- Double Bling, by Edward St Aubyn. Harvill Secker, $32.99.
I expect that much of Edward St Aubyn's appeal can be put down to things other than his writing. Personally, my initial interest in the author was piqued by the comparisons to Evelyn Waugh that seemed to punctuate everything I read about him or his work. Who doesn't want more Waugh? That the comparison turned out to be an overly generous one didn't turn me off. Waugh's a hard act to follow.
For other readers, St Aubyn probably scratches a sub-conscious aspirational-slash-voyeuristic itch. The author is not unlike the characters that populate his books - a successful toff with a grisly back story who moves in a glamourous milieu. St Aubyn famously explored that story (and that world) in the semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels, and the author continues to mine his own life for material in his latest book, Double Blind, the opening pages of which give you a sense of the company he keeps.
The author's 10th novel opens with Francis, one of the book's central characters, rambling through the idyllic Sussex landscape he's spent the past eight years rewilding. The Howarth estate that Francis calls home is clearly based on the Knepp Castle Estate, home of the UK's pioneering rewilding project. As for Francis, he's a kind of hybrid of St Aubyn and Jake Fiennes, the lesser-known Fiennes brother who's made a career out of rewilding various aristocrats' vast estates, Knepp included. Much like Jake, Francis is paid to spend his days wandering around surveying the progress of his rewilding work while being awed by the profound beauty of it all.
Francis doesn't have too much time for thinking deep thoughts on this particular morning, however. There are magic mushrooms to forage and a visit from his new girlfriend, an Oxford-educated professor of genetics, to prepare for.
St Aubyn's story revolves around a cast of impressive characters, each one vastly smarter, wittier and, one imagines, hotter than their counterparts in the real world. If there's a hero to be found among the dramatis personae, it's probably Francis, the 30-something botanist with a fondness for psilocybin.
Olivia is the professor on the brink of publication he meets at a conference at Oxford. The pair hit it off and within a matter of pages Francis has entered her orbit, one where conversations about ethics, genetics and psychology flow a little more freely than they do outside St Aubyn's aspirational atmosphere. As for the narrative thrust of Double Blind, it comes in the form of a grim diagnosis.
Days after returning to London from New York, where she'd devoted years to her career and a doomed relationship, Olivia's friend Lucy is diagnosed with a brain tumour. "It's like being raped while you're in a coma and only finding out when you see the CCTV footage," Lucy explains to Olivia in her neurologist's surgery. ("Doctor" Hammond has just ducked out to see if "Mister" McEwan - a nod to Ian, surely - can squeeze Lucy in for a consultation, which gives St Aubyn enough time to draw our attention to the medical profession's class system.) To complicate matters even further, Lucy has just started working for the billionaire VC, Hunter Sterling, a California-based Westminster alum who has his fingers in various biotech-type pies.
As the title suggests, Double Blind is preoccupied with science. It's a novel of ideas, about the environment, biology and heritability, among many other things. Ideas are important, no doubt, but one can't help but feel that the sheer scope of St Aubyn's enquiry, combined with the journalese he frequently employs, inhibits illumination. Nevertheless, a clear theme emerges from the dense prose - a longing for the good old days of psychiatry.
St Aubyn is no stranger to psychoanalysis. He spent years in therapy, as did his most famous character, Patrick Melrose. In Double Blind, St Aubyn's soft spot for therapy is voiced by Olivia's dad, Martin, a respected Belsize Park psychiatrist who takes issue with modern approaches to the treatment of schizophrenia, which is to say the tendency to lean on medication rather than interpretation.
In the end, Martin is vindicated when Sebastian, his emotionally-stunted working-class patient, experiences a breakthrough after a lengthy period of thrice-weekly sessions.
Double Blind is afflicted by the same maladies that many of St Aubyn's other novels suffer from. The dialogue is often forced, the interior monologues are a bit too showy, and the metaphors and similes invariably arrive overcooked (see the previous brain tumour-rape exhibit).
If you're willing to excuse those shortcomings, and skim over the denser passages of science chat, Double Blind still offers plenty of what a generous reviewer might describe as St Aubyn's "brilliance".