Thursday, April 15

Edward St Aubyn’s Double Blind Review: In Search of Knowledge | Edward St Aubyn


TO The double-blind research study is one in which both the researchers and the participants do not know: since no one knows who is receiving the drugs and who the placebos, there is less risk that the result will be skewed by prior knowledge. In an ideal world, the double-blind principle also holds true for fiction: every novel is a thought experiment with an unpredictable outcome. The difficulty, a double bind rather than a double blind, is that prior knowledge always plays a role: the novelist knows what readers are expecting, and the blurb and dust jacket tell them what to expect.

What defined the Edward St Aubyn quintet of Patrick Melrose novels was their bitter comedy and sadistic wit, and although his two subsequent novels (one satire on literary awards, the other a reworking of King Lear) were attempts to alter the template, their tone remained the same. Double blind It opens into unfamiliar territory, as a serious and unworldly young botanist named Francis wanders a country estate, Howorth, where he lives off-grid and is employed as part of a wild project. Seemingly purged of irony, the tone is more DH Lawrence than Evelyn Waugh and almost ecstatic in her pantheism (“He felt the life around him and the life within him flowing into each other”). Francis’s pure mindset even extends to his drug use, as magic mushrooms are his hallucinogen of choice: “How could pharmaceutical companies, playing games for the past decades, hope to compete with the mushroom expertise?” Where Patrick Melrose’s trauma was child abuse and neglect, for Francis it is planet abuse and neglect, for which a new interconnection with nature is the only cure.

You are not the only one looking to build a happy world. There’s his girlfriend Olivia, a biologist about to publish her first book, and his best friend Lucy, who has just returned to the UK to run Digitas, the company founded by a rapacious venture capitalist named Hunter, who has also cornered his friends. companions. Saul, a Princeton alumnus, now a professor of chemical engineering, artificial intelligence, and the realization of human potential. Whether for noble, careerist or mercenary motives, they are all committed to the advancement of human knowledge, as are Olivia’s adoptive parents, who are psychoanalysts.

The connections don’t end there. An opponent of genetic fundamentalism, Olivia is exasperated that so much effort and money has been wasted in the search for “lost heritability” and if, for example, there is a “candidate gene” for schizophrenia. As it happens, his father’s last patient, Martin, is a schizophrenic named Sebastian, who like Olivia was adopted and who Martin comes to believe is probably his brother. The reader also suspects this, since they share their names with two characters coupled in Twelfth night. And is it just coincidence, or a conscious literary reference, that the neurosurgeon treating Lucy, when diagnosed with a brain tumor, is named McEwan (a neurosurgeon who has been the central figure in Ian McEwan’s novel? Saturday)?

Connections and coincidences drive the plot of Double blind and heredity is a recurring motif. But it is the connection (or lack of connection) between different scientific disciplines – and the “explanatory gap” between experiment and experience – that worries the cast of talking heads. The entrepreneur Hunter wants science to be a pyramid, with a unified view of the world. Saul tells him that it is impossible, that science is an archipelago of specialties without intermediate bridges: “Nothing they discover at CERN is going to shed light on EO Wilson’s fundamental account of life in an ant colony, and much least the other way around. ” The two have to get high together to make the prospect of creating “one super-mind” of top scientists seem achievable.

With his addictions, risk taking, and manic energy, Hunter is the closest the novel gets to featuring a Patrick Melrose figure, someone so fiercely driven and screwed up as to master the proceedings. In one passage, he recalls an episode from childhood, when in an effort to resolve a paradox similar to Zeno’s: how could someone sit in the back seat of a car traveling 90 miles per hour and still remain motionless? – He forced his parents to stop on the shoulder of a highway as he paced back and forth alongside rushing traffic. Three decades later, despite his extravagant drug use and the casualties that followed (“he felt as if a mobster had thrown him from a helicopter into a rat-infested landfill, amid shards of broken porcelain and twisted metal, only padded by debris illegal hospitals and bulky diapers ”), he is still intellectually curious: part of a super-wealthy enclave, but with ties to scientists working in academia, with its“ oppressive sociology of funding, peer review, publishing and profit ”.

St Aubyn is bold in writing a novel that deals with both science and a lot science: physics, genetics, epigenetics, botany, soil science, quantum mechanics, psychiatry, microbiology, neuroscience, immunotherapy, and theory of evolution (also theology, if you count). “Science is mostly common sense with a lot of unusual words on its heels,” suggests one character, but St Aubyn allows the unusual words to stick: “the level of resolution of these computational artifacts depended on the voxels”; “In the extreme case of the 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, there were 180 clinical associations.” Science is not smuggled in through excerpts from scholarly articles; is there in the mindset of the characters (“I was hearing interesting things about improved delivery systems for the health benefits of infrared light on mitochondrial cells”) or how they talk: “‘We call it personal gap-closing therapy haptic, or PHGCT, ‘Hunter said wisely. “

Divided into three parts, and moving between Sussex, London, California and the south of France, the novel is not without narrative momentum. And as it unfolds, the tone returns to the caustic satire of the Melrose novels. But too many passages consist of characters cataloging what they know or hope to profit from. It is only Francis who gets his hands dirty and dedicates himself to identifying species and collecting soil samples in such a dreamlike state (highlighted in the text by the absence of Sebaldian paragraphs) that one begins to wonder how efficient it can be.

His occupation of the high moral ground is finally put to the test when a goddess ex machina appears in the form of Hope, a polyamorous Californian with an “eerily flexible” body, immense wealth (“My family made a fortune in pretzels and I’m laundering money with philanthropy”), and a desire to pierce Francis’s “ethical armor “”. What she sees in him is a mystery, but what he is offering – not just his body, but the opportunity to make a difference in the Amazon – is deeply tempting, even if it means abandoning Olivia, now heavily pregnant.

The temptation takes place at a London party, the kind of setting we associate with St Aubyn, when he gathers all of his characters and pit them against each other. Before there is an equally elegant party, as if you can’t escape your comfort zone. It is not for lack of effort and you cannot be blamed for struggling with issues that clearly concern you; ideas matter and so does the novel of ideas. If only the characters weren’t so cerebral and the prose wasn’t so full of data. When you feel grateful for phrases like “Olivia was cutting the vegetables” or “Lucy lay down on the couch,” you realize that the experiment has not worked.

Double Blind is a Harvill post (£ 18.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.

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