by Patrick DeWitt
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published September 5th 2015 by House of Anansi Press (first published January 1st 2015).
A young man, bored by his humble life and forced from his home by his seemingly callous (though more likely long-suffering) mother, sets out to take up employment in the only place that will have him: a mouldering castle where the few remaining servants are always certain to lock their doors at night. Undermajordomo Minor is the story of Lucien Minor – known as Lucy to friends and enemies alike – and his metamorphosis from listless country bumpkin, to credulous retainer of a mad baron, to heart-sore lover bent on murder.
At its outset Undermajordomo Minor establishes a fairy-tale ambiance. Bury is a remote hamlet in a snug valley ringed by mountains, accessible only by steam-train. On its outskirts sits a homely, blue-doored cottage. Within stands a mother, flour-dusted, widowed only six months past. And in the yard sits her son, in sheepskin cap, loitering on his upended suitcase while attempting to strike a dramatic pose with his newly-purchased pipe. At first blush Undermajor Domo is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, in that both revolve around young men, only seventeen years old, who have led sequestered lives in bucolic villages, each of whom has been spurned by his lady-love, and has subsequently set out on a life-changing adventure. But unlike Gaiman’s naïve yet sympathetic protagonist Tristan, Lucy Minor is distinctly unlikable. Listless, vain, relentlessly dishonest and blithely unaware of his own ridiculousness, he is more like a figure from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, an indolent youth who feels the world owes him something, and to whom the world is about to reveal its utter indifference.
He is, in short, an average teenager.
Lucy is a narcissist and a fool, without the common sense to realize either. This very obliviousness is one of the keys to DeWitt’s particular brand of subtle humour. The reader, like most of the characters Lucy tries to impress with his transparent lies, recognizes each of his untruths for what it is, as so can indulge in the ensuing schadenfreude of each encounter’s uncomfortable aftermath.
It is, I will hazard with a high degree of certainty, the lewdest act of literary depravity ever to be inflicted upon a peach tart.
DeWitt’s other approach to levity is the upright primness demonstrated by almost all of his characters, Lucy included. Even when they are upbraiding, deceiving, robbing and assaulting one another, they do so with a Victorian civility that is funny for no other reason than the absurdity of it. One could be forgiven for internally narrating the book in the voice of John Cleese’s Cheese Shop Sketch patron.
In fact the book includes many elements that would not seem out of place if they were inserted into an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Lucy encounters a pickpocket who cheerfully returns stolen items when asked. Upon reaching his new place of employment, the Castle Von Aux, he finds it barred and shut. Subsequently he is accosted, not by French knights, but by the local militia, a force that wages ceaseless war against unseen enemies for unknown reasons. When finally admitted Lucy meets his new superior, the majordomo Mr Olderglough, a chamberlain more concerned with the timing and presentation of his breakfast than the rapid decay of the castle that is his charge.
But unlike Monty Python, DeWitt’s understated humour never pushes into fully-fledged absurdist territory. He is content to inspire a chuckle and get on with the story. The book never devolves to the point of having Scotland Yard appear to arrest the entire cast, for example, so to describe Undermajordomo Minor as a comedy or farce would be an mischaracterization.
And yet there is a Very Large Hole. And a parrot.
As Lucy becomes familiar with the castle and its inhabitants, the book takes a menacing turn. Mr Olderglough directs Lucy to confine himself to his room after 10 pm and to lock his door without fail. No explanation is given, which serves only to pique Lucy’s curiosity. But when Lucy absentmindedly forgets the majordomo’s injunction, the reason for it soon becomes apparent, in grisly fashion. Other mysteries arise as well, not least of which include the fate of Lucy’s predecessor, Mr Broom, and the whereabouts of the castle’s unseen master, the Baron Von Aux.
As with many teenage boys, Lucy becomes distracted by the book’s two female characters, and through their encounters DeWitt leads us even further away from the realm of fairy-tales. Klara, the radiant yet impoverished daughter of the village pickpocket, becomes the object of Lucy’s desire. His clumsy advances are surprisingly successful, and before long their courting takes the natural course one would expect of teenagers left to their own devices. The other major female character is the Baroness Von Aux, whose reappearance at the castle leads to the book’s most bizarre scene. It is, I will hazard with a high degree of certainty, the lewdest act of literary depravity ever to be inflicted upon a peach tart. These sexual escapades set Undermajordomo Minor far apart from the Brothers Grimm, and would undoubtedly result in an R rating for any faithful film adaptation.
As is so often the case when sex is involved, emotions supersede logic, hormones conquer wisdom, and seventeen-year-old Lucien Minor casts off his meek persona. His first act of violence is selfless, committed in the defense of another, but his next is anything but. Inspired by bitter jealousy, he contemplates the most heinous of all crimes: murder. His goal is to win Klara once and for all, but, Lucy being Lucy, events do not unfold as intended and he finds himself in an even more tenuous situation.
While I would not go so far as to categorize Undermajordomo Minor as either a thriller, an adventure, a mystery or a comedy, it has elements of all of these. I would not even call it an adult’s fairy-tale, for though the overall setting is anachronistic, there are virtually no elements of magic or fantasy. Nor does it attempt to teach any moral lesson. If pressed I might call it a coming-of-age folk tale, told in a whimsical, entertaining style that subtly winks at the reader, as if to say ‘don’t make the mistake of taking this too seriously’.