Two Good Books: Elizabeth Hand’s Available Dark and Edward St. Aubyn’s At Last

In Hand's thriller, we see what Lisbeth Salander would look like in 30 years, if she were tall, blonde and plausible. St. Aubyn's latest further proves that he might be the most underrated novelist writing in English.

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(Lev Grossman writes about books here every Wednesday. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)

The main reason I started this column was so I could write about the books I read that I don’t have space to review in the print magazine.

(Also — with a keen sixth sense that has seen me through five rounds of layoffs — I psychically intuited that management wanted me to get off my ass and do something “for the dot com.”)

I haven’t done much reviewing in the past few weeks, but I’m getting back to it now. Times two.

The regular thing here would be to review two books that are in some way related. But I’m a maverick. Always have been. Just born that way, I guess. So these books have nothing to do with each other than the fact that I like them both.

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First: Available Dark is by Elizabeth Hand. It’s a thriller, which is a genre I especially love anyway. I devour them, bad or good, to the point where it’s a problem. Fortunately this one is very, very good.

Available Dark is a sequel to Hand’s Generation Loss (which is described on the flap as an “underground classic,” and I would concur with that), but you could squeak by without reading it first. The main point of contact between the two books is the heroine, Cass Neary, “a burned-out, aging punk with a dead gaze, a faded tattoo and a raw red scar beside one eye.” She’s a photographer, tall and skinny and tough as a razor strop, physically and financially ravaged by years of booze and drugs, but with her sense of humor still intact. She’s what Lisbeth Salander would look like in 30 years, if she were tall, blonde and plausible.

The plot starts cranking up when a stranger emails Cass out of the blue and flies her to Helsinki. He needs her uniquely talented eye to authenticate some art photos he’s buying. The photos turn out to be creepy masterpieces: images of dead people, in postures based on a scary Nordic folk tale.

If that weren’t creepy enough, people connected to the photos start getting murdered. Cass flees to Iceland, but her past catches up with her – both her recent past, and some ancient history with an old lover (that’s is the “B” plot). Before it’s all over we’ll have learned a lot about neo-paganism and Scandinavian death metal — metal so dark it makes Cass “miss the sunny optimism of the Smiths.”

Available Dark works well as a thriller, but it’s Cass who makes the book extraordinary. It’s rare to find a strong female character – especially a middle-aged one — who likes sex and drinking and drugs and doesn’t feel the need to apologize about it. Eight pages into the book she’s offered some crystal meth. She takes it. Why the hell not? Neither she nor the narrator blinks. There’s nothing coy or exhibitionistic about it, it’s just who she is.

And then there’s her voice. Hand is a funny writer, and not just funny but witty. Most books this dark have major earnestness problems, but Available Dark doesn’t. Looking over one character’s collection of Scandinavian avant-garde music, Cass deadpans: “The guy definitely suffered from Stockhausen Syndrome.” Hand is also a bona fide literary artist working in a genre that doesn’t see a lot of high-quality prose. She goes to town on the stark landscapes of Iceland, frozen and financially depleted, studying them with Cass’s professional eye: “Everything looked grainy and underexposed,” she thinks. “If Reykjavik had been a photographic print, I would have tossed it.” Her gaze isn’t nearly as dead as she thinks it is.

The second book I want to talk about is Edward St. Aubyn’s At Last. I wrote once in this space that I thought St. Aubyn (you say it Saint Aw-bin) might be the most underrated novelist writing in English. Generally when I go for the big statement like that, I wince when I think about it later. But I’m still not wincing. When I read St. Aubyn I’m floored over and over again by the warmth and intelligence and eloquence of his work, the moreso because he traverses landscapes of such extreme emotional bleakness.

St. Aubyn has written six novels, five of which — Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, and now At Last  — center, more or less, on Patrick Melrose, the scion (you kind of have to use that word in this context) of an intermittently aristocratic and decreasingly wealthy English family. His father was a sadist who raped him when he was 5; his mother was too weak and too drunk to intervene. Patrick grows up depressed and desperate, addicted to alcohol and heroin and infidelity and black humor. I’ll spare you more plot summary – Eric Banks has done it very well here.

(That Patrick’s life parallels St. Aubyn’s in many respects is neither here nor there, but it is nonetheless true, according to various interviews he’s given.)

This kind of material can be severely mishandled: poor little rich dude who can’t grow up and lay off the sauce. But St. Aubyn makes from Patrick’s over-privileged life a richly human investigation into the corrosive effects of too much money and too little love. He wrings deep truths out of Patrick, about depression and family and contemporary English life.

St. Aubyn’s books aren’t plotty or crowded with incident, but even I – a confessed narrative addict – tear through them just to get at his gorgeous, golden prose. I can never drink a vodka tonic without thinking of Patrick’s mother Eleanor in Some Hope, on a hot morning in France:

She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath. All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth.

St. Aubyn’s books – including At Last, which is as good as anything he’s ever written – are full of instantly definitive passages like that.

At Last takes place entirely at Patrick’s mother’s funeral and in the memories prompted by it. We’re watching Patrick trying to figure out how to properly mourn his mother, and how to pull himself together and become more than the psychic wreckage of a bad childhood. St. Aubyn is often compared to Evelyn Waugh, for obvious reasons, but the writers I kept thinking of were Virginia Woolf and, oddly enough, the graphic novelist Alison Bechdel: like them, St. Aubyn is utterly fearless when faced with the task of unpacking and anatomizing the inner lives of his characters. No emotion is so subtle and fleeting he can’t convey it, or so terrifying or shameful that he can’t face it.

We spend the book eavesdropping on Patrick’s thoughts and conversations, and those of his fellow mourners. St. Aubyn is nothing if not a realist, but he’s not so exactingly gritty about it that he won’t let his characters amuse us — see for example this exchange between Nancy, Patrick’s aunt, who’s bemoaning the loss of her family’s properties, and family frenemy Nicholas:

“All the lovely things, all the lovely houses,” said Nancy, “where have they all gone?”

“Presumably the houses are where they’ve always been,” said Nicholas, “but they’re being lived in by people who can afford them.”

“But that’s just it, I should be able to afford them!”

“Never use a conditional tense when it comes to money.”

It’s not a fashionable moment to be writing about the one percent, but when you write as well as St. Aubyn does, it doesn’t matter who you’re writing about: you see through the money right into the people who are crushed underneath it. I’ve heard Patrick dismissed as whiny, but I don’t get that from him. Certainly Patrick feels sorry for himself sometimes, and for all I know St. Aubyn does too – he must, to know so much about what self-pity sounds like. But what matters is that St. Aubyn never feels sorry for Patrick.

I read the grandly comprehensive, massively praised social novels of English writers like Alan Hollinghurst and Philip Hensher, and I absolutely appreciate their grandeur and their comprehensiveness; but I learned more about humanity from At Last than I did from those books, and had a better time doing it, too. After years of being under-published in the U.S., St. Aubyn has been taken up by Farrar, Straus Giroux, which is bringing out At Last with great fanfare; Picador is also reissuing the first four books in one volume. With any luck St. Aubyn will finally get his due. Then I can nominate somebody else for most-underrated novelist in English instead.

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