Friday, September 22, 2006

Mother's Milk by Edward St Aubyn

Several years ago I studied literary theory, and was introduced to Louis Althusser and his concept of interpellation. Since he was a Marxist, his idea was, in essence, that we are all born into a linguistic structure (one which is determined by the political power structure) and by the process of interpellation one becomes a subject. It gets very political, but this basic idea of everyone being embedded in a language network seems to me to have been at work in this novel, along with other such theories. As a result, there is a lot going on this novel. It is sharply written, often very funny and on the whole I really liked it, am finding all sorts of things I'd like to quote as I look through it again but need to exercise some restraint. The particular conceit developed in the novel is that the two babies born during its time line (Robert (1995) and Thomas (2000)) are born with an immediate ability to comprehend their surroundings and to articulate as if they were adults.

The novel starts with Robert's recollection of his birth, which we find out have been prompted by the birth of his brother:
Why had they pretended to kill him when he was born? Keeping him awake for days, banging his head again and again against a closed cervix; twisting the cord around his throat and throttling him; chomping through his mother's abdomen with cold shears; clamping his head and wrenching his neck from side to side; dragging him out of his home and hitting him; shining lights in his eyes and doing experiments; taking him away from his mother while she lay on the table, half dead. First the confinement to make him hungry for space, then pretending to kill him so that he would be grateful for the space when he got it, even this loud desert, with only the bandages of his mother's arms to wrap around him, never the whole thing again, the whole warm thing all around him, being everything...

Now that he realized there was a difference between them, he loved his mother with a new sharpness. He used to be close to her. Now he longed to be close to her. The first taste of longing was the saddest thing in the world.
I don't know if it is just me, but I find his reaction funny, in a subtle sort of way:
Still, he didn't want to exaggerate his decline. Things had been getting cramped in the old world. Towards the end he was desperate to get out, but he imagined had himself expanding back into the boundless ocean of his youth, not exiled in this harsh land...
These are the thoughts of a kid of maybe five minutes old or, as he concedes at the age of five (when he feels his infancy disintegrating, being obliterated by his childhood), maybe they were things said last month which had become his memories of his birth. This strikes the tone for his voice for the rest of the novel, a very adult way of perceiving and describing his world. He was my favourite character. His dad, was a bit hard to take. We can see a lot of what he is like in this exchange with the very useless babysitter they have employed:
[Margaret] "I couldn't find any of the cottage cheese . They didn't speak a word of English. 'Cottage cheese,' I said, pointing to the house on the other side of the street. 'Cottage, you know, as in house, only smaller,' but they still couldn't make head or tail of what I was saying."
"They sound incredibly stupid," said his father, "with so many helpful clues."...
[Margaret] "Give him plenty of water, dear. It's the only way to cool them down. They can't sweat at that age."
"Another amazing oversight," said his father. "Can't sweat, can't walk, can't talk, can't read, can't drive, can't sign a cheque. Foals are standing a few hours after they're born. If horses went in for banking, they'd have a credit line by the end of the week."
[Margaret] "Horses don't have any use for banking..."
Of course, she is very stupid, and I couldn't do anything but laugh at this, but this cutting tone of dad's persists, and gets out of hand towards the end of the novel when the family goes on holiday to America. It is a bad influence as by then, Robert has picked up dad's world view as well - something Patrick was aware would probably happen but was powerless to stop. Between the two of them, they generate a very poor impression of America, as if it is populated by softly obese people. Here is how Robert (now 7) describes his fellow passengers:
Eventually, the Airbags dented themselves into their seats. Robert had never seen such vague faces, mere sketches on the immensity of their bodies. Even the father's relatively protuberant features looked like the remnants of a melted candle. As she squeezed into her aisle seat, Mrs Airbag turned to the long queue of obstructed passengers...
On their account, America is populated by immensely silly people, shabby hotels and fast food which is poisonously bad for you. These accounts are brilliantly written, but they go too far insofar as they purport to be a summary of America.

Space is a major theme in this novel: in his mother's womb, Robert had been conscious of an absence of space. When we first encounter his father, Patrick, he is complaining about the depressing state of the property market. Insofar as the novel has a plot, it concerns Patrick's mother's house in France - somewhere they have taken to going to for a summer holiday. This, however, is under threat as Seamus Dourke, a self-proclaimed shaman is working on her to hand the house over to be used in his "Transpersonal Foundation", where adults find their inner child and engage in other such new agey larks (I thought we left them behind in the 1980's!). Patrick is convinced he is a charlatan and, as his mother fades away during the course of the novel to senility, does his best to talk her out of giving her house away. Patrick, of course, has his own interests at stake: he thinks he should inherit it. At the end, however, when his mum really needs his help, he does manage to come through for her.

Now that Thomas has been born, Robert and
Patrick are both worried that there won't be space for them in the family, because Mary is so pre-occupied with her duties as mother to Thomas. It is probably this which explains why Robert becomes the image of his father. Dad finds himself in a state of agitated despair, addicted to Tamazepan and alcohol, unable to read, unable to sleep, unable to perform sexually but at the same time feeling abandoned by Mary - she is something of a mother figure for him as well. On the other hand, her voice in this novel is somewhat muted: the point of view rotates from Robert to his parents, but there are fewer chapters given over to Mary than to the other two. Apart from her status as mother and wife, we get a look at her as daughter: her mother (oddly named Kettle) is clearly a terrible mother.

So, the novel ends up being rather ambivalent about motherhood. Kettle is incapable of that status, so there is always friction between her and Mary. Mary is determined not to repeat the mistakes of her own mother and so throws herself more fully into the role than is good for her, her husband and, possibly, her kids. Then there is poor old Eleanour, Patrick's mum. I'll finish with a quote about her, because she's really a decent old lady, just vulnerable:
Sixty years later, Eleanour still hadn't worked out a realistic way to act out her desire to be good. She still missed the feast without relieving the famine. When things went wrong, and they always did, the bas experiences were not allowed to inform the passionate teenager; they were exiled to the bad experience dump. A secret half of Eleanour became more bitter and suspicious, so that the visible half could remain credulous and eager... Illness was producing a terrifying confluence of the two selves, which Eleanour had gone to such trouble to keep apart.
The irony is that despite their differences in temperament and motivations, neither Kettle nor Eleanour end up with anything to leave their kids: there is no mother's milk.

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Blogger Beth said...

Great review - and I really liked the picture. The cover on my copy is much more bland. I'm interested that you saw Eleanor as vulnerable. I thought of her more as passive aggressive and manipulative!

Glad to have discovered your site, and I'm about to read all your other reviews...

10:56 AM  

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