About one third of the way into Undermajordomo Minor, the eagerly anticipated new novel by Patrick deWitt, an extravagant act of Hieronymus Bosch–like grotesqueness is perpetrated upon a large rat. This is not likely to come as a huge surprise to readers of deWitt’s previous novel, the darkly comic neo-western The Sisters Brothers. One of the most lauded novels of 2011 (it was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Man Booker Prize; it won a Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, and the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour), The Sisters Brothers contained any number of instances of brutality against both humans and animals. Nevertheless, the scene with the rat in Undermajordomo Minor is not exactly reflective of a typical work of recondite CanLit.
Admittedly, the rodent’s demise is a far cry from the violence that befell horses in the author’s previous novels. The protagonist of Ablutions, deWitt’s debut, strikes an innocent horse in the face for no discernable reason, and one of the most memorable scenes in The Sisters Brothers has the ill-fated horse Tub getting his eye ladled out with a soup spoon.
DeWitt quickly realized that meting out roughness on a horse – even in a fictional context – results in bitter consternation from dedicated animal lovers. “If you mess with a horse, there’s a whole group of people that you’re going to be dealing with for the rest of your life,” the author says. “I still meet them oftentimes at a reading. I can spot them at this point: that person that loves horses and hates me.”
So, perhaps downshifting from horses to rats is a rare instance of deWitt hedging his bets. “I’m curious to see if there are any rat lovers out there who are going to come after me,” he says.
Though in all fairness, as a follow-up to the runaway success of The Sisters Brothers, deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor, which is being published in September by House of Anansi Press, does not do much in the way of playing it safe. The two books resemble one another in appearance, thanks to the abstract, geometric, red-and-black design of the cover (by American designer Dan Stiles, who also did the cover art for The Sisters Brothers and Anansi’s reissue of Ablutions), but this is where most of the similarities end.
Instead of another western, deWitt has written a strange, frequently surreal fable set in an anonymous European country, featuring a protagonist named Lucien (Lucy) Minor who strikes out from the aptly named town of Bury to take up a job as a servant in the castle of the mysterious Baron Von Aux. Undermajordomo Minor does feature a love story, but it also contains murder, dismemberment, a bizarrely comic orgy scene, and a whimsical flight from a pit known only as the Very Large Hole.
If all that leaves you scratching your head, you’re not alone. DeWitt himself admits he’s not entirely sure what to make of his new work. “I’m still figuring out what sort of a book it is,” he says.
Born on Vancouver Island in 1975, deWitt spent much of his early life shuttling back and forth between Canada and the U.S., before landing in Los Angeles, the city that serves as the setting for Ablutions. (He now calls Portland, Oregon, home.) First published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2009, Ablutions, a dark roman à clef about the author’s time working in an L.A. bar, was a modest success, receiving mostly favourable reviews (including notices in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times).
DeWitt characterizes Ablutions, which is told in the second person, as “an extremely bleak and open-ended book.” It is also his most personal and, in the author’s conception, contains some of his best writing to date. “I have a suspicion that that is my finest book, and may be the best thing I ever do,” he says. “I wrote it from this very pure place and I haven’t felt that way since then.”