“No, he mustn't think about it, or indeed about anything, and especially not about heroin, because heroin was the one thing that really worked, the only thing that stopped him scampering around in a hamster's wheel of unanswerable questions. Heroin was the cavalry. Heroin was the missing chair leg, made with such precision that it matched every splinter of the break. Heroin landed purring at the base of his skull, and wrapped itself darkly around his nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favourite cushion. It was as soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon, or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm.”— Edward St. Aubyn, Bad News (1992)
This weekend, Showtime kicks off its five-part Patrick Melrose. If the cable TV adaptation is anything like the quintet by English novelist Edward St. Aubyn, it should be spiked with all kinds of irony. Part of the challenge for its creative team will simply lie in providing a visual equivalent of the kind of virtuosic prose in the passage above.
Those sentences should, by all rights, fail. In the old days, when The New Yorker used to fill up spaces at the end of articles with picked-up filler, some wag might have put the sentences under its “Block That Metaphor!” department. They seemingly violate one of the cardinal rules repeatedly propounded to aspiring authors: Find one metaphor or symbol and stick to that rather than muck it up with multiple ones.
St. Aubyn will have none of that, comparing heroin to seven different concrete items. But it doesn’t feel like the kind of mistake that you and I might commit if we tried this at home. After all, the mind of a heroin addict is inherently unstable anyway; St. Aubyn only captures that reality.
Even from this isolated paragraph in the second novel of the Patrick Melrose sequence, we sense another difficulty in adapting this fiction to the small screen: the nature of self-medication. Sexual abuse in childhood by Patrick’s aristocratic father leads his grown-up son to avoid the “unanswerable questions” posed by this horror. Heroin constitutes the phantom replacement for something “missing” in his life: robbed innocence.
Picking up the ashes of his now-deceased father in New York sends Patrick on a downward spiral of drug-induced self-loathing and misbehavior, as in this section:
The four Valiums he had stolen from Kay had helped him face breakfast, but now he could feel the onset of withdrawal, like a litter of drowning kittens in the sack of his stomach.
For all its brilliance, the tone of this novel sequence (based, as St. Aubyn acknowledged in this interview with The Guardian 12 years ago, at least partly on his own cycle of abuse and recovery) is pitch-black—one reason why I stopped after the second in the series. But I hope to return to it at some point in the not-so-distant future, just as (since I do not get Showtime) I want to see how Benedict Cumberbatch (shown in the image accompanying this post) takes on the author’s witty but self-destructive protagonist when the series makes it to DVD.