Read A Clue to the Exit: A Novel Online

Authors: Edward St. Aubyn

Tags: #Contemporary Fiction, #Literary, #Literature & Fiction

A Clue to the Exit: A Novel

A Clue to the Exit: A Novel
Edward St. Aubyn
Picador (2015)
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Tags: Literature & Fiction, Literary, Contemporary Fiction
Literature & Fictionttt Literaryttt Contemporary Fictionttt

A beautifully modulated novel that shows Edward St. Aubyn at his sparkling best

Charlie Fairburn, successful screenwriter, ex-husband, and absent father, has been given six months to live. He resolves to stake half his fortune on a couple of turns of the roulette wheel and, to his agent's disgust, to write a novel-about death. In the casino he meets his muse. Charlie grows as addicted to writing fiction as she is to gambling.
His novel is set on a train and involves a group of characters (familiar to readers of St. Aubyn's earlier work) who are locked in a debate about the nature of consciousness. As this train gets stuck at Didcot, and Charlie gets more passionately entangled with the dangerous Angelique,
A Clue to the Exit
comes to its startling climax. Exquisitely crafted, witty, and thoughtful, Edward St. Aubyn's dazzling novel probes the very heart of being.



“Once more, St Aubyn takes us to the very limits of the expressible.” –

From the Inside Flap

Charlie Fairburn, successful screenwriter, ex-husband and absent father, has been given six months to live. He resolves to stake half his fortune on a couple of turns of the roulette wheel and, to his agent?s disgust, write a novel ? about death. Set on a train, his manuscript involves characters debating the nature of consciousness. When the fictional train gets stuck, Charlie becomes more deeply entangled with the dangerous young woman he met in the casino. 


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Table of Contents

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For Janey



I want to thank Francis Wyndham whose subtlety, sympathy and rigour make him the reader every writer is looking for.


move still in the human maze—but I like to think of you there; may it be long before you find the clue to the exit.



I’ve started to drive more cautiously since I was told I only have six months to live. All the love I’ve ever felt seems to have waited for this narrowing funnel of time to be decanted more precisely into my flooding veins. Bankrupt, I cannot resist staring through jewellers’ windows at those diamond chokers locked solid around black velvet necks.

I’ve often wondered whether to commit suicide. I assume I needn’t go into the temptations, but in a self-service world where you have to fill your own petrol tank, assess your own taxes, and help yourself to self-help, the one thing you don’t have to do for yourself is end your life. So why not luxuriate in that old-fashioned sense of service? Go on, do yourself a favour, you know you deserve it: let something else finish you off.

As I watch the dying leaves turn red in the valley, I shudder with admiration. The defiance of that incandescent decrepitude, spitting in the face of its executioner: that’s what I want. The smoke, wobbling up in diffident communion with the sky, thrills me less. It soon dilates over the reddening fields and sinks back to the clotted earth.

Red ochre was the first decorative material. Even
Homo erectus
, barely upright and still nervous on safari, one and a half million years before the delivery of the first armoured Land Rover, loved to rub a little rouge into her bearded cheeks. The linguists tell us that after black and white the first stain of colour in every lexicon is red. Once light and dark have been distinguished what’s fundamental is blood and fire. Looking at the leaves turn red in the valley simplifies my mind, a javelin flying past those tightly packed tubes of paint in which so many subtle frequencies of light have been trapped, and landing where there is only blood and fire.

My doctor, who is unable to cure anything at all, has nevertheless ‘given’ me six months to live. I have never been given six months before and I don’t know how to thank him adequately. If I die one day sooner he’ll be hearing from my lawyers. One day later and he’ll be hearing from me. He peeped over the parapet of his half-moon specs and gave me an indulgent smile, his expensive black pen writhing epileptically on the prescription pad. Prozac.

‘No point in getting depressed on top of everything else,’ he said.

‘On top of what else?’ I asked.

Until the brain transplant has been perfected, the only thing worth getting from a doctor is morphine. As to nurses, don’t let them anywhere near you or they’ll hike up their striped skirts and jab the precious liquid into that interval of white thigh between their black stockings and their sensible knickers.

The happy pills – I don’t begrudge their happiness, nor do I envy it – are unopened on the shelf. I don’t want any pills, shots, consoling books, or chats with chaplains. I just want to see if I can stay exactly where I am. This is after all the heart of the matter, the place where everything – not without difficulty, not without civil war, not without nailing down my tongue and drawing over it the serrated knife of one thing after another, not without learning to thank my torturers because it’s been such a growth opportunity for all of us, not without betrayal always cutting its prices to meet the competition of feeling betrayed, not without the drive-by shootings of the desire for things which, let’s face it, aren’t going to happen, not without finding myself in the safety-deposit vaults with the unpinned grenade of involuntary memory, not without all the people I’ve hurt, been hurt by, and been hurt by being, scattering like cats’ paws across an ocean of interstellar darkness, not without knowing that the things I mean most will be considered the most pretentious – this is still the place where everything might be reconciled. Reconciled by what? By the intolerable proximity of contradictions, by meltdown, by taking up residence in the Chernobyl of intimacy.

How convenient to frame that last paragraph with the revelation that it was written by a character we can all agree to find deranged. And yet how inconvenient to become the manager of yet another surrogate self, carrier of some cherished or despised qualities, vehicle for a certain story which demands to be shaped before it is blurted out. No, this time it’s the first-person singular, the skydiver who forgot his parachute, the idiot who tries to tell it how it is; no Ted, Carol, Bob, or Alice, but the unadorned ‘I’, the pockmarked column standing alone among the ruins. It is midday and the shadow is briefly beneath its broken foot. It is ‘I’ and, yes, you’ve guessed it, milk-fed on manuals of rhetoric and seminal deconstructions of the art of writing, or perhaps reading a book for the very first time, it doesn’t matter, you’ve still guessed it: ‘I’ is just as flimsy a fabrication as the rest of them, Ted, Carol, Bob, and Alice. So, what is the authentic ground of being, if this footling pronoun is so inessential?



I have to own up and admit that I’ve experimented with the Prozac. I know I said I wouldn’t and I suppose that makes me an unreliable narrator, if that’s what an unreliable narrator is.

What made me do it? It wasn’t a sense of futility. I am consumed by the need to write something honest and complete before I die.

Fear, pure fear. Something’s burning, something’s on fire. It’s me, I’m burning. Instead of standing quietly in the fireplace and agreeing to be a human log, I rush about setting fire to everything – tapestries, curtains, canvases – every one of them irreplaceable and none of them insured. It shows such a lack of consideration. Instead of my daughter being able to say, ‘This is the house where we’ve lived since 1999,’ ruins, just ruins. She might wrinkle up her nose and add, ‘I mean, the point of that house was its things.’ Whereas, if I showed a little consideration and left the Neo-Geo wheel and the Australian aboriginal rugs unscorched, she might say instead, with a strain of tenderness in her voice, ‘Dad wasn’t such a bad sort in the end.’

Well, it wasn’t the fear either.

What made me take the Prozac was Lola. Lola is an unbelievably literary friend of mine and I’ve been dreading her call. What would I say to her gloating condolences? ‘As you can imagine, I’m deep in Marcus Aurelius,’ or, ‘I find that these days I can only bear to listen to the very Late Quartets.’ What would satisfy her greed for seriousness?

I hadn’t had time to prepare anything when she sprang on me.

‘Are you writing about it?’



‘How did you find out?’

‘Are you writing about it?’

‘No. I don’t think it’s that interesting.’

‘An opportunity missed. You know I’ve always thought you could do something serious.’

‘It’s wasted on me,’ I said. ‘It’s all yours if you want it; no need to feel you’re poaching on my territory.’

‘Well, if I were dying…’ she said. ‘I remember you when you were an undergraduate – you were so interested in how the mind works. We expected great things of you and then you got sucked into that silly film world. Aren’t you having any big thoughts at the moment?’

‘Only big thoughts and very small ones. It’s the medium-sized thoughts that jump ship in an emergency.’

‘Write that down.’

‘No,’ I snapped, ending the call.

In any case, it’s a good thing I’m taking the Prozac. I’m enjoying my positive attitude. It’s got me making plans, being practical. The medium-sized thoughts are back. I may only have six months to live but I’ve still got to survive. I’m going to New York to see my agent, Arnie Cornfield. Arnie is famous for his introductory rap, ‘Some people want an agent to hold their hand. Some people want a shoulder to cry on. Well, I’m not that kind of an agent. I’m interested in one thing and one thing only: money.’

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