Undermajordomo Minor is the newest novel by Patrick DeWitt, published by Anansi House Press on September 5, 2015. DeWitt is well known for his previous and bestselling novel The Sisters Brothers, which received significant acclaim. The story follows Lucien “Lucy” Minor, a young man going out into the world to seek something more from life, gaining employment as an undermajordomo at the mysterious Castle Von Aux. Promotionally, the novel is described as “A love story, an adventure story, a fable without a moral, and an ink-black comedy of manners.”
Having only ever read Ablutions by DeWitt before, I wasn’t certain what to expect from this novel. Ablutions was more somber in tone for me, using an uncommon narrative perspective to tell a story about severe addiction. Undermajordomo Minor is a complete tone shift from this sort of novel, maintaining a motif of dark subject matter, but told in a comedic and charming way that is supremely enthralling.
While I drew many comparisons while reading the novel — early on finding the dialogue to have a whimsical tone reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film — the best way to describe the novel is like what one would expect a typical Victorian novel to be, except written for the modern era. A lot of the core tropes are there; quirky stock characters, a young man seeking his fortune, and a romantic plotline, but more modern sensibilities are present. I found this to be particularly the case regarding sex in the novel, which the characters within seem to have a far more open attitude about than the time period would otherwise suggest. Religion and spiritual views seem to take a social backseat as well, with most characters seemingly having little concern for it, or even open disdain.
Modern sensibilities did not just exist in the world of the narrative, but in the writing as well. I don’t want to give any specifics away, but I found the story to have a lot of points where a traditional Victorian novel would have things come together in a convenient way. Instead, this novel subverted those expectations.
Though there are many facets to it, the story is concerned with love first and foremost, making the narrative a lot more character driven than it is concerned with plot. What matters during the circumstances that Lucy is in are how they affect him and his relationships with other people, as well as what we learn about these people, rather than being concerned with driving a specific plot forward.
As a protagonist, Lucy is delightfully flawed. As the major-domo Mr. Olderglough puts it early on, Lucy possesses a likability, and this something I agreed with despite some of his behaviour. Lucy, though charming and often good natured, can be a profound liar, seeming to take a lot of pride in his ability to conjure them up. In many instances he produces complex lies that I found deplorable, especially in his reasoning for doing so. He lies to try and sabotage relationships, make himself look better, and/or appear more sympathetic.
Despite this flaw of his he also behaves with a great deal of sincerity, becoming very committed to the endeavors of his employment as well as his heart. The world he grew up in is also one that finds his smaller physicality unfavourable and weak, which helps to make his reliance on his words more understandable, even if he does abuse this at times.
The writing style was a lot of fun to read, causing me to laugh out loud on more than one occasion. Situations weren’t outright humorous, but the way they were told with great frankness and a lot of quick banter back and forth tickled me in a way that most novels do not. Parts I found particularly amusing as well were the small side-stories that would take place, where the narrative would take a brief departure from Lucy’s perspective to tell a character’s backstory, or even an influential event that our protagonist isn’t even aware happens. They added a lot of personality to the novel, and did so in a creative way by using the main storyline as a frame, rather than having it simply dictated by the storyteller character in context.
The formatting of the narrative was also of particular note to me, having been divided up into small sections in each chapter, typically ranging from 3-5 pages long. This presented the story in more digestible pieces, which I personally enjoyed as it made picking it up and putting it down a lot easier than other books. (Long stretches of text without breaks in the narrative for me to stop at are a minor peeve of mine.)
Undermajordomo Minor was a thoroughly enjoyable read, cementing Patrick DeWitt in my mind as one of my more favourite authors. It’s easy to pick up and read whenever you’ve got a moment, the characters are charming and eccentric, and the world is a more cynical, darkly comedic reflection of similarly-styled fiction. I’d recommend it to just about any reader, casual or more seasoned.