By the time Edward St. Aubyn completed the last of his Patrick Melrose novels in 2012, it was clear that a new animal had approached the watering hole of fiction in England. This animal was of a species thought to have largely gone extinct: the anatomist of the remote upper classes.
The subject of these novels put St. Aubyn in an invidious position. His arrival was resisted. To a certain kind of reader, the notion of consuming five novels about extreme privilege — heavy manners, long bones — seemed about as enjoyable as expressing a dog’s anal glands.
But St. Aubyn could write: He could really write. He blended woe with wit; his ironies were fierce and finely tuned. The details were precise because St. Aubyn actually had the British upper-class background that, as Clive James noted, the snobbier Evelyn Waugh longed for.
St. Aubyn’s new book, “Double Blind,” is an entertainment on scientific themes: brain-mapping, biochemistry, botany, immunotherapy, schizophrenia and the ethics of placebos (hence the book’s title), among other topics.
If “Double Blind” vaguely resembles a pretty good Ian McEwan novel — McEwan being one of the few novelists who writes intelligently and often about science — well, the cast includes a minor character (a brain surgeon) named Dr. McEwan.
This is a hard book to summarize. For a short novel, it has many characters and moving parts. But at its heart, it’s the story of two old friends, Olivia and Lucy, now in their mid-30s, who once attended Oxford together. Olivia is a biologist who writes serious books that few read; she has a sort of downwardly mobile idealism.
Lucy is more brash and entrepreneurial. She takes a job with Digitas, a scientific venture capital firm run by a charismatic monster named Hunter Sterling, who has houses spread across the planet. He wants to make billions and win Nobel Prizes, by backing projects like a “Bliss algorithm” and a “Nirvana helmet.”
Two love stories sprout in “Double Blind.” Olivia falls for Francis, a naturalist who, at the behest of wealthy patrons, is trying to “rewild” the land on a large estate. They meet at a megafauna conference. Lucy falls for Hunter, the gonzo capitalist, who is more complex than he initially seems.
Olivia finds herself pregnant, sooner than she might have liked to be; Lucy, movingly, experiences a grave illness. There are twists of conscience and libido.
Peripheral characters abound: self-important academics, science hustlers, schizophrenia patients, psychoanalysts. The Vatican becomes interested in one of Hunter’s projects, and this allows St. Aubyn to introduce Father Guido, one of the great comic bit players in recent fiction.
Father Guido is sent to one of Hunter’s houses to try to cut a deal with him. He’s an ascetic who is slowly, and hilariously, seduced by Epicureanism. He takes ecstasy. He drinks too many espresso martinis because he thinks they’re iced coffee. He stays up all night to be enchanted by the rising sun. He blossoms.
He’s so well-conceived that he rivals what might be my favorite minor character in fiction: Mary Anne, the sarcastic daughter of the hard-nosed Marine fighter pilot in Pat Conroy’s “The Great Santini.” When her father makes her cry during a car trip, Mary Anne catches her tears in a spoon and flicks them at the back of his shaved head.
“Double Blind” is always interesting because St. Aubyn is exacting. He takes all of this book’s topics seriously; he distills them and gives them all a good shake. There is a lot of learning here, casually deployed. If a character decides to collect and dry magic mushrooms, well, you are going to read some pointed, searching writing about psilocybin and its therapeutic uses.
Here he is on neuroscience and my day job: “What part of the brain lights up when the reader first encounters Mr. Darcy and his odious pride? Can literary criticism afford to ignore what is happening to the reader’s amygdala when Elizabeth Bennet rejects his first proposal? It is a truth universally acknowledged that any topic in search of a reputation for seriousness must be in want of neuroimaging.”
St. Aubyn catches the malaise, and the dread, that his mostly altruistic characters feel about the state of the planet. Previous generations worried about nuclear war. Now, Francis thinks, “there was clearly no need for a war to lay waste to the biosphere; all that was needed was business as usual.”
St. Aubyn zings our pathetic attempts to live more aware lives. “In Francis’s experience, ecological angst was in fact almost universal, but most people found it hard to know what to do other than eat and drink around the clock in a conscientious drive to fill as many recycling bags as possible.”
A bit of the cruel, pitilessly observant quality of the Melrose novels is absent here. And there are moments when “Double Blind” briefly stalls. Some of the dialogue is too expository. New characters are introduced at such a rate, you fear it all will unravel into a book of short stories. But the novel works on its own terms. Some of its time-shuffling is intricate and impressive, in a one step up and two steps back sort of way.
McEwan, of course, isn’t the only novelist unafraid of serious thinking about technology and science. A.S. Byatt, Richard Powers, Rivka Galchen, Martin Amis, Barbara Kingsolver and the playwrights Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn are among the others.
With “Double Blind,” St. Aubyn joins their company. He’s a hardheaded writer, but one who senses wonder in a way that calls to mind W.H. Auden’s comment: “When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes.”