Edward St. Aubin presents serious ideas about science in an entertaining package


By the time Edward St. Aubin finished his last job Patrick Melrose Novel In 2012, it was clear that a new animal in England had approached an imagined watering hole. This animal belonged to a species that is believed to have been largely extinct: the anatomist of the remote upper classes.

The subject of these novels put Saint Aubin in a pitiable position. His arrival was opposed. For a particular kind of reader, the notion of consuming five novels about excessive privilege – heavy manners, long bones – seems to be just as enjoyable as expressing a dog’s anal glands.

But St. Aubin could write: he could Really Write. He mixed adversity with intelligence; His irony was fierce and fine. The details were accurate because St. Aubino Actually had a British upper class background As Clive James put it, Snowbear was Evelyn Waugh’s longing.

St. Aubin’s new book, “Double Blind,” is an entertainment on scientific topics: brain-mapping, biochemistry, botany, immunotherapy, schizophrenia, and the ethics of placebos (hence the book’s title), among other topics.

If “Double Blind” resembles a very good Ian McEwan novel – McEwan is one of the few novelists who writes wisely and often about science – well, the cast includes a minor character named Dr. McEwan (a brain surgeon ) Is included.

In short it is a difficult book. For a short novel, it has many characters and moving parts. But at its heart, it is the story of two old friends, Olivia and Lucy, now in their mid-30s, who once joined Oxford together. Olivia is a biologist who writes serious books that very few people read; He has a kind of downward-looking idealism.

Lucy is more flamboyant and enterprising. She works with Digitas, a scientific venture capital firm run by a charismatic monster named Hunter Sterling, whose homes are spread across the planet. He wants to make billions And Win the Nobel Prize by supporting projects such as “Bliss Algorithm” and “Nirvana Helmet”.

“Double Blind” thrives in two love stories. Olivia falls for Francis, a naturalist who, at the behest of wealthy patrons, is trying to “recreate” land on a large property. They meet at a megafauna conference. Lucy Hunter falls for Gonzo Capitalist, which is more complicated than it initially seems.

Olivia finds herself pregnant sooner than she wanted to; Lucy, dynamically, experiences a serious illness. There are diversions of conscience and libido.

Peripheral characters abound: self-critical academics, science hustlers, schizophrenia patients, psychoanalysts. The Vatican is interested in one of Hunter’s projects, and it allows St. Aubin to introduce Father Guido, one of the great comic bit players in recent fiction.

Father Guido is sent to one of Hunter’s houses to try to deal with him. He is an ascetic who is slowly, and hilariously, seduced by Epicurianism. He takes ecstasy. He drinks too much espresso martinis because he thinks they are iced coffee. He wakes up all night to be enchanted by the rising sun. It blossoms.

He imagines so well that he is the antagonist who could be my favorite minor character in fantasy: Mary Anne, the sarcastic daughter of the hardened Marine fighter pilot in Pat Conroy’s “The Great Sentini”. When her father cries to her during a car trip, Mary Anne catches her tears in a spoon and throws them behind her shaved head.

The “double blind” is always interesting because St. Aubin is accurate. He takes all the subjects of this book seriously; He distills them, and shakes them all well. There is a lot of learning to be done here, deployed carelessly. If a character decides to collect and dry the magic mushroom, well, you’re going to read some pointed, searching writing about psilocybin and its therapeutic uses.

Here he is on neuroscience and my day to day work: “When the reader first encounters Mr. Darcy and his hideous pride, what part of the brain is illuminated? When Elizabeth Bennett rejects her first proposal, can literary criticism ignore what is happening to the reader’s amygdala? It is a truth universally accepted that any subject looking for a reputation for seriousness must be in a lack of neuroimaging. “

St. Aubin captures the uneasiness and fear that most of his philanthropic characters feel about the planet’s condition. Previous generations were concerned about nuclear war. Now, Francis thinks, “There was clearly no need for war to ruin the biosphere; all that was needed was business as usual.”

St. Aubin influences our pathetic efforts to live a more conscious life. “In Francis’ experience, ecological concern was indeed almost universal, but it was difficult for most people to know what to do besides eating and drinking round the clock in a dutiful campaign to fill more and more recycling bags.”

Some of the brutal, pathetically attentive quality of the Melrose novels is absent here. And there are moments when the “double blind” stops for a while. Some dialogues are very expository. New characters are introduced at such a rate, you fear this will all be solved in a book of short stories. But the novel works on its own terms. Some of its time-shuffling is complex and impressive, one step up and two steps back.

McEwan is, of course, not the only novelist oblivious to critical thinking about technology and science. AS Byatt, Richard Powers, Rivka Galchen, Martin Amis, Barbara Kingsolver and playwrights Tom Stopard and Michael Frain among others.

With “Double Blind”, St. Aubin joined his company. He is a staunch writer, but one who wonders in a way that takes into account WH Auden’s comment: “When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who Has accidentally wandered into the drawing room filled with the Duke. “

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