Edward St. Aubyn’s 1998 novel rather recently got its U.S. release. I bought this book in Powell’s last year and just now got around to it. I have not read his much more well-known Patrick Melrose novels, but after reading On the Edge, I intend to.
This book is a very British lampooning of the excesses of the American New Age, the ruthlessly capitalistic California world of gurus, the fetishization of Native American spirituality, and so forth. Not to say that St. Aubyn is picking on the rich-idiot hippies exclusively -everyone and everything that shows up in this book will have some kind of clever cutting pointed at it if it sticks around long enough. And there are so, so many characters -it takes most of the first half of the book just to introduce everyone… second generation seekers, erotically obsessed beta-male investment bankers, French linguistic philosophers having bad peyote trips, the idle rich and their attendant gurus.
While I would have been more than satisfied with the book without this particular virtue, I was seriously impressed by the way it walked the line of savage mockery and genuine compassion. These new-age seekers aren’t all bad, and the things they have been hurt by are real, and their pain is real. Even challenging characters are often presented to the reader in painfully objective truth, but in such a way as to explain their actions as a coming from their own unique damages. Their dysfunction isn’t excused, but it’s contextualized in such a way as to present them as more than a two dimensional cut-out asshole. This is the first book I’ve ever read that reconciles such hilariously dark and sardonic observations of it’s characters with such a degree of compassion and legitimate happiness. Had you described the workings of this novel to me, I would have been incredibly dubious, but St. Aubyn manages to avoid the saccharine and the banal while still conveying a sense of peace and happiness among broken people working within a bullshit ideology. Damn.
Recommendation: Read it! This is a fantastic book and I can recommend it unreservedly.