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3 March 2021

Edward St Aubyn’s Double Blind is a clumsy critique of modern science

The novel veers between jet-setting farce and musings on recent issues of Current Biology.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

In Ian McEwan’s 1987 novel The Child in Time, Stephen, a children’s author, is rebuked by his scientist friend Thelma for his lack of interest in theoretical physics. “Shakespeare would have grasped wave functions, Donne would have understood complementarity and relative time,” she chides him. “But you ‘arts’ people, you’re not only ignorant of these magnificent things, you’re rather proud of knowing nothing.” She laughs at him for imagining modernism – “modernism!” – is anything more than a “passing local fashion” compared to the wonders of modern science.

It is a position with which McEwan clearly has some sympathy – Enduring Love (1997), Saturday (2005) and Solar (2010) are intensely interested in psychiatry, neuroscience and climate science respectively, though not so much in modernism. In his tenth novel, Edward St Aubyn is similarly determined to show that he has diligently digested a decade’s worth of Nature journal. Double Blind is a cerebral, large-canvas novel about a loose group of upper-class friends engaged in neuroscience, genetics and ecology. It seems to offer a riposte to Thelma’s arguments, 34 years later.

At the novel’s heart is a touchy defence of Freudian psychoanalysis – which of course formed the subsoil from which that “passing local fashion” for modernism grew, and which St Aubyn feels has been unfairly maligned by hard-science types. St Aubyn himself went through years of psycho-analysis, as did his most famous character, Patrick Melrose, who is raped at the age of five by his father in Never Mind (1992), the first novel in the Melrose quintet. It’s no coincidence that Patrick’s best friend is a psychoanalyst, nor that the characters who express cynicism towards the practice are usually the most loathsome.

Throughout Double Blind, there is a distinct thread of nostalgia for the “anecdotal end of science” – for science as a gentlemanly business of simile and symbolism, language and narrative. There are two scientists of this sort at the novel’s heart. One is the avuncular psychoanalyst, Martin Carr, who is frustrated by the limitation of modern approaches to schizophrenia, which lean too much on anti-psychotic drugs. We see these problems manifest in his patient, a young, working-class man called Sebastian, who suffers violent episodes of mental illness but who benefits from Martin’s attentiveness to his disordered language.

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The novel’s hero, though, is Martin’s prospective son-in-law, Francis, a philosophically minded, mid-30-something naturalist, who is working to rewild the private land of some enlightened aristocrats. Francis’s quiet wisdom, big-brain and “impressive calm” in the kitchen have charmed Martin’s adopted daughter, Olivia, a biologist writing a book about epigenetics. Her best friend from Oxford University, Lucy, has been head-hunted by an ex-hedge-funder Hunter Sterling, who wants her to run his new venture capital firm, Digitas. Hunter – a Westminster School alumnus with a raging drug habit – has made investments in biotech, AI and robotics, but also wants to get into philanthropy. “For a man as rich as him to show his face in society without a Foundation would be like a construction worker not having a hard hat on a building site,” writes St Aubyn – and that’s one of the novel’s better similes.

As Double Blind veers between jet-setting farce and musings on recent issues of Current Biology, it soon becomes clear that St Aubyn’s main objective is to critique the exalted position of hard science – using his characters as mouthpieces. Martin’s pet peeve is that hard science denigrates the “fanciful realm of emotion… symbolic language, psychological conditioning and cultural context” in favour of “the proper objects of scientific enquiry: brain mapping and biochemistry”. As the novel’s title suggests, St Aubyn has some beef with funding, peer review, publication and the randomised double-blind placebo control trial, an experiment in which both doctor and patients are unaware whom has been given a placebo and whom the real drug. This model has long been held up as the “gold standard” of scientific research as it supposedly eliminates bias. However, those who thrive within this culture, argues St Aubyn, are no less biased or corrupted than the “arts” people; they are “rotten by their own ‘double blind’ standards”.

Ask many scientists and they will complain about the shortcomings of academic publishing, funding models and so on. But is corruption as endemic as St Aubyn seems to think it is? I’m not so sure – and St Aubyn isn’t the writer I’d trust to explore it anyway. He seems too nostalgic for the days when science was just about viable as an aristocratic leisure pursuit.

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To make his case, he repeatedly returns to the importance of “symbolic language” and how scientists don’t understand metaphor. All except our hero, Francis. As he ponders the nature of awareness, he reflects on how his own mind “continually generated metaphors to remind himself of a natural state that should have come, well, more naturally, but in his case, came with a caravan of similes and arguments”. It’s a peculiar line of argument (as well as a peculiar metaphor). Science is hardly devoid of symbolic language. I do not pretend to understand string theory, but I assume that it involves metaphorical rather than literal string. The irony of St Aubyn’s defence of symbolic language, though, is that his own metaphors and similes are howlingly bad.

At one point, Francis compares “Occam’s Razor, the minimalist aesthetic that was supposed to adjudicate over intellectual life for the rest of time” to “a fashion editor in a black pencil skirt who simply refuses to retire, decade after decade, despite the screams of protest from an art department longing for a little moment of baroque excess and a splash of colour”. I’m sorry, what? When Lucy discovers, a few days into her new job, that she has a brain tumour, she thinks it’s “like being raped while you’re in a coma and only finding out when you see the CCTV footage”. Is it really? Must we imagine the uncommon horror of being raped in a coma to appreciate the shock of being diagnosed with a brain tumour? I began to flinch every time I saw the word “like”.

In the spirit of scientific enquiry, I reached for the Melrose books to run the same test again. St Aubyn’s best similes are exhilarating in their precision. “Dull, dissolute, and obscure [club] members felt buoyed up by this atmosphere of power, as little dinghies bob up and down on their moorings when a big yacht sails out of the harbour they have shared.” Vodka cracks ice in a glass, “like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath”. However, many others feel lazy. A pompous, overweight man looks “like a hippopotamus with hypertension”. When David Melrose is drugged, “The armchair felt like a cheese fondue.”

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St Aubyn has said that he can have “20 or 30 goes” at a sentence before it’s any good – except dialogue, which comes more naturally. I don’t believe he has had 20 or 30 goes at any sentence in Double Blind. And I wish he had gone several more rounds with his dialogue, which feels stagy and forced, like a Tom Stoppard play reworked by Dan Brown. In one scene, Hunter arrives unannounced at Francis’s cottage by helicopter and, over a caviar lunch, Olivia compares the “circular” arguments of scientists trying to prove the genetic causes of schizophrenia as “like a wagon formation protecting beleaguered dogma”. Olivia, Lucy and Francis may have zeitgeisty concerns – rewilding, psychedelics, epigenetics – but none of them sound like any mid-30-somethings around today. The women, supposedly great scientific minds, aren’t allowed do anything with them; they seem little different to the Alice-band-wearing Sloanes and predatory vixens St Aubyn depicts in the Melrose series. In fact, the whole novel has a peculiar late-Eighties atmosphere.

The most natural and affecting interactions are between Martin and his patient Sebastian. We are reminded that St Aubyn is at his best when he’s exploring deep psychological pain. But for much of the novel, it feels as if he is hiding behind a wall of intellectual discourse. Consequences rarely carry from one chapter to the next. Tension dissipates. If emotions, anecdote, psychology and narrative are so important, where are the deeper registers of empathy and pathos that made the Melrose novels so rich and memorable? As it is, Double Blind fails to convince either on the science or on the human drama. Maybe Thelma had a point.

Double Blind 
Edward St Aubyn
Harvill Secker, 256pp, £18.99

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