I was first turned on to Edward St Aubyn by an Opera Director friend. I was chatting with him about why Piers Paul Read isn’t more read or more respected, and he mentioned Edward St Aubyn. I think he said that if you enjoy mannered tales of the upper classes misbehaving then St Aubyn is your man. He recommended the Patrick Melrose trilogy, which is fantastic though quite dark in places. But On the Edge – US link/ UK link is an easier introduction to his work. It is a romp through the world of the new age seekers. It features (some disguised, some named) locations such as Findhorn up in Scotland, Esalen in California, and Santa Fe in New Mexico among others. They are drawn rather well and, to an extent, lovingly. The habitués are mocked gently and the book is a delight. As an aside: I have been to Findhorn on a pilgrimage of my own. I loved the place but really couldn’t effect the suspension of disbelief required. A great book about Findhorn is Paul Hawken’s The Magic of Findhorn.
What I really enjoyed in St. Aubyn’s satire about New Age soul-searchers was both his alarmingly familiar grasp of their rhetoric and his compassion for their angst. Much like the rest of us, each of the characters is only searching for that simple, elusive quality of life: happiness. The protagonist, Peter Thorpe is a repressed, thirty something English merchant banker, in the Four Weddings and a Funeral mould of Englishman, who throws it all away to pursue his passion for a girl he spent three days in bed with but who is of no fixed address. Lured into the world of self-realisation by a chance remark of hers, trying to disguise his real reasons for being there, his quest takes him first to Findhorn and then by a bumpy route to the Esalen Foundation in Northern California, where he meets an assortment of Americans at various stages of finding themselves. There are some marvellous comic set pieces: the anti-guru guru ranting his fire and brimstone sermon on psychic freedom; hippy child Crystal’s recollections of being a nihilistic teenager, determined to stay awake until she dies; the cosmic difficulties of tantric sex. St. Aubyn’s comical mastery of the phoney voices of the New Age never cheapens the underlying seriousness of the human mind’s need to understand. Nor does it diminish the warmth of the tone.