old Patrick being the last image of the book.
As a note, I’m not sure how differently I would have responded to this book if I hadn’t watched the show first. The show makes the smart decision to start with book two, when Patrick is already an adult, and backtrack to this one as episode two. But I think it does work better in the books to have this one first. It sets the stage very well, whereas in the show we’re coming in mid-story, and a lot of tension and character moments are mined from finding out why.
The book is pretty short, only 132 pages, and I’m glad for that. Any longer, and it wouldn’t have been bearable. It’s economic in its storytelling, and I found myself impressed with the writing itself, which doesn’t normally matter to me as much as the emotion or the characters or the story, which can come across just fine in plain language.
Starting book two as I type this. Oh, I’m in for some shit.
CBR Bingo: Not in My Wheelhouse (Review a book in a genre you don’t typically read.)