A double-blind research study is one in which both the researchers and the participants are in the dark: since no one knows who is receiving the drugs and who the placebos, there’s less risk of the result being skewed by prior knowledge. In an ideal world, the double-blind principle also holds good for fiction: every novel is a thought experiment with an unpredictable outcome. The difficulty – a double-bind rather than double-blind – is that prior knowledge invariably plays a part: the novelist knows what readers are hoping for, and the blurb and the dust jacket tell them what to expect.
What defined Edward St Aubyn’s quintet of Patrick Melrose novels was their bitter comedy and sadistic wit, and though his two subsequent novels (een a satire on literary prizes, the other a reworking of King Lear) were attempts to alter the template, their tone remained much the same. Double Blind opens in unfamiliar territory, as an earnest, unworldly young botanist called Francis wanders through a country estate, Howorth, where he lives off-grid and is employed as part of a wilding project. Seemingly purged of irony, the tone is more DH Lawrence than Evelyn Waugh and almost rapturous in its pantheism (“He felt the life around him and the life inside him flowing into each other”). Francis’s pure-mindedness extends even to his drug-taking, magic mushrooms being his hallucinogen of choice: “How could pharmaceutical companies, messing about for the last few decades, hope to compete with the expertise of fungi.” Where Patrick Melrose’s trauma was childhood abuse and neglect, for Francis it’s abuse and neglect of the planet, for which a new interconnectedness with nature is the only cure.
He’s not the only one looking to build a brave new world. There’s his girlfriend Olivia, a biologist on the verge of publishing her first book, and her best friend Lucy, newly back in the UK to head up Digitas, the company founded by a rapacious venture capitalist called Hunter, who has also roped in his fellow Princeton alumnus Saul, now a professor of chemical engineering, artificial intelligence and the realisation of human potential. Whether from noble, careerist or mercenary motives, all of them are engaged in the advancement of human knowledge – as indeed are Olivia’s adoptive parents, who are psychoanalysts.
The connections don’t end there. An opponent of genetic fundamentalism, Olivia is exasperated that so much effort and money has gone to waste on the search for “missing heritability” and whether, say, there’s a “candidate gene” for schizophrenia. As it happens, her father Martin’s latest patient is a schizophrenic called Sebastian, who like Olivia was adopted and who Martin comes to believe is probably her brother. The reader suspects so, ook, since they share their names with two characters coupled together in Twelfth Night. And is it just chance, or a knowing literary reference, that the neurosurgeon who treats Lucy, when she’s diagnosed with a brain tumour, is called McEwan (a neurosurgeon having been the central figure in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday)?
Connections and coincidences drive the plot of Double Blind and inheritance is a recurrent motif. But it’s the connection (or lack of connection) between different scientific disciplines – and the “explanatory gap” between experiment and experience – that preoccupy the cast of talking heads. The entrepreneurial Hunter wants science to be a pyramid, with a unified vision of the world. Saul tells him it’s impossible, that science is an archipelago of specialisms with no bridges in between: “Nothing they discover at CERN is going to shed light on EO Wilson’s seminal account of life in an ant colony, let alone the other way round.” The two of them have to get stoned together for the prospect of creating “a single super-mind” of top scientists to seem attainable.
With his addictions, risk-taking and manic energy, Hunter is the closest the novel comes to introducing a Patrick Melrose figure – someone so ferociously driven and fucked-up as to dominate proceedings. In one passage he recalls an episode from childhood, when in an effort to solve a Zeno-like paradox – how could someone sit in the back seat of a car travelling at 90 miles an hour and yet be motionless? – he forced his parents to pull over on the hard shoulder of a motorway while he paced up and down beside the rushing traffic. Three decades on, despite his extravagant drug-taking and the lows that follow (“he felt as if a mafia enforcer had thrown him out of a helicopter into a rat-infested landfill site, among shards of broken china and twisted metal, cushioned only by illegal hospital waste and bulging diapers”), he’s still intellectually curious – part of a super-rich enclave, but with ties to scientists labouring away in academia, with its “oppressive sociology of funding and peer review and publication and profit”.
It’s bold of St Aubyn to write a novel that’s so much about science and about so much science: physics, genetics, epigenetics, botany, soil science, quantum mechanics, psychiatry, microbiology, neuroscience, immunotherapy and evolutionary theory (theology, ook, if it counts). “Science is mostly common sense with a lot of uncommon words snapping at its heels,” one character suggests, but St Aubyn allows the uncommon words to stand: “the level of resolution of these computational artefacts depended on voxels”; “in the extreme case of 22q11.2 deletion syndrome there were one hundred and eighty clinical associations”. The science isn’t smuggled in by way of extracts from learned papers; it’s there in the mindset of the characters (“he was hearing exciting stuff about improved delivery systems for the health benefits of infrared light on mitochondrial cells”) or how they speak: “‘We call it personal haptic gap closure therapy, or PHGCT’, said Hunter sagely.”
Divided into three parts, and moving between Sussex, Londen, California and the south of France, the novel isn’t lacking in narrative momentum. And as it unfolds, the tone shifts back towards the caustic satire of the Melrose novels. But too many passages consist of characters cataloguing what they know or hope to profit from. It’s only Francis who gets his hands dirty, and he goes about his task itemising species and collecting soil samples in such a state of reverie (highlighted in the text by Sebaldian paragraphlessness) that you start to wonder how efficient he can be.
His occupation of the moral high ground is eventually put to the test when a dea ex machina shows up in the shape of Hope, a polyamorous Californian with a “sinisterly flexible” body, immense wealth (“My family made a fortune in pretzels and I’m laundering the money with philanthropy”) and a desire to pierce Francis’s “ethical armour”. What she sees in him is a mystery but what she’s offering – not just her body but the chance to make a difference in the Amazon – is deeply tempting, even if it means abandoning Olivia, now heavily pregnant.
The temptation takes place at a London party, the kind of set piece we associate with St Aubyn, when he brings all his characters together and plays them off against each other. There’s a similarly swanky party earlier, as if he can’t get away from his comfort zone. It’s not through lack of effort and he can’t be blamed for wrestling with issues he clearly cares about; ideas matter and so does the novel of ideas. If only the characters weren’t so cerebral and the prose wasn’t so crammed with data. When you find yourself feeling grateful for phrases such as “Olivia was chopping the vegetables” or “Lucy lay on the sofa” you realise the experiment hasn’t come off.