On the Edgeby Edward St. Aubyn
FROM THE MAN BOOKER–SHORTLISTED AUTHOR OF THE PATRICK MELROSE NOVELS
Called "the most brilliant novelist of his generation" (Alan Hollinghurst), Edward St. Aubyn captivated and astonished readers and critics alike with his mesmerizing quintet, the Patrick Melrose novels. Its publication introduced one of the most complex and fascinating protagonists in
FROM THE MAN BOOKER–SHORTLISTED AUTHOR OF THE PATRICK MELROSE NOVELS
Called "the most brilliant novelist of his generation" (Alan Hollinghurst), Edward St. Aubyn captivated and astonished readers and critics alike with his mesmerizing quintet, the Patrick Melrose novels. Its publication introduced one of the most complex and fascinating protagonists in modern fiction.
Now being published for the first time in America, On the Edge is an uproarious and sharply rendered satire of the New Age, which shows St. Aubyn at his finest.
Peter Thorpe is disillusioned with his conventional life as a merchant banker until he meets Sabine, the most enchanting and enigmatic woman he's ever encountered. His desire for her reaches such a pitch that he overturns his whole life, leaving everything behind to follow her into the stronghold of the New Age movement among the stunning peaks and valleys of Big Sur, California. There he meets an eccentric cast of spiritual seekers, joining them in pursuit of that elusive something (happiness?), which he never before dared to imagine possible.
New Agers beware! St. Aubyn’s take on the search for enlightenment as a cure for modern malaise is razor sharp and maniacally clever. The novel focuses on a handful of self-proclaimed spiritual evolvers: Adam, the gay guru who frequently changes credos but consistently champions what he thinks is globally significant; Brooke, the embarrassingly rich, needy guru-subsidizer; Kenneth, the shaman of “Streamism,” who is embarrassingly dependent on Brooke; Peter, the English banker who chucks married life to chase after Sabine, the gender-bending sex goddess, only to fall for restless, slightly guilt-ridden, totally available Crystal; an older couple hoping to rejuvenate their love life; plus other assorted fulfillment seekers and would-be providers. Parallel spiritual journeys begin at a San Francisco dinner party and come together at an Esalen tantric workshop. The joy of reading this novel derives not from the story but the storytelling. Fluent in new age techno-babble, with its echoes of Eastern religions, California lifestyles, and millennial egocentrism, St. Aubyn (who satirized the world of literary prizes earlier this year with Lost for Words) flaunts pitiless humor in scenes such as when Sabine’s alter ego Poly attempts to achieve nirvana. After its exhaustive and exhausting catalogue of lofty aspirations, some readers will resent the novel’s descent into a graphically physical climax; others will root for the divinity seekers to find satisfaction, however temporary and however delusional. (Oct.)
“A scintillating, serious comedy by a brilliant novelist.” Francis Wyndham, The Sunday Telegraph (London)
“An intellectually informed, richly insightful, and vigorously funny take on the modern condition.” The Sunday Times (London)
A breezy, comic novel about New-Age pretensions by an author who has since become renowned for more substantial fiction. Before he received international acclaim with his autobiographical series of Patrick Melrose novels (Mother's Milk, 2005, etc.)—dark, scathingly funny eviscerations of the British upper class—St. Aubyn seemed like a more conventionally comic novelist in this 1998 work, which is receiving belated American publication. It's an engaging satire about people trying to achieve some higher cosmic consciousness while distracted by mundane affairs such as sex and money. "What else was there to do with sex and money except have misunderstandings about them?" says an heiress supporting a writer who doesn't seem to be writing. The most fully fleshed and sympathetic male character, the closest one to a protagonist, is a British banker named Peter, who is even more disillusioned with the course of his life after falling into rapturous lust with and subsequently being forsaken by the libertine Sabine. He doesn't even know her last name, but in this novel it seems that all roads lead to the spiritual Big Sur retreat of Esalen, where Peter falls into a deeply cosmic love with another woman while searching for clues to Sabine and where a dozen or so other characters converge for a tantric workshop that plays out like a British sex farce. The plot involves preop transsexuals, impotence, rock-star aspirations, a campaign to save the whales from AIDS, the potential for group sex with the elderly, and the smugly condescending "anti-guru guru" Adam and his partner, Yves. (Get it?) Much of the New-Age and Esalen context might have seemed dated even when written in the late 1990s, but the novel is really a romantic comedy at heart: "Everybody knew that being ‘in love' was a state of temporary insanity, that's why it was so important to make it last as long as possible." Diverting but minor early work from a major novelist.
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Read an Excerpt
Adam arrived at Brooke’s San Francisco mansion wearing the flame-coloured Nehru jacket Yves had brought back for him from Paris. Most people couldn’t get away with a Nehru jacket, but Adam, in whose veins the lava of India and the phlegm of England combined with an intoxicating hiss, wore his new clothes with indiscreet self-assurance. Adam was on fire with the truth about the future of the human race and it was not a fire he intended to keep to himself.
‘I’m wearing my heart on your sleeve,’ he whispered to Yves in the taxi.
‘And your soul?’ said Yves.
‘Always and everywhere,’ replied Adam. ‘You know I won’t settle for less.’ His eyes clouded with tears. ‘My Shams,’ he murmured.
‘My Rumi,’ answered Yves vaguely.
Adam liked people to have ‘a point’. Either they must be brilliant and spiritually evolved like himself, or embarrassingly rich like Brooke. Simple goodness touched him also, at a distance.
Brooke was in fact so rich that no amount of personal gratification could do more than bail out her sinking ship. The inrush of money was so uncompromising that a few days in bed with a cold would leave her up to her neck in unspent income. The only pump that could save her from drowning was charity, and every morning her secretary brought her a bucket of cheques to sign in the unending effort to keep her afloat.
Brooke treated everyone like a servant, which, given that she had thirty of them already, showed a lack of imagination. Her servants, on the other hand, she treated like family, her own family having thrust her among servants throughout her childhood. Brought up in the reputedly gracious South, her parents were given over entirely to alcohol, horses and other rich people who shared their interests. They had not allowed Brooke’s childish cries or lisping enquiries into the meaning of life to mar the elegance of their home. Instead she had been housed with one of the innumerable black families whose unadorned shacks cowered under the fatwood trees, their woodsmoke hanging in the humid air almost as substantially as the membranes of Spanish moss that dangled down to meet it. Brooke had often reflected that she had probably been better off living with Mammy. The riding parties that roamed the plantation in search of the perfect place to have some ‘special iced tea’, as they jokingly called the gallon of cold bourbon to which a tiny splash of tea, one mint leaf and a slice of lemon were apprehensively added by the cook, never trotted down that particular track which led to Mammy’s, its astonishing orange earth making it look more like a river than a road.
When her father died falling off one of his favourite horses, Brooke had the thrilling experience of being taken to the big house for the funeral party. ‘It’s how he would have wanted to go,’ his friends said, one after another, with a sense of their own gift for the apt phrase, mixed with a certain envy at the spectacle of such a gentlemanly demise. She asked her mother if she could stay in the big house for the night after the funeral.
‘I’m surprised at your asking, Brooke,’ said her mother with genuine outrage. ‘Can you not see that the house is full of your father’s relations?’
Returning to Mammy’s in the car, Brooke had developed, through a clinging ground mist of misery and incomprehension, a revolutionary fury, a suspicion of rich white people that could have borne cross-examination by Malcolm X, and a determination to find meaning beyond the familial horizon ringed by stallions and empty bottles, without heading too far in the direction offered by Mammy’s passion for overeating and fainting in church.
After a psychoanalytic limbo in Manhattan, facing the grey mirror of Dr Bukowski’s silence (‘At least I’m not a Kleinian,’ he had chuckled at their first meeting, but had never lapsed into liveliness again), she headed for the West Coast and its more colourful promises of liberation.
Cured of paying wise men to listen to her, she paid to listen to them instead.
It was then that she met Kenneth Shine, the spiritual teacher, and realized that here at last was the beginning of her real journey.
‘You’ve changed my life,’ she told him that first evening.
‘What hasn’t?’ he asked with a kindly gaze, and the question, which she hardly would have noticed under other circumstances, broke her mind open and in that moment she seemed to see the whole impermanence thing, and how we were all changing and the self was an illusion, and everything – he put it so much better than she could, but the sense of it had stayed with her and kept her going over the last five years, working for the good of the world at the level that really mattered, changing people’s consciousness.
The ‘Human Potential Movement’ was rather a grand phrase, perhaps a little pompous, not to be dropped casually into every sentence, but to her ears it had a noble ring.
‘You’re the Guidobaldo of the Millennium,’ Adam had recently declared. She hadn’t known what to make of that. Adam could be so bitchy sometimes. Only because he was brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, of course, and he saw human potential so clearly that he got impatient with complacency. At the same time he was complacent about his own impatience, and even his nervous breakdowns and his hysterical tears had something arrogant about them, as if they’d been written by Shakespeare and deserved the closest study.
Anyhow, neither Mammy nor Brooke’s teachers at Foxcroft had been too hot on the Renaissance, but Guidobaldo, it turned out, was practically responsible for the whole thing at a financial level. She knew her uses and she was pleased to be useful. ‘Everyone has their place and everyone has their pace,’ as Kenneth liked to say in his usual memorable way. Adam called him the Bumper Sticker. There was definitely a rivalry between the two men, but she loved them both.
Kenneth was working on a synthesis of all world religions and philosophies, which he was going to condense into a form that everybody could understand. ‘Think global, act local,’ was one of his mottoes. He already had a name for his philosophy; the rest would follow. It was called Streamism because of something Heraclitus had said about how you couldn’t step into the same stream twice. It was a new stream each time. At this point Brooke got a bit confused. Were you supposed to go with the flow – Kenneth had a whole Tao thing about going with the flow which tied in beautifully with self-acceptance and all those key psychological concepts – or were you supposed to be the rock in the stream, unimpressed by the fleeting manifestations of Time? He was very good on that too. It was part Buddhism, part Marcus Aurelius, he’d told her. She was learning so much, but for a while she remained puzzled, half the time picturing herself as a rock, the other half blithely shooting the little rapids of the stream.
‘Of course,’ said Kenneth when she had shared her concern. ‘You’ve cut through to the central paradox of Streamism.’
She’d felt quite proud.
‘What is God?’ he’d suddenly asked with that kindly gaze.
She had blinked nervously.
‘The unmoved mover,’ Kenneth whispered. ‘What must we become?’ he thundered.
‘God,’ she guessed wildly.
‘Right!’ He gave her a radiant smile, the sort of smile that her father had never given her, and she felt as if she had been airlifted to the mountaintop.
‘We go with the flow, but we stay still within ourselves, and by doing that we become gods,’ Kenneth claimed, while her head swam with altitude sickness.
‘I’m only telling you part of it, of course, you’ll have to wait for the book.’
And wait she did. In the meantime she was helping Kenneth out. He didn’t want to take an advance from a mainstream publisher. They might cramp his style, and after all his philosophy wasn’t called Mainstreamism, he joked.
Kenneth thought unceasingly about Streamism. It was a concept so pregnant with undivulged glamour that he refused to stoop to the pedantry of recording his reflections. If his mind started to wander while he read Lao-tzu, or studied baseball on TV, he couldn’t help concluding that a wandering mind was the most uninhibited expression of Streamism, and allowing his thoughts to run dimpling all the way.
In the face of such a comprehensive excitement, he forgave himself for taking Brooke’s money and offering her nothing concrete in exchange. (How un-Streamist that would have been, and yet, on the other hand, how Streamist.) He did, however, wince at the memory of his feigned passion for her. It would have been so convenient to find her attractive, but sexual hypocrisy was notoriously difficult for a man to sustain. All the same, he couldn’t help feeling a troubling fondness for her. The rich always thought they were being exploited, and here was Brooke challenging that fear with one cheque after another. It was really very plucky.
‘I’ll be able to pay you back,’ he explained while she wrote another cheque for five thousand dollars. ‘There’ll be the book, and the tapes and a series of pamphlets for people with busy lives, “Streamism and sexuality”, “Streamism in the office”, “Streamism and your children” …’
She was a little worried about Kenneth’s pamphlets, but then not everyone could have the privilege of knowing Kenneth personally. She just didn’t want Streamism to become vulgar.
‘It couldn’t be made any more vulgar than it already is,’ Adam had snapped.
Honestly, those boys, they were so competitive. She must do something to make them better friends. Maybe they could join a men’s group and go to a sweat lodge together. Robert Bly could recommend the best way for them to have a male bonding experience. It was madness for them to fall out, because they really wanted the same thing: to save the world from self-destruction.
Brooke also paid for Adam’s apartment in San Francisco. He made sure that this arrangement didn’t corrupt him by peppering his flattery with sharp remarks, and occasionally changing his phone number to make sure she didn’t imagine she owned him. Hadn’t Joyce had his Miss Weaver? And who would remember Miss Weaver without him? Mantegna had had his Sforzas. Their silly intrigues looked very thin now, but his paintings repaid the compliment of their patronage with the far greater compliment of his immortality. And the monks of South-East Asia who survived on the generosity, the dana, of the local population, properly understood, bestowed a blessing on those who supported them. No, Adam was completely at ease with the situation, but he wasn’t going to allow the fact that Brooke wanted to help him fulfil his God-given purpose to prevent him from gently teasing her now and again.
‘I hope I die before you,’ he had said that morning after she had bored him with a further list of her good works. ‘I want to see heaven before you’ve improved it.’
‘I’ll give a party for you when you arrive,’ said Brooke, for whom ‘networking’ had become an uncontrollable habit.
‘If you’re giving cocktail parties, darling, I’ll know I haven’t arrived,’ he answered.
‘Don’t be mean,’ she said, as she seemed to say more and more often these days.
‘Brooke’s getting very full of herself,’ Adam had said to Yves after he hung up. ‘She’ll start thinking she’s the Divine Mother next.’
‘Ah, non,’ said Yves sulkily, ‘not another one. Je ne crois pas que je pourrais supporter encore une Mère Divine.’
Brooke’s possible future claims to divinity had been set aside by the time Adam and Yves arrived in her drawing room. Adam’s inky unkempt hair flowed down to his flaming jacket which in turn flared over his wide hips and black trousers. Yves, wearing a jacket of the same cut but decorated with swirling sea colours, created a relatively soothing impression. They represented the complementarity of turquoise and orange, the marriage of fire and water, of Yin and Yang, of Rumi and Shams; but only they knew that. To everyone else they looked like a couple of clowns.
Adam, who was deeply suspicious of Kenneth, approached him first. He had recently found out that before his incarnation as a would-be guru, Kenneth had worked for a rock band as ‘ambience director’, the euphemistic title he gave to his role as pimp and drug courier.
‘Hello, Kenneth, what’s our lesson for this evening?’
‘Humility, Adam, and it’s specially for you.’
‘Oh,’ said Adam, looking around the room as if it were an empty landscape. ‘And who’s teaching it?’
‘Life,’ said Kenneth serenely, ‘if you’re open to it.’
‘The Bumper Sticker has spoken,’ said Adam in mock awe.
Yves giggled and accepted a glass of champagne from the black butler.
Brooke was still upstairs when Adam and Yves arrrived. Some rumours that had reached her about her mother’s behaviour (‘Always likes to keep folks waitin’,’ Mammy used to say) had not been detached by the scrubbing brush of Dr Bukowski’s silence, or the laser surgery of Kenneth’s teachings.
She was contemplating all the fascinating people she had invited to dinner, ‘gurus’ as she might have called them five years ago. Now they were just her dearest friends. There were some new faces tonight, new names as well. Her secretary had made a list of them and left it in the bedroom on what Brooke called her ‘emergency desk’, the one she used when she couldn’t get to her study, or office, or library. There was a marvellous environmental campaigner, a fiercely magnetic Irish woman who said we could save the planet by planting bamboo in all the devastated rainforests.
‘It’s quite important, actually,’ she had told Brooke with a patronizing smile. ‘We are talking about the lungs of the planet.’
The lungs of the planet! We were giving lung cancer to Mother Earth. No doubt the chainsaw operators and timber merchants were heavy smokers. The way we treated ourselves and the way we treated our environment all tied in. Some of her Buddhist friends were particularly good on that theme. Gaia was the Greek goddess of the Earth, and Gaya was the name of the village in northern India where Buddha had achieved enlightenment. How about that? It all tied in. Brooke hurtled on in an associative frenzy.
She also had a marine biologist coming tonight who had discovered that whales were suffering from AIDS. New plagues were springing up in a world out of balance. Marburg, Ebola, Sin Nombre – her secretary had written them down; it was the marine biologist’s first time and she had him on her left at dinner – bursting on to the scene from the untamed expansion of human populations. It was like that old Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times.’
Realizing she was late, but unable to move from her dressing table, Brooke ran through the gallery of what had by now become apocalyptic platitudes, almost soothing in their familiarity.
‘Always likes to keep folks waitin’,’ she heard Mammy’s voice say again.
‘Oh God, I’m turning into my mother,’ she screamed with sudden savagery, throwing down her lipstick and then hastily picking it up again. Her face was almost as wrinkled now as her mother’s had been when her father died. Adam had called her a ‘menopausal mystic’ during their most violent squabble. That had almost finished them off, but after a long conversation with Kenneth about the meaning of forgiveness she had given a special dinner for Adam.
‘That man’s like a nuclear winter,’ said Kenneth when he learned who she was forgiving. ‘All he can do is fall out with people. That makes it, eh, even more of a privilege,’ he added soothingly, ‘to have helped reconcile you.’
Brooke unglued herself from the dressing table and, with a last toss of her head, as if the mirror had insulted her in some way that was beneath her attention, headed out of her bedroom grabbing the list of new names. She was worried about the late arrival of her house guest Crystal Bukowski. Yes, she was the daughter of old Dr Bukowski, now dead it turned out, and they had met three weeks ago in New York at a fascinating gathering given by some people very close to the Dalai Lama.
What a coincidence, she would have said in the old days, but now she only used the S words, serendipity and synchronicity. Crystal’s mother, her hostess had told her, had been one of her father’s patients who had become accidentally pregnant and then, realizing that he wasn’t going to leave his family but was prepared to pay her not to ruin his practice, she had joined a series of weird cults, taking little Crystal with her.
Crystal was just emerging from a very difficult romance with a Frenchman and Brooke already felt protective towards her, although there was going to be an ugly gap on Adam’s right if she didn’t turn up soon. Still, Crystal had a kind of honorary familial status due to being Dr Bukowski’s daughter. If not a black servant, he was at least a Jewish employee, most of whose family had been wiped out in concentration camps, and on whom she had showered vast sums of money during seven years of analysis.
They’d had to look long and hard at the pleasure she got from paying for missed sessions. It had enabled her to spend money in two places at the same time; it all tied in with having two homes. Really, he had helped her a lot, but in those days she had been so self-obsessed; now she was working for the world. She didn’t regret the years with Dr Bukowski. ‘You have to have your feet on the ground to touch the sky,’ as Kenneth said.
* * *
Crystal Bukowski was in fact on board a delayed flight from New York and had no chance of making it to Brooke’s dinner. Not that she was going to California to hang out with Brooke, but to attend the Dzogchen meditation retreat at the Esalen Institute.
She knew she was headed for the right place when she started fantasizing about sliding a chainsaw through the thick trunk of her neighbour’s neck. With a face of unfathomable stupidity which could only have emerged from the most deeply inbred valleys of Kentucky, perfected by generations of blood feuds and wood alcohol, with a haircut that had just come out of a Marine shearing shop, and a pair of jeans so tight they offered every hope that he would be the last of his line, this hillbilly from hell had writhed in his seat, scratched his balls and tugged at his trousers from the moment the plane left New York. At other times she might have taken refuge in a pair of headphones and a cool chanting tape, but he nudged her with his elbow each time he had a scratch, and now she was obsessed.
What was her anger telling her? That she was feeling hostile towards men right now? That she wanted to scratch her own genitals? That she was feeling dumb about the way things had turned out with Jean-Paul? That she was guilty about being so restless, about burning up her father’s surprise legacy to continue her mother’s soul-searching migrations? Yes, yes, yes, yes. So her mind was projecting again – left to its own devices that was pretty much all it ever did – but she was so bored with catching herself out, she just wanted to go with the aggression today, give in to the hatred she felt for the Caliban beside her.
Crystal closed her eyes and breathed deeply, concentrating her attention on her hara, her navel chakra.
She tried to quiet the part of her mind that kept flashing little analytic mirrors. It had been bad enough having an absent father who had been an analyst without falling for a French philosopher who was training to become one.
Last month she had persuaded Jean-Paul to take psychedelics with her in the wilderness, figuring he needed a rocket launch to lift him into the dimensions beyond his busy intellect. Psychedelics cut through the analytic tic which was currently wasting her time, and took her into the zone where meaning was immanent, tangible and numinous. Unfortunately the mescalin and the magic mushrooms seemed to have the opposite effect on Jean-Paul.
The worst part was what had happened afterwards. Somewhere below the plane Jean-Paul was galloping across the wastes of a North Dakota reservation pretending to be a Lakoda brave, something even the Lakoda had trouble doing. He was living in one of those Third World rubbish dumps which the Federal government had offered the Native Americans, like a mugger tossing a subway token at his bleeding victim. He had even written to the passport authorities in France to say that he wanted to change his name to Little Elk. They had not complied.
It was no use blaming their guide, Robert, he was just a suburban kid from Sausalito who thought he was the reincarnation of a Hopi elder. In any case he said that the Hopis came ‘originally’ from Tibet, so he had all the options covered.
In the end she blamed herself for giving Jean-Paul the psychedelics. He had been enthusiastic, of course, as an anthropologist. He had read Huxley and Leary and so forth; he’d done a lot of reading in his life, he just hadn’t done much else.
Jean-Paul had even started lecturing her on the value and function of psychedelics in primitive and developed societies, on their way from Moab to Canyonlands in their Cherokee four-wheel drive – no doubt Robert would have hired a Hopi four-wheel drive had there been one, although he had said that he ‘honoured the Cherokee Nation’ when she had made a mild joke to that effect.
With her eyes still closed and her arms pressed to her sides, out of range of Caliban, Crystal reluctantly replayed the movie of her trip with Jean-Paul. She had gone over it before, but like a tongue nagging at a fragment of trapped food, her memory returned again and again to those events in the hope of dislodging the truth of what had happened.
Almost immediately Crystal’s thoughts were interrupted by another violent nudge from her neighbour. Caliban had just had a particularly vigorous tug at his jeans. She opened her eyes angrily and scowled at his apparently unconcerned profile. Part of her was relieved to be interrupted. Perhaps she had made him nudge her.
‘I’m sorry to be so moving in my seat,’ said her neighbour in broken English.
He wasn’t a hillbilly at all, he was a Swede or a German.
‘I have, um, problem with the skin. I come to California for doctors.’
‘Oh, God, I’m sorry,’ said Crystal, as much in apology as sympathy. ‘I hope you get the help you need.’
‘Thank you,’ he smiled. Really, he had very nice eyes, and she seemed to see in them a glint of pained intelligence, showing that he’d picked up what she’d been thinking about him.
What a teaching, thought Crystal, as the plane landed at San Francisco airport. ‘What a teaching,’ she murmured in the baggage-claim area. What an incredible teaching, she mused contentedly in the taxi, nodding her head in gratitude, incredulity and embarrassment.
* * *
Brooke had relaxed a little about her dinner party. Moses was taking the herb tea around, and everyone was evidently having a marvellous time. They were mostly a little drunk or high and agreeing with each other about things they already knew they agreed about, and planning fresh opportunities to discuss saving the world at each other’s seminars, conferences, workshops and performances. Brooke was talking to Dave, the marine biologist. She had just delivered her list of plagues bursting from their ‘natural reservoirs’ – she was very proud of that phrase – on to the human scene. Unfortunately, with so many new names to remember, she had included the Irish environmentalist.
‘Isn’t it dreadful about Ebola, Marburg and O’Hara?’ she had said, shaking her head sadly.
Dave didn’t seem to notice the mistake.
‘There’s a symmetry there,’ he said, looking at her from within the parentheses of his sunbleached blond hair. ‘We have a viral relationship with our habitat and we become the habitat of the viral.’
‘But isn’t that like saying that AIDS is divine retribution?’ said Brooke, who knew it wasn’t but felt like beating up some fundamentalist white trash.
‘Not really,’ said Dave politely. ‘It’s just like saying that what goes around comes around. Karma is not retribution, it’s just the way things are. At another level, the reality we inhabit is a function of the paradigms we use to describe it. Most of those paradigms are way too reductionist.’
‘But isn’t there something real underneath it all?’ said Brooke, fascinated.
‘Sure, there’s the energy which takes the form of matter, light and everything else.’
‘But I don’t want to think of this table as an energy field,’ said Brooke, removing her elbows in mock alarm.
‘Why not?’ said Dave. ‘It’s cool.’
Why not? thought Brooke. She smiled at Dave. Dave smiled at her. She was learning so much.
Adam rose to his feet, tears streaming down his cheeks. Everyone fell silent.
‘The whales have AIDS,’ he sobbed. He had only learned this from Dave half an hour before, speaking across the gap of Crystal’s absence, but he had already appropriated it as his own tragedy. ‘What are we doing to this beautiful planet?’
He paused and made a visible effort to remain calm.
‘The people in this room, gathered here by…’ Part of him wanted to say ‘the Madame Verdurin of the New Age’ but the wine and the fire won over and he said, ‘our Eleanor of Aquitaine…’
Brooke, who had been expecting Guidobaldo, was lost for a moment, but could tell from the smiles that the comparison was flattering. She must get a research assistant to deal with Adam’s conversation, her poor secretary had enough to do already.
‘The people in this room,’ Adam shrieked, ‘are the only people who can save the world from utter destruction. This is the most important gathering that could take place at this moment in history. We are witnessing a new mystical Renaissance that is struggling to be born against terrible odds in the rubble of our dying civilization, and it’s up to us, scholars, poets, scientists, public figures, dharma teachers, to go out there and wake people up.’
And then he started to sing, pushing his thick hair back with the fingertips of one hand, and touching his heart with the palm of the other.
‘O just one word from Shams and I would gladly give my life,’ Adam warbled.
‘His life is before me, and through his
love my heart has become pure, my breast has imbibed every virtue.
One smell of his perfume and I walk light-headed on this path.’
Adam suddenly thrust his hand aside with a gesture of contempt.
‘O cupbearer, enough of your wine, I am drunk on the wine from his cup.’
Moses stood by, unsure whether to offer Adam some herb tea. He’d heard plenty of singing in his day and he felt that Mr Frazer needed lessons, as well as new material.
‘I hope I’m in good voice tonight,’ said Adam, audible over the small patter of applause.
‘Rumi is the supreme guide to our age,’ he continued with a new pedagogic calm. ‘He has a literary genius equal to Shakespeare’s, and a spiritual genius as powerful as Christ’s. He brings us eternal news of perfect being, and of the fire of transfiguring love. And,’ he concluded with a disconcerting rush of colloquialism, ‘he reminds us to get off our fat arses and sing.
“I’m tired of cowards, I want to live with lions,
With Moses, not whining teary people.
I want the ranting of drunkards,
I want to sing like the birds sing,
Not worrying who hears or what they think.”’
Moses, whose loyalty to Miss Brooke was unfathomable, nevertheless drew the line at being propositioned in public, and left the dining room with subdued indignation.
Adam sat down and smiled modestly, but soon resumed the luxury of his new torment.
‘The whales,’ he said to Kathleen O’Hara, like a child whose adored puppy has just been run over and is offering his inconsolable torment to his mother.
‘There,’ said Kathleen, instinctively maternal. What a lovely sensitive man, she thought, so in touch with his feminine side.
‘It’s terrible what we’re doing to the oceans,’ she said. ‘They’re our natural filter systems, the kidneys of the planet.’
Everyone was embarrassed by Adam’s speech. The idea of being the most important gathering in the world, and the excessive responsibility it brought with it, made them anxious to return home. Crystal’s arrival could only act as a small counter-current to the tide of departures. When Moses showed her into the dining room, Adam was talking excitedly to Yves, Brooke and Kathleen about the vividness of his spiritual life. He was feeling charming, as he often did once he had discharged the anguish and hysteria which haunted his nature.
‘Crystal, darling, we missed you over dinner,’ said Brooke.
‘And you missed a wonderful dinner,’ said Adam, getting up.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Crystal to Brooke. ‘By the time I knew the plane was delayed, your number was in the hold with my baggage.’
Brooke introduced her to the other guests.
‘You must have been the empty space on my right,’ said Adam.
‘Form is emptiness and emptiness is form,’ said Crystal in her Indian guru voice. Adam Frazer was a minor celebrity on the alternative scene and she wanted him to think she was interesting. There she was again, she reproached herself, still looking for approval from a powerful man. ‘The two are really one,’ she warbled.
Adam laughed. ‘Not being completely enlightened, I prefer this delightful illusion to the more austere one I had over dinner.’
‘You are tossed on the restless sea of samsara,’ said Crystal, shaking her head sadly. ‘Just turn your mind back to the source,’ she urged him, quoting the great Poonjaji.
‘Adam,’ said Yves, who thought that Adam might be having fun with somebody else, ‘it’s getting late.’
‘Oh, my love, are you tired?’ asked Adam. ‘We’ll go home this instant.’
‘Brooke, it’s been a wonderful evening,’ said Kathleen.
‘Here’s that thing we talked about,’ said Brooke, half-discreetly, giving Kathleen an envelope. ‘For the Foundation.’
‘For the lungs of the planet,’ said Kathleen compulsively.
When the others had left, Brooke took Crystal up to a guest room. It was so much cosier than sending her up with Moses. She sat on the small sofa at the foot of the bed and told her how welcome she was and to treat the house as her home while she was in San Francisco.
Crystal was touched and a little saddened at the same time, because the places where she had lived had been her homes for such fleeting periods, often under the precarious conditions of hospitality. Of course she had long inhabited the paradox of feeling at home with no home, and she tried to think of the glutinous satisfactions of property as a bribe it was noble to refuse. Instead of a memory oppressed by the tropical air of nostalgia, her memory had a swifter quality, as fugitive as the shadows of starlings flitting across the ground, but capable of delivering high notes; whole cities, whole atmospheres, whole passages of thought and feeling, as vast and suddenly present as the smell of the sea.
Brooke’s own wounded sense of home made her almost excessive in her hospitality, but the two women ended up both feeling moved by the rituals of welcome.
‘As you know, I’m going to Esalen on Sunday,’ said Crystal. ‘So I’m only really here tomorrow.’
‘Oh, I should have told Adam,’ said Brooke. ‘He’s teaching Rumi there next week. He’s teaching Rumi everywhere every week,’ she laughed. ‘Make sure you contact him now that you’ve met. I don’t think I could bear to have two friends in the same place who weren’t in touch.’
Copyright © 1998 by Edward St. Aubyn
Meet the Author
Edward St. Aubyn was born in London in 1960. He is the author of the A Clue to the Exit and The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk. His final Patrick Melrose novel is the standalone At Last. Mother's Milk was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
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