St Aubyn inhabits the perspective of these characters and many more, packing the book’s jet-set itinerary with momentously everyday incident (cancer, pregnancy) and extravagantly comic set pieces: at one point, a Vatican priest, sent to play hardball with Hunter over a particularly outlandish business deal, instead loses his resolve at a Kraftwerk gig at the entrepreneur’s south of France retreat. The Melrose novels liked to hop around, too, and in some ways St Aubyn is in his comfort zone here ... Yet St Aubyn’s novels seem to run aground whenever their controlling presence isn’t a single character à la Patrick, but an idea – here, the need for humility before unknown unknowns from ecosystems to human unpredictability. If it can be very funny, St Aubyn’s suavely reportorial style also shrinkwraps the emotions of his characters, as if he’s a posh airport novelist ... The increasingly hectic plot ultimately gives you the sense of St Aubyn spinning plates while trying to back his way into an exit. Yet the ending had me anxiously double-checking my proof against the finished copy; expectations are only another thing St Aubyn is playing with here.
Edward St Aubyn is the literary equivalent of a kitmurvy. Except he isn’t on his second novel: he’s on his tenth, and he still can’t seem to hit the ball. But he’s been swanning around the course for so long now that readers assume he must be good, mustn’t he? And besides, he’s got all the swanky kit ... You’ll just have to imagine the overwriting and the similes, but trust me, they are legion ... That said, St Aubyn himself doesn’t seem to care much about plot. What he is really here to do is to impart, at length, his opinions on rewilding, schizophrenia and the importance of a holistic approach to treating brain tumours. I have no stake in any of the arguments he so one-sidedly propounds. But I do know that they don’t belong in a novel, passed off as the views of his characters ... As far as technique goes, St Aubyn is like someone who doesn’t take a shopping basket because he just needs a pint of milk – then keeps adding more things until he’s dropping stuff all over the place. Storylines and characters are introduced at unwieldy length, only to disappear for half the novel before cursorily resurfacing when the author suddenly appears to remember them. Narration mostly takes place inside someone’s head while they go for a walk or look out a car window. Action is delivered as stultifying recollection. None of the characters comes to life.Nothing in this novel rings true ... Nothing – except for one single, heartbreaking storyline: the schizophrenic Sebastian’s sessions with Martin. Martin refuses to dismiss Sebastian’s paranoid babble as nonsense, listening carefully for oblique, symbolic meaning. The trust that tentatively builds between them is beautifully observed.
Double Blind is an ambitious novel of big ideas about genetic determinism, heritability, the usefulness of psychotherapy, the effects of climate change and the role of technology in neuroscience. Then there are the old favourites: the allure of great wealth, glamorous locations and mind-altering Class A drugs, all of which continue to enthral St Aubyn ... There are more threads and characters in an increasingly unsatisfactory story, including a pompous cardinal, a naive Franciscan monk and a bleakly deterministic oncologist, who are further foils for St Aubyn’s big ideas ... His sharp ear for dialogue and his observation of people’s behaviour hover between funny, disdainful and downright sneering - he always was a snob - while his evocation of smoking heroin is nothing less than a full-on seduction ... His prose can be mesmerising at times, but not when his characters veer into rambling interior monologues about consciousness and the creation of the universe. That’s just showing off - and the ending is a washout. The problem remains that in Melrose, St Aubyn succeeded in transforming his own traumatic life experience into something extraordinarily and powerfully convincing, and it may be, quite simply, that he is incapable of doing that with the lives of anyone else but himself.
St Aubyn’s new novel, Double Blind , a non-Melrose novel, fits the established pattern: it is a turkey, a synthetic gobbler so thickly stuffed with St Aubyn’s previous concerns — childhood trauma, psychotherapy — that there’s no room left for the reader ... The primary problem with Double Blind is that it forgets to be a novel, with characters and story, and devolves into essayistic digressions on ecology, genomics, capitalism and science. The chapters flip between characters, but they all think like St Aubyn, with a quality of hyperarticulate fretting, and there’s a maddening lack of focus: one plot strand, where a character is diagnosed with a brain tumour, threatens to develop interest, but fizzles out too ... This being an Edward St Aubyn novel, the pill is sweetened with good jokes ... And there’s no getting away from those rambling screeds on medicine and biology, reminding us that science doesn’t know everything: that there is no genetic component to most illnesses, say. But it veers towards a lip-smacking insistence that science knows nothing, which is an odd angle to take as we vaccinate our way out of the greatest health crisis of the past 100 years.
... a novel that throws its reader in at the deep end, where that end is made of 'streaks of bacteria' and 'vigorous mycorrhizal networks' that would take a biology degree (or a browser) to decipher. As is often the case, though, it’s worth it once you’re in. Double Blind is one of those rare books that does everything the blurb claims it will do. Humorous, philosophical, gripping and – yes – scientific in turn, this is a novel about finding charm and literary flair in the most unexpected of places ... This ever-changing tone is justified in its more self-reflexive moments ... This is, of course, still very much a novel, and a readable one too ... There's also that slightly irritating tendency of the modern novelist to give an in-depth commentary on business dealings and financial transactions – a mark of realist authenticity which instead feels like having to respond to an email while you’re in the middle of a TV series ... Above all, though, St Aubyn is an excellent chronicler of afflicted emotions. Submitting his characters to the extremes of experience (birth, mental illness, death), the author captures the musings and passions of his impressively neurodiverse set of protagonists with a skill founded on the clever use of free indirect discourse and some thorough psychoanalytical research. All novelists are to some extent amateur psychoanalysts. Certain passages in Double Blind, however, make us think that psychoanalysts might also make for proficient novelists.
There are a lot of big ideas in the mix, from neuroscience to rewilding, to empiricism; there are those St Aubyn standards, psychoanalysis and recreational drug use; and there’s page upon page of research and exposition stuffed rather carelessly into the mouths and minds of a large cast of characters. All this is leavened with the odd comic set-piece, sparkling passage of dialogue or shaft of empathetic insight to remind you that St Aubyn is a writer who can — and should — do so much more with this set of ideas ... promising but ultimately unresolved plot points ... it seems certain that St Aubyn has planned some kind of spectacular denouement to pull all the strands of this chaotic novel together. But, instead, it all just . . . stops ... Reading Double Blind is a frustrating experience. It contains some genuinely important ideas that St Aubyn might have gone to town on, had they been thinned out and focused on, instead of merely gestured towards. There are also some promising allusions that are never actually made good. Fragments of memoir seep in, one suspects, as Hunter recalls his schooldays at Westminster in a late set of passages that add nothing to the development of the plot ... Yet the dialogue between Lucy and Olivia — the jokes they share and the way they use them to navigate difficult subjects — feels absolutely true, as does much of the psychological nuance of Olivia’s father’s consulting room; had St Aubyn been more interested in creating believable characters with real depth, he clearly could have ... After connecting so richly with the depths in his semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels, it’s as though St Aubyn no longer wishes to use them to imagine strenuously. Unfortunately, thinking quite hard is never going to produce the same effect ... doesn’t take itself seriously enough to be a novel of ideas, but it’s nowhere near limber enough to be a literary farce. Instead, it feels like a sprawling first draft, following which the writer would normally go back and remove all the plot strands that are surplus to requirements, integrate or banish any swaths of regurgitated research, decide on a central argument, even up the tone so that, in this case, the reader knows whether they’re in a satire, an Iris Murdoch tribute or a roman-à-clef, and give it an ending. Why this hasn’t happened is a mystery — and a great shame.
It’s bold of St Aubyn to write a novel that’s so much about science and about so much science ... The science isn’t smuggled in by way of extracts from learned papers; it’s there in the mindset of the characters or how they speak ... Divided into three parts, and moving between Sussex, London, California and the south of France, the novel isn’t lacking in narrative momentum. And as it unfolds, the tone shifts back towards the caustic satire of the Melrose novels. But too many passages consist of characters cataloguing what they know or hope to profit from. It’s only Francis who gets his hands dirty ... The temptation takes place at a London party, the kind of set piece we associate with St Aubyn, when he brings all his characters together and plays them off against each other. There’s a similarly swanky party earlier, as if he can’t get away from his comfort zone. It’s not through lack of effort and he can’t be blamed for wrestling with issues he clearly cares about; ideas matter and so does the novel of ideas. If only the characters weren’t so cerebral and the prose wasn’t so crammed with data. When you find yourself feeling grateful for phrases such as 'Olivia was chopping the vegetables' or 'Lucy lay on the sofa' you realise the experiment hasn’t come off.
This is a novel of ideas—more specifically, the idea that somehow the world can be saved, whether through rewilding a patch of English forest or employing virtual reality to battle schizophrenia. Everyone involved represents an aspect of mind ... More humorous but just as intellectually inclined as Richard Powers and David Mitchell, among other contemporaries, St. Aubyn explores human foibles even as he brilliantly takes up headier issues of the human brain in sickness and in health. A thought-provoking, smartly told story that brings philosophy, medicine, and neuroscience into boardroom and bedroom.