Review of Patrick deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor
A castle and the town under its shadow is the setting for Patrick deWitt’s latest novel, Undermajordomo Minor (Ecco, 2015). It is in this alpine landscape where Lucien Minor (Lucy), deWitt’s protagonist, is provided all the requisite tests of adulthood and where deWitt loots the motifs of the Romantic coming-of-age tale to produce a rollicking, modern work.
We join the seventeen-year-old Lucy as he leaves home for his new job as an under-servant at the castle Von Aux. After an exchange of farewells with his mother, he sets off down the road and soon finds the opportunity to sit on his suitcase and reflect, as any Victorian dandy might do: “He elected to linger, a favored pastime,” and as he lit his pipe and drew on the tobacco he grew dizzy and disorientated. Thus begins his tale.
A train carries Lucy across “the great green valley” and finally comes to a station “above the snow line, well beyond the first pass and into the deeper ranges where the drifts formed impossible meringue shapes and were painted blue and green in their shadows.” After getting directions from a pair of ruddy townsfolk, Lucy makes his way toward Von Aux, and as the castle comes into view he contemplates it’s significance: ”But what was the castle representative of? It was too early to name it. He only knew that it spoke of something colossal and ominous and quite beyond his experience.”
Inside Von Aux, Myron Olderglough introduces himself as Lucy’s immediate overseer, and Lucy is shown his quarters (the quarters of the former Mr. Broom, the previous undermajordomo who mysteriously disappeared.) Olderglough puts Lucy straight to work, and a few days later, during one of Lucy’s errands in town, Lucy falls in love with Klara, an attractive local girl whose hand he will win only by deposing her lover and soldier, Adolphus.
Back at Von Aux, Lucy learns one of the castles darkest secrets: that the Baron Von Aux is mad. The Baron prowls the cold halls at night, dining on rats and comporting himself as nocturnal beast, and Lucy surmises that it is love, or lack of it, that has driven the Baron to this wretched state. Lucy conspires to send a letter to the Baroness (she had left the castle long ago, for reasons only vaguely addressed) in which he entreats her to return so that the Baron might regain his sanity.
The baroness does return, along with consorts. There is a bawdy party thrown for the visiting aristocrats, a big hole in the mountain in which Lucy falls, and all other manner of mayhem. The question remains: will Lucy pass his tests, or perish?
deWitt’s goal with Undermajordomom Minor is literary. He isn’t out to right social injustice or comment on the major issues of our age. This book is simply an expression of joy and a love affair with language and writing. With this book deWitt succeeds in reshaping the magic tale to fit more closely with our modern tastes…our cravings for irony, cynicism, and parody. In the end deWitt’s Lucy eludes the two-dimensionality trap that parody often imparts on its heroes (think Wes Anderson here), and we give him our trust that he has emerged from his travails just as we would hope to. Lucy is human and fallible, after all, and this novel is better for it.
(This review first appeared on WorkadyReads.com on 11/3/2015)