On the Edge by Edward St. Aubyn
It is curious to place On the Edge in a sequence where it follows 2014’s Lost for Words, last year’s skewering of the business of literary prizes. Lost for Words flexes an intimate knowledge of contemporary fiction, for better or worse, and in that familiarity St. Aubyn is able to not simply lampoon the community but also, and more importantly, those by whom the community is judged. A book like Lost for Words shows that St. Aubyn is not just a scornful author but an informed one, and that he’s got his hateful eye set more on the judges and less on the subject to which they claim to be so superior.
On the Edge trades literature with the New Age movement and floats along with a spectrum of seekers during a few weeks of workshops at Esalen, the higher-learning center of Big Sur, California. Opening with a cringe-inducing cocktail party where guests are told they are the only ones who can change this dying world and “wake people up (“The whales have AIDS,” one guest is heard sobbing), St. Aubyn networks acid heads, abusive lovers, and self-help gurus all in their search for enlightenment. Although the novel is fragmented by way of its large cast of characters, Peter Thorpe emerges as the protagonist, having found himself tractor-beamed to Esalen with hope of finding a woman he met, and maybe fell in love with, years ago.
The New Age movement, as St. Aubyn renders it, is an embarrassment of circle-dancing, hand-holding and role-playing. Yet, the finest part of On the Edge is witnessing what happens to St. Aubyn’s class of judgmental skeptics and blindly passionate die-hards as they immerse themselves in the lifestyle. While stuck acting out their feelings with strangers and drifting between guided meditations and nude hot springs sessions, something remarkable happens: amidst St. Aubyn’s New Age nonsense, the hate melts away. Peter, the hesitant outsider, sees the good in something that was once so ridiculously impenetrable:
“Over the next few days, he kept rediscovering this sense of goodwill, even when the experiences it accompanied seemed to take place on moonless nights of rhetoric and credulity. His concern for the rest of the group gradually rose to a pitch at which his happiness seemed inseparable from the happiness of the others. Everyone developed a sense of each other’s vulnerability by telling their ‘stories’. Instead of having to lower the portcullis of a false self in order to avoid being hurt, they pre-empted the pain by showing that they were all hurt already. There was a great liberation in feeling that the worst had already happened.”
The wickedest part of On the Edge is that Esalen actually works. The characters are still terrible people, having approached this philosophy for all the wrong reasons, but St. Aubyn manages to cut through their bad intentions and unify, ameliorate.
Structurally, On the Edge lacks an adequate arc, relying too heavily on Peter’s story without giving him enough scenes to make his thread rise above the novel’s other short character diversions. He’s certainly the novel’s hero and the subject of its central transformative illuminations, but it is perplexing to find him missing for chapters at a time. Further, it’s revealed towards the end of the novel that all the threads of On the Edge have been moving towards the “tantric sex workshop,” and they culminate in a priapic multi-chapter free-for-all that seems imbalanced compared the rest of the novel.
The clunky execution of On the Edge will seem to explain why the book’s taken this long to find US distribution. While not a bad read, it’s difficult to enjoy On the Edge after experiencing how much better St. Aubyn later becomes with Mother’s Milk, At Last, and Lost for Words. Accomplished but somewhat underwhelming, readers will at least be pleased to find the author’s signature tone, his balance of quiet forgiveness and eviscerating scorn, bubbling up so early in his career.