wed 21/04/2021

Edward St Aubyn: Double Blind review - constructing 'cognition literature' | reviews, news & interviews

Edward St Aubyn: Double Blind review - constructing 'cognition literature'

Edward St Aubyn: Double Blind review - constructing 'cognition literature'

Psychoanalysis meets fiction in this original study of human emotion

The author of the Patrick Melrose books returns with a book about ecology and neuroscienceTimothy Allen

If it weren’t for the warning on the blurb, the first chapter of Double Blind would have you wondering whether you’d ordered something from the science section by mistake.

If it weren’t for the warning on the blurb, the first chapter of Double Blind would have you wondering whether you’d ordered something from the science section by mistake. It's a novel that throws its reader in at the deep end, where that end is made of "streaks of bacteria" and "vigorous mycorrhizal networks" that would take a biology degree (or a browser) to decipher. As is often the case, though, it’s worth it once you’re in. Double Blind is one of those rare books that does everything the blurb claims it will do. Humorous, philosophical, gripping and – yes – scientific in turn, this is a novel about finding charm and literary flair in the most unexpected of places.

Double Blind revolves around a group of people, mostly in their mid-thirties, whose experiences become more inextricably intertwined as one significant life event after another encircles their lives and livelihoods. Olivia is the hinge for the group, which includes Francis, her new boyfriend; Lucy, her oldest and closest friend; Lucy’s ardent boss, Hunter; Olivia’s psychoanalyst parents; and one of their patients, Sebastian, who suffers from schizophrenia. Lives threaten to end and new lives begin against the backdrop of the "colonies and clouds of microorganisms" that follow the narration wherever it turns.

Double Blind Front coverOnce the initial shock of coming across Milton and microbiomes in a single sentence is dissipated, the intensely cognitive interest of Double Blind is evident. Discussions of new neurological innovations are punctuated by chapters of extensive philosophising. Religion threatens to come into the mix as well (the "Crown of Thorns Platinum Package" still jars a hundred pages on), with all the ethical questions that these ideas entail. One page we’re told a human being can be perfectly replicated in a non-carbon alternative; the next, a series of undefinable, ungraspable emotions are tentatively submitted to the vagaries of narrative description.

This ever-changing tone is justified in its more self-reflexive moments. "Can literary criticism," asks our narrator, "afford to ignore what is happening to the reader’s amygdala when Elizabeth Bennet rejects Mr Darcy’s first proposal?" Aside from alluding to a new and fascinating scholarly approach to fiction taking place in academic circles ("cognitive literary studies"), this question vindicates what St Aubyn is attempting to achieve in Double Blind. If our human brain is both the subject of and elusive to modern science, so too is fiction, one of the brain’s creations. The author’s construction of place, space, narrative and character is conscious not just of its literary antecedents but also of its rooting in our understanding of cognition.

This is, of course, still very much a novel, and a readable one too. The condensed life events, vivid scenes of drug-taking (familiar to readers of St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose series), and even the possibility of discovering a long-lost twin are all laid out in turn. There's also that slightly irritating tendency of the modern novelist to give an in-depth commentary on business dealings and financial transactions – a mark of realist authenticity which instead feels like having to respond to an email while you’re in the middle of a TV series.

Above all, though, St Aubyn is an excellent chronicler of afflicted emotions. Submitting his characters to the extremes of experience (birth, mental illness, death), the author captures the musings and passions of his impressively neurodiverse set of protagonists with a skill founded on the clever use of free indirect discourse and some thorough psychoanalytical research. All novelists are to some extent amateur psychoanalysts. Certain passages in Double Blind, however, make us think that psychoanalysts might also make for proficient novelists.

Despite its measure of cynicism, such as Francis’s sly suggestion that "there seemed to be little choice but to turn to psychedelics for a cure to a global malaise", this is a novel that strikes a note of cautious hopefulness. There is a comforting frame of optimism to the character studies and the innovations that purport to make everyone's life better, some of which draw the novel into a space of contemplating a glamorous science fiction age in a not-too-distant future. For a number of the protagonists, psychological health triumphs over the depths of addiction, illness and whims of circumstance. You shouldn't expect all the anxieties of contingency to be resolved in Double Blind, but don’t expect that to trouble you too much, either.

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