April 2021

Arts & Letters

The lightness of unbearable being: ‘Double Blind’

By Helen Elliott

Book cover detail

Edward St Aubyn tackles familiar themes – desire, drug use, psychoanalysis – via a fresh suite of characters

Trying to get a grip. That’s how I am when I read Edward St Aubyn. Vertigo threatens. No handrails visible. It’s been a decade since At Last wrapped up his Patrick Melrose series, and it was a relief to think there might be some acceptable solution in those anguished lives. With a fresh suite of characters, Double Blind jets through the updated urgencies and anxieties of nature and technology, but all the old interests in the state of being human – friendship, love, desire, drug use, psychoanalysis – remain.

Francis, Olivia and Lucy are all in their mid thirties. Olivia and Lucy have been friends since Oxford, and Francis is automatically drawn into their friendship when he and Olivia become lovers, after meeting at a megafauna conference. Francis, a naturalist, is rewilding a large estate. Olivia, a biologist, has just completed a book on epigenetics, and Lucy, “accustomed to attracting favours and special treatment”, has one of those shining jobs instructing the rich about how best to use their money and connecting the right people with the other right people. (Some of the novel’s funniest scenes involve high-end billionaires in their eco-palaces and compounds.)

Double Blind is embossed with the behaviour and entitlements of the educated – in this case the very highly educated – upper middle class. Olivia, Lucy and Francis are thoughtful and generous and distressed about the relentless unfolding Anthropocene. There is no story as such, just a series of scenes unfolding the happinesses and anxieties occurring in a few months of each connected life. The open ending suggests there is more to come, more years of chronicling these lives.

The first chapter reads like an instructive essay, with Francis walking across his enclosed, protected world observing evidence of his work, such as returning fauna. He checks worms under stones, and notes freshly springing moss and the resurgence of mushrooms. He walks in a mild ecstasy, imagining the beautiful, connected biosphere humming beneath his feet.

He belonged, like Olivia, to a generation that felt it had been irretrievably damaged by human greed and ignorance. The previous generation had perhaps been preoccupied by the prospect of nuclear annihilation, but for Francis, who was only five when the Berlin Wall came down, there was clearly no need for a war to lay waste to the biosphere, all that was needed was business as usual … In Francis’s experience, ecological angst was in fact almost universal, but most people found it hard to know what to do other than to eat and drink around the clock in a conscious drive to fill as many recycling bags as possible.

But for those expecting St Aubyn’s forte – those revealing, bladed conversations, the reading of which is like being in a wild conversation with brilliant people – this is a surprise. It’s a new tone; reflective, richer. Will he manage emotional intimacy?

Olivia, with whom Francis has spent just one night, is about to arrive by train for their first weekend together. Falling for her, looking into her clear eyes and holding her gaze, had been a kind of recognition, a “moral seduction that lent inevitability to her physical appeal”. Lucy, flying back from the United States first class – courtesy of a billionaire called Hunter who has just offered her a dreamlike new job – is coming to London, where she can stay in Hunter’s fully staffed flat. She is due to see Olivia after her weekend. Nothing is not discussed between the two friends, and the intimacies of female friendship – along with the hilarities of male lust – provide some of the best moments in the novel.

St Aubyn insists that he writes simply “to entertain”. Sure, you need a reader to stick with you. But like most serious writers, St Aubyn also writes to find out what he thinks. He entertains by his wit, which as James Wood points out is more savage than Waugh’s or Wilde’s, while his savagery is balanced by his seriousness about the great central question in life: how to do it well, and how not to be unhappy when unhappiness is the default position. This is an old ache for St Aubyn. Mother’s Milk (2005) has Patrick Melrose tell his ex-lover Julia: “Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, that deep-down need to mean two things at once, or be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.” The wit is reflex, a coping mechanism for the lightness of unbearable being.

Double Blind is an exposition of the catastrophe of the fixed meaning. It echoes Catastrophe, the 2015–19 UK television series created by Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney that addressed the same conundrum in a different class and context with outrageous originality. Wanting/rejecting, loving/hating, salvation/damnation. The ongoing duality, the twinning of everything. The need to get a grip. The ache when we do, the ache when we don’t.

At a critical time in St Aubyn’s life he isolated himself in a cottage and read Proust – just Proust. The obsessed chronicler of desire and time, the writer without a plot who captured the essence of life as it happened, is a constant echo in both content and style. The two authors share, too, an intellectual exactness and a pronounced aesthetic sensibility, and inhabit similar shimmering places where aestheticism can be pursued and money enhances desire; where, instead of imagining “what if”, you say “why not”. Of course, no one really worked for a living in Proust. They all do in St Aubyn.

One pleasure in Double Blind is the appreciation of the physical beauty of private houses and heartbreaking landscapes increasingly becoming available exclusively to the rich. Lucy’s new boss, Hunter, kind and thoughtful in his personal life but a serial killer in business, has a California mountain compound shared with two attractive super-rich neighbours. They, too, want to Save The Planet. One is a mermaid-like woman called Hope who swims (literally) in and out of Francis’s life. Francis’s desire for Hope disturbs his sanity, but he wants to be loyal to the Olivia who provided a moral seduction. So, he ties himself to that mast whenever Hope, often wittily naked, suggests a sexual swim. But she is wearing him down. Like Swann in love with Odette, it is both funny and abject. The double bind of love and desire. A cool report on the effect of desire as opposed to romantic love.

But the title says blind, not bind, and the implication that you’ll misread it is deliberate. A double-blind experiment is one where neither the participants nor the experimenter know who is receiving a particular treatment, so no one is suggestible and no one can be biased. In Double Blind the participants and experimenters are clashing on a darkling plain lit only by flashes of human behaviour, sometimes by terrifying, ruinous sparks of desire not just for sex but also for power. St Aubyn reserves quite specialised barbs for those chasing power; elevated scientists whose narcissism and vanity are terminal, avaricious businesspeople willing to sell parts of babies for financial gain. These characters, not embossed on the wallpaper, yet thriving in narrow but influential worlds, are critical to the texture of the novel, and to the texture of every private life within it. The subject is the future, and who will control the high-tech world. Yet the future has already arrived. One catastrophic moment has become the next and there is, as Lucy says, a “drastic shortage of sane human beings in the world”. Hunter, a man who can be as absurd as Elon Musk and quite as winsome, has a nice line: “Ever since I heard a Google exec say, ‘It is our intention to manage the knowledge of the world,’ I’ve been longing to clip their wings … I’m going to need a chainsaw.”

There is, too, a man called Sebastian being psychoanalysed by Olivia’s adoptive father who suspects him of being Olivia’s long-lost twin, but keeps silent because he is intent on helping Sebastian. The implications of the names are a nod to the confusing comedies of Shakespeare, with their deliberate errors, confusion, doubleness, disguise, loss and sorcery. (They always give me more anxiety than laughter.) Apart from a riff on psilocybin, the sorcery in Double Blind comes when one of our company faces a terrible medical diagnosis at the same time another welcomes new life. Modern medical knowledge is the new magic, the new possibility.

Does nothing change then? Are we doomed to keep playing out the same comedies of life with an updated running sheet for anxiety and urgency? St Aubyn’s new characters are more spacious, less desperate than those in his past novels. Reading Double Blind is one way to armour up and amour down for the world, to face it when the sorcery of the high-end turns on you. This is what it’s like to be mortal: vertigo without handrails.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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