Edward St. Aubyn, author of the Patrick Melrose novels (on which the Showtime miniseries starring Benedict Cumberbatch was based), writes impeccable prose, as pared down and drily funny as Evelyn Waugh at his best, but heart-piercingly poignant in a way that Waugh rarely (never?) is. That‘s because St. Aubyn spins his fiction, equal parts black comedy, autopathography, and evisceratingly witty social satire, out of the unspeakable truth of his life: between the ages of three and eight, he was raped by his father, a monster of snobbery who epitomizes the moral depravity of the English upper classes. Little wonder that St. Aubyn spent decades shooting smack, speedballing, and boozing with a gusto that would’ve sent most of us to the E.R.
Reading the Melrose quintet (Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, At Last), I was struck by St. Aubyn’s virtuosic use of the simile, a figure of speech that has fallen into disuse in American prose (apart from literary fiction written by men named Jonathan). A conscientious objector to the airport-bookstore blandness that prevails on these shores, he reaches rhetorical heights not scaled since Raymond Chandler invented the hardboiled baroque with quips like, “Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest-dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”
Here’s a sampling of some of St. Aubyn’s wittiest similes. Read them with a writer’s eye, thinking about what makes them tick. We’ll anatomize his style as we go.
“She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath.” (Never Mind, 5)
It’s the modifier that makes it: not just any osteopath; a confident osteopath, cracking the spine in all the right places with the ineluctable logic of ice cracking along its faultlines, and just as satisfyingly. (An osteopath, by the way, is a practitioner of osteopathy, an alternative medicine—some way say pseudoscientific quackery—that treats disease by manipulating and massaging the bones, joints, and muscles.) A simile, remember, “is generally the comparison of two things essentially unlike, on the basis of a resemblance in one aspect” (Holman and Harmon, A Handbook to Literature). Aubyn pushes the envelope of unlikeness to produce similes whose tongue-in-cheek outlandishness makes for surreal wit.
“He had watched his father’s eyes behind their dark glasses. They moved from object to object and person to person, pausing for a moment on each and seeming to steal something vital from them, with a quick adhesive glance, like the flickering of a gecko’s tongue.” (Never Mind, 23)
Again, the modifier is the better part of brilliance. “Adhesive” captures the predatory, prehensile quality of his father’s sadistic intelligence, and of the bestial nature behind it.
“Like many flatterers, he was not aware that he irritated the people he flattered. When he met the Wooden Duke he had poured himself out in a rich gurgling rush of compliments, like an overturned bottle of syrup.” (Never Mind, 30-31
The alliteration of “rich” and “rush”; the onomatopoeia of “gurgling”; the sharply observed satire of flattery so thick and stickysweet it’s positively syrupy: could this simile be more perfect? St. Aubyn makes the fulsomeness of flattery palpable.
“Debbie’s mother, whose neurotic resources made her resemble a battery-operated stick insect, had social ambitions which were not in her power to fulfill…” (Bad News, 138)
Not just a stick insect, but a “battery-operated stick insect”! It’s the grace notes, like this, that make the difference between a smile and a full-blown guffaw.
Sometimes “a little too much is just enough,” as Jean Cocteau put it; in this bravura performance from Bad News, St. Aubyn piles simile on top of simile, inducing a kind of rhetorical vertigo that mirrors the protagonist’s pinballing mind:
“That terror [of the dizzy horror of cocaine’s comedown] was the price he had to pay for the first heartbreaking wave of pleasure when consciousness seemed to burst out, like white blossoms, along the branches of every nerve. And all his scattered thoughts came rushing together, like loose iron filings as a magnet is held over them and draws them into the shape of a rose. Or—he must stop thinking about it—or like a solution of saturated copper sulphate under the microscope, when it suddenly transforms and crystals break out everywhere on its surface.” (Bad News, 168)
Note the way St. Aubyn accentuates the fact that we’re overhearing Patrick’s internal monologue: “He must stop thinking about it.” These cascading similes aren’t an authorial voiceover, he’s telling us; they’re Patrick’s attempts to trap his buzzing, darting thoughts in the fly-bottle of language.
Another example of St. Aubyn’s inexhaustible inventiveness:
“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 favourite 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.” (Bad News, 169)
Notice how “landed,” “purring,” and “wrapped itself” telegraph the simile, ensuring that, by the time we get to it, a black cat seems like the only descriptor imaginable—the objective correlative to the sensation of heroin coming on. The adverbial modifier “darkly” and the symbolism of the black cat underscore the sinister seductiveness of the drug. But wait, he’s got more: the descent into oblivion is as soft and rich as a wood pigeon’s throat (which a black cat would tear out, a subliminal nod to the devil’s bargain heroin strikes with its users); as sensuous as a hot glob of sealing wax splatting on the page; as tantalizing as gems slipping through your fingers (another double-edged image, symbolizing the bait-and-switch of the artificial paradise the opiate promises, an escapist dream belied by the abject awfulness of addiction). By comparing a heroin rush to not one but four things, St. Aubyn quadruple-underscores the qualities they all have in common (“soft and rich”) while mimicking the mind’s tendency toward associative thought (this reminds us of that, which reminds us of that, which reminds us of…). One of his philosophical themes, in the Melrose novels, is the nature of consciousness.
If, like me, you’re eaten alive by envy over St. Aubyn’s fireworks displays of rhetorical brilliance, take comfort in the knowledge that he’s mortal. What seems effortless was, it turns out, the product of the usual Herculean labor.
Asked by the critic and writer Louise Swinn about his prose style, he said, “I see the world…very naturally in images and pictures so metaphors and similes just spring up, as it were…”
“And you get there quite quickly or do you have to work [sentences] to get them [this] finely honed?”
“Constantly. I rework them a lot. I’m a very bad writer on the first 20 or 30 goes.”
“Twenty or 30!”
“Except for dialogue … but everything else is rewritten again and again until it looks natural. … I might write [a] first stab at a paragraph reasonably quickly but it might be days before it clicks.”
But when it does, it’s glorious.
* Watch this revealing, wide-ranging conversation with St. Aubyn at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. The critic Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg, an unabashed fan who knows the Melrose novels back to front, comes to the interview supremely well-prepared and asks penetrating questions, some of which yield insights into St. Aubyn’s writing process and prose style. But his readings from the novels are the highlight of this compelling exchange. St. Aubyn is a born impressionist, and his ear for the microscopic nuances that draw the socioeconomic borders between English accents, together with his gift for dialogue, make for some unbearably hilarious moments.
* Watch the writer Louise Swinn’s intimate, probing interview of St. Aubyn at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, Australia.
Read Ian Parker’s closely observed New Yorker portrait of the author. A fine piece of prose in its own right, this sprawling feature is for the most part an unflinching dissection of St. Aubyn and the traumatic childhood that made him, but it does touch on his writing (and the reading that influenced it).
And, of course, read the novels themselves.