Patrick deWitt is a Canadian writer whose second novel, a picaresque and darkly comic western called The Sisters Brothers, was much praised and shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2011. For the follow-up, deWitt has produced a picaresque and darkly comic middle-European fairy tale called Undermajordomo Minor. Instead of brothers named Sisters, it features a lone anti-hero with a girl’s name: Lucy (Lucien) Minor. As is traditional in storybook narratives, Lucy leaves his village of birth to seek his fortune — well, not to seek his fortune so much as just because he hates his village and everyone in it. He accepts a position assisting the caretaker (i.e. majordomo) of the castle of the Baron von Aux. On his way there he meets sundry vagabonds and oddballs; once installed at the castle, he becomes embroiled in true love, intrigue and a sadistic orgy, described in gleefully lurid detail. By the end of his adventures young Lucy has cheated death, become a man and may even have learned something. Or not.
The tale of Lucy Minor’s progress is gripping in places, unsettling in others. It is also consistently amusing. It seems reasonable to note that deWitt is a humorous writer rather than a hilarious one, a significant distinction. On the one hand this allows him to do something other than make the reader laugh, e.g. grip, unsettle etc. But on the other, at times while reading this book I felt rather like Homer Simpson watching Garrison Keillor on TV, thumping the set and shouting ‘BE MORE FUNNY!’ The novel is at its most involving when deWitt allows enchantment to take hold rather than be undercut. The romance between Lucy and Klara, his true love, is poignant; the aforementioned orgy is genuinely disturbing; Lucy’s consignment to, and attempted escape from, a seemingly bottomless pit is dramatic and nightmarish and, as a result, funny to boot.
In the book’s acknowledgements, deWitt thanks more than a dozen authors (plus one cartoonist and a film director) whose works he ‘considered’ while writing it: Roald Dahl, Italo Calvino, even Jean Rhys. One might also add the Grimms, Kafka and Edward Gorey, as well as Magnus Mills and Dan Rhodes, whose short story collection Don’t Tell Me the Truth About Love (2001) contains mordantly hilarious fables of this ilk. Nonetheless, I finished Undermajordomo Minor feeling that deWitt is a literary original who will be around for a long time to come. It will be fun to see which genre he subverts next.