Monday, 29 February 2016

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt Review

In a rural mountain area in an unknown part of the world (mainland Europe?) at an unknown point of time (mid-19th century?), a young man called Lucien Minor nearly dies from a terrible illness before his life has even begun. He miraculously survives, resolves to have something happen in his boring life and is subsequently appointed as the assistant to the Majordomo of the Castle Von Aux - an Undermajordomo - where his wish will be granted. Thieves, maidens, warriors, demented aristocrats await - and what is stalking the castle’s corridors in the night…? 

Patrick DeWitt’s third novel, Undermajordomo Minor, is as successful as his previous two without retreading old ground. This book is part love story, part Bildungsroman, and part gothic fairy tale - and something else which I’ll mention at the end as it’s a spoiler and I’m keeping the main review spoiler-free. 

While the book starts slowly, things pick up once Lucy (a name you’ll have to keep reminding yourself is the shortened name of the MALE protagonist) makes it to the castle. The overall look of the place feels like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast with its gothic sprawl and hint of menace. But the best part of the book is the comedy of manners mainly between Lucy and his new boss Mr Olderglough whose banter is pure delight. 

Mr Olderglough and Lucy’s interactions and the surroundings made me think of Wes Anderson’s last movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, as well as DeWitt having Anderson-ian interludes. Mr Olderglough tells Lucy at the end of one chapter, “Tomorrow we must locate, apprehend, and restore to normality the Baron” followed by an interlude entitled The Location, Apprehension, and Restoration to Normality of The Baron. It has the same wry tone and quirky approach to narrative which I loved being a Wes Anderson fan.

Though it is a coming of age story with elements of gothic fairy tales, Undermajordomo Minor is predominantly a romance as Lucy falls in love with local village girl Klara. Though the courtship is pleasant, it’s very conventional in its development as is how Klara is written, which is one of the few criticisms of the book (which might be intentional as I mention in the spoiler). She’s a wallflower, viewed more as a prize for men, who feels quite content to be that way. 

That said, all of the women characters are written in a way as to suggest they’re better off without men. If you see them by themselves, they function well - if not better - without them while the men, when left by their women, regress to a primal state. The Baron becomes feral, Adolphus (Lucy’s rival for Klara) goes to war, and men do terrible things to ensure their women love only them. 

I’m not sure what the commentary here is - love is a terrible thing? It’s the driving force behind all motivations in this book and bad things do happen here. There’s also the Freudian Very Large Hole which plays a big part in the plot. Men disappear into The Very Large Hole and are never seen again. Is the Hole representative of women and is DeWitt saying that once a man falls for a woman he’s doomed? It certainly seems that way for quite a few of the male characters. 

And then there’s THAT scene - you’ll know it when you come across it - involving the tart. It seems like the men are generally written as lascivious, simplistic children and the women as their quietly suffering but tolerant and far more sophisticated keepers. It’s quite a negative view of love and relationships! 

I really enjoyed the novel though. It’s very entertaining and amusing, the dialogue is very sharp, I liked how the setting is vague and things just exist without explanation - why is there a Very Large Hole in the middle of nowhere, what is the war being fought about, why is there no money in this fiefdom, where and when is this all taking place; we never find out. The characters are very charming and, though I wouldn’t call it a plot-driven story, the book barrels along at a steady clip (though there are lots of short chapters, white space, and blank pages, so it’s not nearly as long as its 336 pages suggests).

Patrick DeWitt does for the gothic romance in Undermajordomo Minor what he did for the western in The Sisters Brothers, refreshing it for a contemporary audience by telling a very good story in its genre. If you’ve enjoyed the author’s previous two books, you’ll definitely like Undermajordomo Minor. 

So this is the spoiler part of the review where I talk about what I think actually happened in the novel and what the ending means. 

The first chapter is entitled Lucy the Liar where we see Lucy lying about his prospects and trying to sabotage the relationship of his ex with her new boyfriend. We know he’s duplicitous then and emotionally immature - the latter part is understandable as he’s basically still a teenager. But we also see that he knows little about love. 

Earlier in that chapter we see him on his deathbed before he’s visited by a mysterious person - a man in burlap - who somehow takes away his illness and transfers it to his dad. Lucy recovers and his dad dies. But when he thought he was dying, Lucy made the wish that he hoped for “Something to happen” in his life. The man in burlap figure - let’s call him Death - grants Lucy that wish. Shortly after, a priest gets Lucy the post to the Castle Von Aux and his adventures begin. 

So here are two interpretations of what I think happened. 

None of what happens beyond the first chapter is real - it’s all a fantasy playing out in Lucy’s mind granted by the man in burlap. That explains why much of the world is so vaguely described and why Klara, seemingly his perfect love, would seem so one-dimensional; because Lucy hasn’t really known love yet and his experience with women is limited so his mind would create his ideal girl who would also fall for him.


Everything that happens does happen - Lucy is given a new lease on life by Death or God or whoever. But only for a little while to have some adventures and know true love and happiness because that ending might not be a hopeful one - Lucy sitting on a train to be reunited with Klara - because that’s actually the end of the line for him. His life is over, he’ll never see Klara again, and he’s headed to death. The book ends with his epitaph after all and he did see the man in burlap one last time - is he a harbinger of Lucy’s impending end? 

But what I really hope is that I’m wrong on both counts because I did end up liking Lucy. I want to believe he finds Klara and the two live happily ever after, like a fairy tale.

Undermajordomo Minor

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