Edward St. Aubyn’s A Clue to the Exit begins when Charlie Fairburn, a successful writer of schlocky film scripts, learns that he is suffering from liver cancer and has only six months to live. Faced with imminent death, he resolves to spend the time he has left producing a serious literary work but, as life would have it, best laid plans and good intentions don’t always work out. Not exactly the kind of material that one would think makes for comedy, but in the hands of St. Aubyn, that’s what the reader gets—comedy not quite black but a shade of gray, spiced with layers of philosophical speculation.
Fairburn begins working on a novel, snippets of which are included as he recounts his activities over the months he has left. And as the characters in his novel begin to question the nature of consciousness, he begins to question it as well. His work and his life is emerging as a mess, “a confessional diary overwhelming the fragments of a speculative narrative” in which “every contemplation is interrupted, and that every interruption becomes a further object of contemplation, and that this rhythm of delusion and revelation feels as if it’s essential to the nature of consciousness considering itself.” If this kind of navel gazing leaves you cold, take this short passage as a clue to your exit.
On the other hand if density of prose doesn’t bother you, A Clue to the Exit has much to recommend it. Fairburn’s final months are peopled with an assortment of enticing characters. Some, like the materialistic literary agent dripping butter as he feasts on lobster, the film auteur sandwiched between two models with his coat draped over his shoulders, and Charlie’s ex-wife steeped in Tibetan religion may be a bit cliché, they nonetheless are drawn with comic flair. On the other hand, the gorgeous compulsive gambler who serves as his muse for a price has a fresh vitality which makes her something more than just another gold digger.
Then there is the trio of characters from the novel within the novel who use the discussion of ideas as a kind of wishful foreplay. They debate theories of consciousness as they travel on a train back from an Oxford conference, but through it all, the often pretentious conversation is little more than a covert attempt at seduction. What characters say and what they mean are not very often connected.
A Clue to the Exit, in reality a novella, is an engaging read filled with challenging ideas. It may not be a book for the general reader, but for those looking for witty humor laced with intellect, this is a book to be savored.