With the release of his third novel, there’s a lot of expectation resting on Patrick deWitt’s bony shoulders. Can Undermajordomo Minor possibly live up to the standard set by his wryly funny, dark, and often absurd sophomore effort, The Sisters Brothers? The short answer is: yes, and no.
There is much about Undermajordomo Minor that works, and works very well. But the book lacks some of its predecessor’s momentum. Readers who were carried along by Charlie and Eli Sisters’ exploits and adventures (and Eli’s pitch-perfect first-person narration) may find deWitt’s new protagonist and meandering plot somewhat less enthralling.
Told in the third person, Undermajordomo Minor tells of Lucien “Lucy” Minor, a listless, loveless, and luckless young man who finds himself at loose ends in the small European village of Bury. When the local priest intercedes on his behalf, writing letters of introduction to every castle within a hundred kilometres in the hope of finding Lucy a job, the only response comes from Myron Olderglough, majordomo of Castle Von Aux in the remote eastern mountains. Lucy, spurned by the object of his affection and finding his mother happy to be rid of him, accepts the offer of employment, “a decision which led to many things, including but not limited to true love, bitterest heartbreak, bright-white terror of the spirit, and an acute homicidal impulse.”
As in his previous work, deWitt’s greatest strength is his tone. Darkly humorous, irreverent, and playful, the syncopation of his narrative voice bounces readers through scenes that range from the absurd to the sweet to the grotesque. And one cannot fault deWitt’s dialogue. The slightly formal tone of the language is in keeping with the vaguely European, historical setting, and makes for some wonderful exchanges (“May I admit to being disappointed in you, boy?” asks Olderglough. “You may write a lengthy treatise on the subject, sir, and I will read it with interest,” replies Lucy). Though Samuel Beckett is not among the authors deWitt lists in his acknowledgements, there is a decidedly Waiting for Godot–like quality to many of the conversations. Consider this interplay between two thieves Lucy encounters on his train ride to the castle, when Lucy enquires if they are related to each other and the elder thief replies that they are friends:
“Not today we’re not,” said Mewe.
“No, that’s true. Today we’re not friends. But normally, yes.”
“Why aren’t you friends today?” Lucy asked Mewe.
Mewe shook his head. “Memel likes to talk; he’ll tell you.”
“You’ll only interrupt me,” Memel said.
“No, I won’t.”
“It’s an unremarkable thing,” Memel admitted to Lucy.
“If idiocy is unremarkable,” added Mewe.
“Of course idiocy is unremarkable. That’s its chief attribute.”
“I’ve found your idiocy to be quite remarkable at times.”
However, one can have too much of a good thing, and despite the quality of these repartees, the fact that all the characters communicate this way results in a lack of distinction between their voices. We know who is speaking because deWitt tells us, not because the individuals are recognizable on their own.
This is one of a handful of quibbles with Undermajordomo Minor, which is not to say the book isn’t thoroughly enjoyable. It is, but it does fall short of being the undisputed equal of its elder sibling.