Patrick deWitt’s previous novel, “The Sisters Brothers,” was a splendid work of historical fiction that proudly wore its comic influences — Mark Twain and Charles Portis — on its broad and violence-scarred shoulders. This time, an author’s note suggests new influences, fabulists mostly, including Italo Calvino, Robert Coover, Roald Dahl, Steven Millhauser and the dangerous and inviting Robert Walser. (More about him later.)
The result, “Undermajordomo Minor,” is a fable in which the genuinely appealing Lucien Minor leaves his sleepy village (How sleepy? Its name is “Bury”) for the distant and bizarre Castle Von Aux. He befriends thieves, knocks heads with soldiers, falls in love, works his way into castle intrigues and discovers that his predecessor has stumbled into the nearby Very Large Hole, possibly so named because “Chekhov’s Gun on the Wall” was taken. Recently longlisted for Canada’s Giller Prize, “Undermajordomo Minor” is not actually a fairy tale, but the events lean toward the magical and the postmodern in that deWitt uses folk-tale motifs to make disturbing observations about the nature of love and redemption.
Lucien, known as Lucy, is an inveterate liar who isn’t as good at it as he thinks he is. Vaguely interested characters launch repeated interrogations to trap Lucy in his lies, and every time I laughed at their Dead-Parrot-sketch-like linguistic thoroughness. His mother is amusingly apathetic about his welfare, and his girlfriend is similarly unimpressed.
But after a supernatural recovery from an almost-fatal illness, he’s driven to self-improvement. His vanity allows deWitt to paint a hilarious picture of him getting acquainted with the dramatic implications of holding a pipe. “Lucy was looking forward to pointing with his pipe in a social setting; all he needed was an audience for whom to point, as well as something to point at.”
He’ll get those things, no worry. When Lucy finally arrives at the castle, Myron Olderglough, the major-domo of Jeeves-like elegance, brings Lucy into the mysteries of Baron Von Aux, who has descended into bestial madness since the baroness disappeared. Lucy engineers a reunion for the baron and then suffers through an orgy among titled ranks of hideous royalty in line with “La Grande Bouffe.” If Lucien is bathed in light imagery — and he does serve someone named Olderglough, after all — deWitt’s placement here of a certain lit candle deserves a graduate-level dissertation to do it justice.
Most of these characters, central and peripheral, tell stories explicating the tragic results of the heart or loins going terribly wrong. But these asides don’t further the larger tale, which, although it sits carefully between “Yes, this is a fable” and “No, it’s not,” should still get us tactfully to that “ever after” part. Here, I am not so sure the novel is successful.
It is exciting to mess with the structure of folk tales, as anyone who has watched “Into the Woods” or read stories by Aimee Bender knows. The success of such stories is often the result of a rigorous allegiance to a personal aesthetic. Consider, for instance, Robert Walser, the modernist Swiss writer who died in 1956. A quotation of his begins “Undermajordomo Minor”: “It is a very painful thing, having to part company with what torments you. And how mute the world is!”
Walser is a revelatory writer in that, like a fable, his work obeys dream logic. You can’t quite say why something happens, only that it happens with importance. Applying reason to ask questions about it feels ungainly. This is seductive to many writers — who wouldn’t want to hit a reader’s consciousness below the surface? — but it probably helped Walser that he was a tiny bit insane, sometimes hearing voices whispering in his head. He had daily experience making narrative leaps that defied rational thought.
DeWitt’s narrative doesn’t quite have that nimbleness. About two-thirds of the way in, the reader’s alarm bells should go off. Closing a book, the baroness says to Lucy: “I for one find it an annoyance when a story doesn’t do what it’s meant to do. . . . Would you not find yourself resentful at the promise of an entertainment unfulfilled?”
Is this the author coaching us as to what’s not coming? Maybe. By the end, there is death and rebirth, more death and the opening of a quest, but also a striking lack of consequence. I think the events do indeed shape Lucy, but his emotional core becomes too inaccessible to judge. More than one important thread vanishes without a gesture toward resolution. The story ends with a beautiful epitaph seemingly meant to bookend the Walser epigraph, but that doesn’t quite fulfill the story we’ve just read.
That said, the world deWitt gives us is generous, and the protagonist is someone we’re happy to follow. The novel proposes somewhat gently that the pursuit of a painful thing might just be the point, rather than the moment the quest is over — and deWitt illustrates that sweetly. The trip then might be enough for us: funny, sad, violent and illuminated by a minor light.
Gold is a writer in San Francisco.
By Patrick deWitt
Ecco. 317 pp. $26.99