The first time I read Edward St. Aubyn’s “Double Blind,” I thought it clunky, and strongly disliked a couple of the characters. If I’d reviewed it then, I’d have used words like “uneven” and “odd.” Paging through “Double Blind” a second time, a few months had passed, so I wasn’t able to skim. I had to reacquaint myself with the major characters and plot points — and, I’ll warn you, there are quite of few of each. I still wound up thinking “clunky” and “odd,” but also “fascinating” and “poignant.”
This is not a book for the inattentive — or unsophisticated, a term I use deliberately, advisedly, and critically. St. Aubyn throws out high concepts and cultural references faster than his creation Patrick Melrose popped pills, both on the page and on the screen (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC TV series). You might want to know something about botany, chemistry, neurology, psychiatry, Shakespeare, London geography, even why the English rough their potatoes up to roast, all before you start reading.
Not put off? Meet ridiculous coincidences, like the fact that character Lucy snags a job with a millionaire (billionaire?) just days before learning she’ll need his resources badly. Or that her friend Olivia may be closely related to one of her psychiatrist father’s patients, or that most of these characters have more resources than they need and don’t have to worry about anything exterior to them. That an investment banker would hire the German techno band Kraftwerk for a party and that a hapless Roman Catholic priest would mistake margaritas for lemonade. And so on.
Novels of interiority have a venerable history, but do we want them, need them, any more, from cishet white people like Edward St. Aubyn? As a cishet white person, I may not be qualified to answer. What I can say is that “Double Blind” fizzes and percolates and sometimes thuds with dilemmas that apply to many people, despite St. Aubyn’s characters remaining (mostly) privileged English people.
The plot revolves around Francis, a gentle naturalist who is attempting to “rewild” his family estate at Howorth. He’s recently met Olivia at a megafauna conference and they’ve fallen quickly and hard in love. Olivia’s close friend from university, Lucy, has just accepted a job with a gene-engineering company called Digitas, working for the driven, drug-addled Hunter. We also learn that Olivia was raised by a pair of psychiatrists who have provided the kind of stable, culture-filled home that most of us dream of, after being adopted from a too-young, very poor mother.
Much of the action derives from the aforementioned dilemmas. Leave the land alone, or cultivate it for human good? Take the medicine, or try alternatives? Reveal the secret, or protect a different generation? Fuel breakthroughs with drugs, or leave well enough alone? Everything has a different side, as the title teases, and of course its scientific meaning (studies in which both sets of subjects receive no information about the substances they take) also has a lot to do with these quagmires. Information, given and received, or hidden and withheld, makes a difference.
Explaining much more about the plot would provoke spoilers. Much of “Double Blind” is not action, but from introspection, and that requires the attentive reading I touched on earlier. Because of their immense resources, these characters can spend time talking about ideas. As the book twists on, I became less and less invested in any of their talking, especially when Francis finds himself tempted by a moneyed American woman named Hope who keeps showing up naked in his environs. Yawn.
However, Martin’s patient Sebastian, the schizophrenic, provides the real hope in “Double Blind.” With Martin’s oversight, he stops taking medications that make him sleepy and confused so that he can start looking for a proper job. In a way, he and another character are the actual subjects of a double-blind study that no one planned. If the book had spent less time zigging and zagging it might have had time to explore a society in which two people who start in the same place wind up in such different places.
When Edward St. Aubyn takes his writing seriously and writes about serious subjects, his natural whimsicality aids his gravitas. Unfortunately, when he tries to write comic scenes, he can veer wildly off course, which happened in his Hogarth Shakespeare adaptation of “King Lear,” called “Dunbar.” Recently the American writer Kiese Laymon released a revised version of his novel “Long Division,” and while I realize Laymon’s reasons for that have little to do with St. Aubyn’s literary modus operandi, how I wish “Double Blind” could be revised and reissued. Maybe then its deep, relevant ideas could be more fully explored and made accessible to readers put off by all the private jets, Champagne, and magic-mushroom capsules in this version.
Bethanne Patrick is a writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven and serves on the board of PEN/Faulkner.
By Edward St. Aubyn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages, $27