Shena Mackay feels the spirit
On the Edge

by Edward St Aubyn

Chatto & Windus, pounds 10.99

Edward St Aubyn's laconic titles, Never Mind, Bad News and Some Hope promise a sardonic, pessimistic view of life, and his latest novel, On The Edge, delivers a satirical tour round the millennial angst manifest in alternative therapies, cult religions, grey ponytails and the sales figures of The Little Book of Calm. On The Edge is a trip, sometimes literally so, through psychedelic psychosis in Utah via Scotland's Findhorn Foundation to California. "Sounds like Looney Tunes to me," says Gavin when his friend Peter tells him about the universal theories held by Sabine, the German girl Peter has briefly loved, lost and become obsessed with. And Looney Tunes it turns out to be when Peter takes leave from his job in a merchant bank to pursue Sabine in various outposts of New Age culture and encounters with the snake-oil sellers de nos jours.

Peter is just one of a bunch of seekers who collide on the path to enlightenment at the Esalen Institute in California. There is Brooke the American heiress, a poor little rich girl in her fifties, Andy the anti-guru guru, and Kenneth who has developed the catch- all philosophy Streamism and deceives Brooke into supporting him while he writes a non-existent book. There are Stan and Karen, a couple in their seventies who have taken up a hammy Indian called Walking Eagle. What kind of eagle, you might wonder, walks? They hope to find a cure for Stan's impotence at a Tantric Sex Workshop. Jason, a brilliantly portrayed failed English rock star, has been brought by his girlfriend, Haley, a graduate of a co-dependency group. Crystal, the illegitimate daughter of one of Brooke's shrinks and a hippie mother, is here to get her head together after tipping her ex-boyfriend into madness by introducing him to mescalin and magic mushrooms. Then Sabine arrives to splash in Esalen's sulphur hot tubs with the phoney Jerome in tow.

"Now Listen Up!" says a tutor at the workshop she is leading. "The way you language it up really matters..." So how does St Aubyn language up a narrative that involves shots at some softish targets? He does it with wit, merciless observation and exposure of the truly awful, and a compassion that humanises what might have been cartoon characters. For example, at Findhorn Peter sees the pathos of the homemade sweaters of the initiated that were "bristling with rainbows, pulsing with hearts, populated with endangered species, embossed with purple burial mounds and swirling with nameless mandalas"; the sweaters are both armour and examples of art judged by its sincerity not its result. Peter leaves Findhorn feeling subtly changed by the experience.

Peter's friend Gavin provides a tragic counterpoint to the self-indulgent antics elsewhere when he kills himself in his flat. It transpires that he suffered from a chemical imbalance; Peter had ignored his hints at breakdown and despair. Blokeish, sceptical Gavin, same school as Peter, same merchant bank, is Peter's alter ego, and he found his men- behaving-not-very-badly life unbearable; typically, he stabbed himself half-heartedly through the heart and had time to smoke two cigarettes while he bled to death.

The Tantric Sex Workshop brings the story to climax in a frenzy of love- making, although not the orgy that Sabine, revealed as the fakest of them all, would prefer. True love (Peter and Crystal, Karen and Stan) and sexual healing (Brooke and Kenneth, Jason and Haley) prevail. If there is rather too much of the characters' inner questings and their final thrustings, the passages that make you laugh more than compensate.

St Aubyn has achieved a comic novel which is more than a send-up and carries the message that love is not quite all you need; a large "pinch of sodium chloride" and the realisation that the world is marvellous and mysterious enough not to need a gloss of mumbo-jumbo come in handy too.