Magnificent Metaphors
An Appreciation of Edward St. Aubyn

Photograph by me, Trish MacEnulty

In 2014 I read a long profile of the novelist Edward St. Aubyn in The New Yorker. The profile described his work this way: “extremes of familial cruelty and social snobbery are described with a tart precision that is not quite free of cruelty and snobbery.” The profile noted that some of his best books are highly autobiographical and document the egregious behaviors and attitudes of certain members of English uppercrust society. (Hint: this is no Downton Abbey.) They also relate the travails of a man whose childhood sufferings resulted in a raging drug addiction.

I freed myself from my own drug addiction years ago, and I am not necessarily drawn to read more about that life. (However, I will admit that Trainspotting is my favorite movie of all time.) I also sort of already hate the very rich, so I resisted the urge to read his work until two friends, who are both wonderful writers in their own right, foisted his collection of “Patrick Melrose” novels upon me in the middle of the pandemic. It’s like getting a box of expensive chocolates. You know you shouldn’t indulge, but then you find yourself saying, “Oh, just one” and soon you’ve devoured the whole box.

So I took the plunge and immersed myself in a bleak, painful, and often wickedly funny world. It was like hanging out with a brilliant, witty friend and laughing at his humor, all the while praying he doesn’t turn it on you. (Of course, that couldn’t happen since he doesn’t know me — and for that I’m thankful. I would be too intimidated to speak.)

In St. Aubyn’s books, the characters are exceptionally awful. They’re pompous, craven, or downright vile. The “well intentioned” come across as insipid and impotent. This may not sound appealing to you as a reader but when the artist has such an incisive eye and droll wit, it becomes as addictive as the drugs that our unheroic hero Patrick pursues with such abandon.

St. Aubyn’s skillful dissection of characters and their murky motivations is the driving force of his books, but his explosive metaphors absolutely stagger me. For a writer, reading work this original from a language maestro can be disheartening. A little voice in my head kept saying, “You will never ever be this good. Just give up now. Toss your computer in the garbage and learn how to garden.”

Following are a few of his comparisons to give you an idea of what I mean. Maybe they won’t work out of context, but take a look. I think his metaphors (and similes — I tend to use these terms interchangeably) are absolutely sublime.

Jumping up and down, crossing and uncrossing her arms above her head, her lank blond hair bobbing from side to side, she looked like a wounded marine trying to attract a helicopter.

He writes about a woman who hovered like a dragonfly over the surface of sleep.

And this: His past seemed to turn to water in his cupped hands and to slip irretrievably through his nervous fingers.

The best ones come in the drug-using sequences:

In describing the sensation of injecting a speedball: His blood became as heavy as a sack of coins and he sank down appreciatively into his body, resolved again into a single substance after the catapulting exile of the cocaine.

After the rush: Like a surfer who shoots out of a tube of furling, glistening sea only to peter out and fall among the breaking waves, his thoughts began to scatter before the onset of boundless unease. … As if his wings had melted in that burst of light, he felt himself falling towards a sea of unbearable disappointment.

And in describing his father’s parenting philosophy: Like King Chaka, the great Zulu warrior, who made his troops stamp thorn bushes into the ground in order to harden their feet, a training some of them may well have resented, he was determined to harden the calluses of disappointment and develop the skill of detachment in his son. This philosophy didn’t work out well.

There are plenty more of these gems in his collected “Patrick Melrose Novels” (Picador, 2015).

I realize that I may not have St. Aubyn’s particular brand of talent but I can still be inspired by it and forge my own path.

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