This work is painful, thought provoking, often wonderfully written, and very funny. The plot is the life the protagonist. On the surface it is his struggle with various addictions, to find the capacity for love, and to be a better parent than his parents were. More inwardly is his struggle with himself, not in the sense of his self as an opponent but in the sense that you might struggle to contain and transport things escaping from a damp, torn, shopping bag.
It has five parts published variously separately and together.
NEVER MIND, recounts a single day at Patrick's parent’s estate in France. Several characters are fully drawn as they work their way toward an evening dinner party. Flashbacks portray how Patrick’s parents married, and inform us about their upbringing, Patrick’s vicious father, David Melrose, and his relations with his important friend Nicholas. Bright and imaginative, five-year-old Patrick struggles to endure the searing cruelty of his father and the detachment of his mother drained of empathy by resignation. His father rapes him, but the party goes on.
BAD NEWS is a sort of combination of William Boroughs and Oscar Wild.
It recounts one day in New York where Patrick, 22, has gone to pick up the ashes of his newly dead father. Ensconced in the St. Regis money flows out of his credit card like water. Patrick is addicted to heroin in partnership with several other drugs. He spends much of his time trying to score, and much of the rest in drifting in and out of vivid hallucinations. He has lived in New York and stumbles from one social situation that begins in obligation and ends in flight to another including both poor dealers and rich socialites. He skirts an overdose. Wonderful writing
SOME HOPE Patrick has rehabbed off stage from his addiction to hard drugs but drinks too much. He has become a barrister, with little attention by the author to his career, training, or work. The novel recounts the run up to a weekend house party, a little like those in various society novels such as Edith Wharton and the party itself. Before the party he takes a step by telling his friend Tony what his father had done to him. People feel good and bad, but mostly catty about who is going to bed with whom. The English upper crust sucks up to Princess Margaret (The Queen’s sister) who is vain, arrogant, and shallow.
MOTHER'S MILK Patrick is married. There is no explicit account of how they married or why he or his wife choose one another, but, because these characters are fully drawn, we understand. The novel begins from the point of view of his son Robert at the moment of his birth. In a way this paragraph sums up the series.
He was an inconsolable wreck. He couldn't live with so much doubt and so much intensity. He vomited colostrum over his mother and then in the hazy moment of emptiness that followed he caught sight of the curtains bulging with light. They held his attention. That's how it worked here. They fascinated you with things to make you forget about the separation.
His younger brother, born later, is equally precocious, but more emotionally than intellectually.
MOTHERS MILK is in the painful tradition of heirs struggling over an inheritance. Patrick's mother has had a stroke and is miserable and semi-articulate. A new-age guru is trying to con her estate. Patrick at once hates his mother, wants to respect her autonomy, and hates the con man. In the generation below Patrick we meet and see the world through his young sons. At his own level his wife has emotionally and physically deserted him in her desperate desire to be more real for her children than her mother was for her, and Patrick begins an affair with an old girlfriend. His mother asks him to kill her.
AT LAST begins with Patrick rehabbing from alcohol, leads up to and culminates in his mother’s funeral. Patrick has a moment of self-control when he does not slip off to shack up with a self-destructive woman in his rehab group. As friends, relatives and foes trickle in to pay their final respects to his mother, the last figure in his father’s generation, Nicholas, dies. In the end Patrick has a twinge of productive self-regard and decides to dine with his ex-wife and his children.
The characters particularly of the protagonist, but also other major characters: his father, his mother, his wife, his two young children, are widely and deeply, inwardly and outwardly richly portrayed. Several major secondary characters including particularly his friend Tony and his father's friend Nicholas, the philosopher Victor Moore and his wife Anne and others are fully explored characters although not inwardly portrayed.
It is also a society novel; the major characters are very well-connected. Their money comes from US capitalists as in Wharton’s The Buccaneers and Patrick’s aunt chas up her perennial project of writing a memoir, which she declares will be better than those things like Henry James and Wharton because it is true.
It is also a novel about how the adult arises from his or her parenting. The theme of Patrick's life is a struggle to deal with the extraordinary sadism of his father and the frozen empathy of his mother. Presentation of other characters, most of all his wife, dwell on how their parents have shaped them and their struggles to deal with it. Finally, we see in action Patrick and his wife as they deliberately or inadvertently shape their children.
It is novel which takes childhood more seriously and explores it more ingeniously than almost any I can think of. What Maisie Knew comes to mind, but she is one child and these novels contain full portraits of three very different children. It is written first in from the perspective of Patrick as a child and then from the perspective of his two children, each precociously perceptive in different ways.
The perspective of psychodynamic therapy percolates everywhere. More than anything else it means that people's feelings about things draw their significance from the process of development of that person.
Drawing on the exploration of the perspective of children, Patrick's struggle to contain himself, and on its analytic perspective, this novel is preoccupied with consciousness. So much so that there are not one but two major secondary characters who are professional philosophers writing academic works on consciousness, one in Patrick’s generation and one in his fathers. Consciousness is portrayed as, among other things: the perception of what goes on in a person's own mind, his/her awareness or empathy with what's going on in the mind of another, self, guilt, and as that something that ceases with death.
Partly in the precariousness of consciousness, death informs the novel. The events in the second and last novel are occasioned by the deaths of his father and then his mother. The approaching death of his mother over hangs the events of the third and fourth novel. The implication that Melrose may bet trying to kill himself by his drug use, and consideration of what killing the self means, permeates the second novel.