If you can see the end coming from a long way off, do you rush toward it or head in the opposite direction? Therein lies a question to be wrestled with—and so St. Aubyn (On the Edge, 2014, etc.) does.
Charlie Fairburn, the screenwriter of such immortal flicks as Aliens with a Human Heart (“perhaps you were one of the fifty-three million people who paid to see it”), has six months to live. Does he head out to sail around the world, climb great peaks, see the most important museums in the most beautiful cities? Nope. Now that he’s put aside the possibility of killing himself for a minute or two, Charlie nurses ambitions that are somewhat less involved: he decides he’s going to write the novel he dreamed about when he was young, explore the ideas that captivated him in college. Never mind that his agent will go ballistic: there are ways of working around Arnie Cornfield, whose name and manner are clichés as much as are his words, even if St. Aubyn doesn’t quite have American English, and especially Hollywood American English, down. (“The audience have gotta leave the movie with a smile on their faces,” he writes, Britishly.) Prozac and potage in tummy, Charlie sets to work, penning a yarn that reeks of Waiting for Godot and undergraduate courses in the nature of consciousness and suchlike things: “She hardly recognized the argumentative intellectual she had driven to psychedelic insanity in the Utah desert five years ago, the man who declared the ‘scandal’ of pure Being, and ‘announced the death of Nature.’ ” Charlie’s slim novel is and will always be an acquired taste, but it makes a nice distraction while he’s waiting for the end. But did someone say deus ex machina? St. Aubyn turns in a curious confection, well-crafted as always but rather insubstantial for all its philosophical explorations; it’s certainly more cheerful than his Melrose novels (At Last, 2012, etc.), but even though it’s still brimming with mordant humor and venom (and, for that matter, plenty of inside jokes to please faithful readers), it seems a detour from the weightier, psychologically richer stuff of old.
Though with plenty of good moments, this ranks as lesser work by an author who’s done much better.