The brainy, hyper-articulate, and almost agonizingly self-conscious characters who populate Edward St. Aubyn’s new novel, Double Blind, tend to blurt out stuff like this: “The exact nature of the correlation between electrochemical activity in the brain and the experience of being conscious is entirely obscure, and since everything we know depends on being conscious, the description we give of reality, however coherent it seems, hangs over an abyss.”
The abyss in question is no doubt extremely real, as any scientist, philosopher, novelist, or overstimulated sophomore at Amherst can tell you. In this case, the person pondering it—a young professor at the California Institute of Technology—happens to be in the middle of an epic cocaine-inhaling session, making his probings as urgent as they are comical.
Which is to say that St. Aubyn—the author of the lauded Patrick Melrose novels, a five-volume, semi-autobiographical exploration of the stressed-out British upper crust—has a way of dealing with heavyweight themes with bantam agility. Double Blind doesn’t slug or slog. It jabs and dances and dazzles as it manages the neat trick of turning such weighty topics as neuroscience, ecology, psychoanalysis, theology, oncology, and genetics into a sparkling entertainment that challenges as it delights.
An Altman-esque Cast
The Patrick Melrose novels, which were made into a popular TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch, drilled deep into the psyche of one indelible character, an aristocratic layabout coping with the twin debilitations of addiction and childhood sex abuse.
In Double Blind, whose title refers to the methodology used in clinical trials, St. Aubyn spins out an Altman-esque cast. It includes Francis, the millennial naturalist-in-residence at Howorth, a rewilded Sussex estate whose hills and dales have been transformed into primeval English savannah—a prehistoric Albion for the Instagram age. (Howorth is likely based on the real-life Knepp Castle.) Francis’s new girlfriend, Olivia, is the biologist daughter of two psychoanalysts; her best friend is Lucy, a scientist who, unlike Olivia, has spurned high-minded academia for a high-earning role at Digitas, the scientific money-minting operation founded by the renegade hedge-funder Hunter Sterling.
Double Blind doesn’t slug or slog. It jabs and dances and dazzles as it manages the neat trick of turning weighty topics into a sparkling entertainment.
If Howorth is a 21st-century Eden, and Francis and Olivia its Adam and Eve, then Hunter enters the picture like a serpent, if not Lucifer himself: he’s a megalomaniacal, Elon Musk–like entrepreneur who is hell-bent on milking scientific and technological inquiry for millions of dollars, and he leaves a noxious stream of terror, envy, awe, and incredulity in his wake. His appetite for illicit drugs is Falstaffian. (The above-quoted bingeing professor is one of his hires.) Lucy’s opinion of Hunter is concise: “What a wanker.” Inevitably, they fall in love.
What ensues, at least thematically, is a back-and-forth between intellectual glory and worldly attainment, shot through with increasingly high stakes. Olivia discovers she’s pregnant, precipitously amping the pressure on her nascent romance with Francis. We learn that Olivia is an adopted twin whose long-lost brother’s whereabouts are unknown—just as a disturbed and potentially dangerous schizophrenic named Sebastian begins seeing her father. Could this Sebastian, a human grenade about to go off, be the mystery twin? Speaking of time bombs, Lucy, after suffering a series of seizures, is found to have a brain tumor.
The human brain, after all, is the true milieu of Double Blind, despite the fact that the action ranges from London to California to New York to Cap d’Antibes, where Hunter hires Kraftwerk to perform at a blowout for Digitas. (In the novel’s most uproarious moment, one party attendee, the Franciscan abbot Father Guido, surrenders to the robotic allure of Krautrock. A walloping dose of Ecstasy might have had something to do with it.)
Cerebral gymnastics—cogitations about the big bang, epistemology, scientific positivism, and the nature of consciousness—abound. In this, St. Aubyn can achieve puckish insights that approach real beauty, as when he stares directly at the mystery of creation: “One bit of deadness haphazardly acquired the Full House of life, and then only a few million hands later, The Royal Flush of consciousness.”
On nearly every page, there are references to neutrinos, leptons, the nucleus accumbens, Occam’s razor—a rolling catalogue of recondite concepts and terminology with an underlying message of “Can you keep up?” Similarly, the minds of these science-saturated men and women operate at warp speed, often leaving their hearts in the dust.
Lucy’s opinion of Hunter is concise: “What a wanker.” Inevitably, they fall in love.
Double Blind is itself a kind of rewilding project in which big, untamed ideas are invited to re-populate the literary eco-system. It allows St. Aubyn to map a peculiar 21st-century sensibility, one that melds the earnestness of an M.I.T. faculty lounge, the nerdy jollity of a tech-start-up Ping-Pong room, and the well-funded hedonism of Annabel’s.
And yet the author is no mere cultural anthropologist or armchair cosmologist. In this devourable novel, St. Aubyn is a wielder of diamond-sharp sentences that cut to the essences of family and love, friendship and rivalry, ambition and mortality—or, as he writes, of our entirely unscientific, all-too-human “world of incongruous encounters and potential unravelling.”
Mark Rozzo is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL