A Clue to the Exit by Edward St. Aubyn
Originally published in 2000 in the United Kingdom, the 2015 US edition of Edward St. Aubyn’s A Clue to the Exit will do little more than sate curious readers. St. Aubyn’s five Patrick Melrose novels have garnered him worldwide critical acclaim, and, perhaps riding this laudatory wave, this publication of A Clue to the Exit (and the previous year’s reissue of 1998’s On the Edge) does little more than fill the bibliographical lacuna of a writer who has since become great.
Vital only to completists, A Clue to the Exit is the first-person memoir of a bankrupt, dying screenwriter who has six months to live. “All the love I’ve ever felt,” he tells us, “seems to have waited for this narrowing funnel of time to be decanted more precisely into my flooding veins.” He mopes, contemplates suicide, and ruminates at length about how best to live out his last two seasons of life. He wants to write, but also to defy expectations. Explaining to a friend that he’s working on a novel “about consciousness” he is chastised in return:
“First you tell me you can’t get death off your mind; now you tell me you can’t get your mind off your mind. Sound like you gotta sack your therapist and write a sequel to Aliens with a Human Heart. Don’t you have any sense of social responsibility? Fifty-three million people are waiting for that sequel.”
But the narrator relents: later, “feeling too upset to write, [he makes] the brave decision to write about feeling too upset.” He comes up with a novel four characters on a stalled train; it is indulgent and dialogue-heavy, and oddly features a cast that overlaps with St. Aubyn’s previous novel, On the Edge. While this inner-novel is a fascinating narrative microcosm within the bleak A Clue to the Exit, it is also a dreadful bore to read. A particularly verbose excerpt:
“When the world was read in terms of habits, time lost its bald authority. It consisted of endlessly, organically altering textures: of crystals which formed faster and faster but as they did so, formed more and more conservative fields, of islands of novelty erupting and then, as related habits formed around them, becoming archipelagos, stretching back towards continents of deep habit.”
While ideas are there, somewhere, the effectiveness of St. Aubyn’s novel-within-a-novel is lost. The narrator’s book takes up about half of A Clue to the Exit, so there must be something more to it than it being simply an example of an intellectual’s misguided attempt at end-of-life “cognitive closure,” but mining for any further depth here doesn’t seem worth it. It seems to be a text meant for skimming.
Outside of this subplot, A Clue to the Exit takes a strange turn with the introduction of Angelique, a sexy casino babe who shacks up with the narrator after he wins big at a high stakes table. They live together for a peculiar few weeks of writing, sex, and gambling, and despite seeming like a sly dig at Hollywooding up a story, Angelique manages to give the narrator some perspective. In one of her many over-dramatic moments, she makes a scene pretending to throw away the narrator’s manuscript:
“Its wooden and dry and boring. I can’t believe this is what you want to do with your last days. Why don’t you write about how wonderful figs taste when you know you may never taste one again?”
The author whines about how figs taste “like ash” and how he wants to write something serious, impersonal. “But that’s exactly the problem,” she tells him. “You must make it more personal, more human, more dramatic.”
St. Aubyn’s narrator eventually gets there, but only after working through his selfishness. He finds some emotional reconciliation within and begins to see how he fits into the network of life around him. His once-skimmable novel eventually works itself out and grows into a thoughtful, readable and relatable piece. And St. Aubyn, orchestrating all this, does the same. A Clue to the Exit exists at a similar waypoint of self-indulgence, and while we may not be better readers for getting through the novel, it seems St. Aubyn is now a better writer for having waded through all that mortal, mucky vanity.