This week’s New York Times Book Review contains a review by writer David Leavitt of a novel by British satirist Edward St. Aubyn that was originally published in England in 1998. The novel, entitled On the Edge, is compared to Waugh’s The Loved One and William Boyd’s Stars and Bars in that it “indulges some very British lampooning of American culture and its excesses.” An example quoted by Leavitt of St. Aubyn’s targets is the U.S. food industry:
Menus couldn’t decide whether to advertise dieting or eating. Often the contents of salads and sandwiches hung around shyly among the real stars: the ingredients that had been left out, and the pointless variety of methods by which the sodium-free, unbleached, sugarless, decaffeinated, coffee-free coffee could be vaporized, sun-dried, skimmed, scorched and served in 16 different kinds of cup.
The book’s belated U.S. publication is attributed to the success in this country of St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series of five linked novels. Leavitt thinks it may have been passed over initially by U.S. publishers for fear of a backlash because of its sharp satirization of the U.S. But that did not happen in the case of The Loved One nor for that matter in the case of the Melrose novels where features of U.S. culture were subject to equally pointed satirical attacks. In this case, St. Aubyn has done for the New Age spa (think Esalen Institute) what Waugh did for the U.S. funeral industry (think Forest Lawn). Both institutions have survived satirization and have continued to flourish.
In another allusion to Waugh, Leavitt notes the novel’s “complexity and subtlety, as well as the the elegance with which it modulates between Waughian parody and Fosterian pathos.” Waugh fans could do worse than to try St. Aubyn if they are looking for Waugh’s satirical spirit applied to updated targets, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. Indeed, St. Aubyn, like Waugh, is no shrinking violet when he aims his pen at the foibles of his own countrymen, with particular reference to its upper classes.