“Everything was under control.
No, he mustn’t think about it, or indeed about anything, and especially not about heroin, because heroin was the only thing that stopped him scampering around in a hamster’s wheel of unanswerable questions. Heroin was the cavalry. Heroin was the missing chair leg, made with such precision that matched every splinter of the break. Heroin landed purring at the base of his skull, and wrapped itself darkly around his nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favorite cushion. It was as soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon, or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm.
The way other people felt about love, he felt about heroin, and he felt about love the way other people felt about heroin: that it was a dangerous and incomprehensible waste of time.”
This was very nearly a five star book for me. The phrase “tour de force” comes to mind, except that phrase has such positive connotations, and being in the head of Patrick Melrose is in no way a positive experience, excepting the dark pleasure of his (and of course the author’s) self-loathing cleverness.
Bad News follows Patrick over the course of three days, when he travels to New York to retrieve his father’s ashes. The old man has died unexpectedly, and everyone assumes Patrick should be in mourning, but he knows this is a turning point, a chance for freedom. Patrick’s father abused him in every way a person can abuse another, for years, and nobody ever did anything about it. The most striking phrase from the first books was, “Nobody should do that to anybody else.” Here, it was Patrick upon learning his father has died, thinking, “I’ve got to get this right.” (Paraphrasing here because my copy is not with me while I’m writing this.)
The death of Patrick’s father is the inciting event here, but it’s not the center of the book. Rather, it is, but it’s an absent center. Patrick’s father in life or death is an invisible coat that Patrick wears around with him constantly, and his presence is constantly felt around the edges of everything Patrick does, acknowledged or not.
But the real center is Patrick and his relationship to drugs. Basically all of them. He is one of the worst addicts I’ve ever heard of, and honestly I don’t know how he’s not already dead. He spends the entire book high out of his mind off cocaine, alcohol, Quaaludes, or heroin. Sometimes chasing one with another. Sometimes many at once. Patrick Melrose is a man who never wants to be alone with his thoughts, he seeks the oblivion of pleasure, or pain. His abusive childhood fucked him over real good, such that drugs are the most pleasurable thing in his life.
Patrick is not likable at all, and yet I felt for him. He’s self-loathing, and that loathing extends to the rest of the population. He is an indiscriminate misanthropist. He was brought up in a world that either refused to see or ignored the abuses he suffered, or that was unable to see it entirely, because the things the upper classes care about have no actual human value, and in fact do actual harm. And nothing in his life has given him the tools, so far, to escape the prison of his own mind, or the world as it was presented to him.
It’s tragic, and gross, and I couldn’t look away. The book is relatively short at only 166 pages, and it flew by. I’m not usually the type of person to like reading about, well, pretty much anything this book is about. But something about it captured me anyway. Patrick is a living reminder of the damage human beings can do to one another. And of course, it probably helps that St. Aubyn is a great writer. He has a gift for imagery, and a sense of pacing and timing that makes it look easy. He’ll go off on some flowery over the top tangent, and then finish it up with something totally non-sequitur, effectively pulling his own release valve, and keeping you turning the pages. The autobiographical nature of the book probably has something to do with that. This is a raw book, and it feels like something the author knows intimately.
I did watch the TV adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch before I read the books, so maybe that is further helping my affection for the terrible Patrick. I found it interesting to read the book after seeing the show, the way the show externalized Patrick’s internal struggles, and translated his erudite hallucinations, his clever downward spiral, into a visual medium. It’s really a quite faithful adaptation. Plus you get to see his bum.
One thing about this book is that by the end, you don’t see a way out for him. He’s in the middle of the shit, and he’s not getting out any time soon. Whereas in the show, the episode ends with the implication that Patrick has finally had enough, and wishes to crawl out of the hole he’s dug for himself. I can’t decide which version I like better.
In the end, not giving this five stars because in the second half, Patrick’s spiral got to be too much for me and my delicate feelings, and as he declined, his cleverness went with him. The latter half of the book was more frantic, desperate, and he was more unlikable. It’s really rather remarkable writing, but it was sad and bleak, which are not my favorite things. So, four stars.
CBR Bingo: The Book Was Better? (Review a book that was adapted into a movie or TV show that you have watched.)