Each of the five Patrick Melrose novels, by Edward St. Aubyn, has the weight of a prose poem, the span of a novella, and the structure of a vignette. St. Aubyn’s superbly controlled prose extracts elegance from the narrative malformations of real life, and the books star the wittiest junky in all of English-language literature. The five-episode miniseries “Patrick Melrose” (on Showtime, premièring Sunday) is both a mash note and a lavish footnote to its source material.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Patrick, a well-born Englishman addicted to a number of things, including shooting heroin, shooting cocaine, and needles themselves. (In one passage, Patrick poses a question about syringes to himself and to the universe: “What other form of self-division was more directly expressive than the androgynous embrace of an injection, one arm locking the needle into the other, enlisting pain into the service of pleasure and forcing pleasure back into the service of pain?”) Patrick is addicted, above all, to self-annihilation—suicide on the installment plan—though he would likely scorn that phrase as trite, in the cruellest possible terms, because he is also addicted to snobbery.
All of this comes from an awful patrimony. Patrick’s father began raping and beating him when the boy was young. (In the book, the abuse begins when the boy is five years old. In the TV series, it becomes eight, in what feels like an impossible attempt to spare the viewer some fraction of anguish.) “Self-division” points toward to the detachment of Patrick’s mind from his body. During the first of his father’s assaults, the boy suffered an out-of-body experience and felt himself disappear into the body of a gecko that happened to climbing the wall above his traumatized head. As an adult, he takes drugs in an effort to escape himself, which always fails—unless the problem is really that he succeeded, at some point, and now cannot find his way home.
The second novel, titled “Bad News,” becomes the first episode. Patrick, in his early twenties, flies from London—where he is carrying on an imitation of life as an independently wealthy smack head—to New York City, where his father has died. In narrative terms, it is very straightforward: Patrick checks into a swank hotel, swears to seize the death of the monster as an occasion for getting clean, bargains his way to shopping for quaaludes and speed in Central Park, and slips to the edge