Some books grab you with unusual characters doing remarkable things in extreme situations; others, by revealing just how bizarre ordinary lives are. Edward St Aubyn’s 2006 novel Mother’s Milk is a fine example of the latter.
Though narrated from multiple perspectives, the main story revolves around 40-something English lawyer Patrick Melrose’s struggles to be both a father and a son within a passionless marriage. Mundane as that may sound, St Aubyn wrings a huge amount of humour, and pathos, from this dilemma.
The chapter in which Patrick confronts his growing alcohol consumption reveals in a nutshell what’s so good about this novel. Marooned on a US vacation among relatives he detests, our hero decides to take the edge off with an afternoon nip:
"He doesn’t need outlandish characters and situations to command our interest"Patrick walked over to the drinks tray and, so as not to leave a dirty glass, drank several gulps of bourbon from a bottle of Maker’s Mark. He sank back into an armchair and stared out of the window. The impenetrable New England countryside looked pretty enough, but was in fact packed with more dangers than a Cambodian swamp.
Specifically, Patrick is thinking of Lyme disease, but his sense of dread goes much further.
To his horror, he discovers he has made a conspicuous dent in the bottle. Inebriated logic dictates that the only solution is to procure a replacement before his wife and relatives register his anti-social drinking. There’s just one flaw in the plan:He would, of course, have to make convincing inroads into the new bottle so that it resembled the old bottle before he had almost finished it. Practically anything was less complicated than being a successful alcoholic. Bombing Third World countries – now there was an occupation for a man of leisure.
So Patrick grabs the keys and sets off for the nearby liquor store.
To be on the safe side, he buys three bottles before heading to a café for a coffee in a vain attempt to sober up a bit.
There he is confronted with the American antithesis to his current foul mood in the form of a friendly server:Old enough to remember the arrival of ‘Have a nice day’, Patrick could only look with alarm on the hyperinflation of ‘Have a great one’. Where would this Weimar of bullying cheerfulness end? ‘You have a profound and meaningful day now’, he simpered under his breath as he tottered across the room with his giant mug.
True, it’s a well-worn set piece, but a good writer can hardly go wrong with the educated-Brit-in-American-cultural-wilderness scenario.
Yet there’s more going on here. In his own way, Patrick is searching for meaning, and by the end of the chapter he finds it in a way that is as low-key as it is both surprising and plausible.
And that’s St Aubyn’s great strength. He doesn’t need outlandish characters and situations to command our interest.
For St Aubyn, common human reality and our regularly absurd and absurdly regular mechanisms for trying to cope with it are more than surreal enough.