Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt

Cheerily, then, as one making teatime conversation, she asked “do you yourself ever think of suicide?” Lucy pondered this. “No more than is customary, ma’am.” The baroness looked on approvingly. “That is a stylish reply.”’

And so Patrick DeWitt sets the tone of Undermajordomo Minor, whereby he swaps the fantastic anti-western Coen Brothers-esque oddness of The Sisters Brothers for a sort of mock Victorian, distorted-fairytale, Wes Anderson flatness-of-effect bizarreness.

We follow the adolescent Lucian ‘Lucy’ Minor as he leaves a family that has no particular feelings for him and a life he has no particular feelings for himself – he notes when going that ‘he was mourning the fact there was nothing much to mourn at all’— and we see his progression as he takes up work at a mysterious castle, which is surrounded by a village occupied by bands of soldiers fighting a mysterious and nonsensical war, throughout which he is pursued by bizarrely polite thieves who keep taking a pipe that Lucy must continually ask to be returned.

However the story’s air of antic absurdity and irony is ceaseless without being tiring: DeWitt is a talented comic writer, and he delivers a great deal of out-loud, make-everyone-on-your-commute-think-you’re-weird laughs, such as when Lucy smokes a pipe for the first time and feels ‘very dramatic, and wished someone was watching to witness and perhaps comment on this’. It has a beguiling strangeness, and like Lucy you find yourself unable to look away from its fevered imagery, such as the first time he sees elusive Baron he serves under, who has gone mad and spends his time naked and eating rodents. Lucy half-lucidly performs a job that makes little sense to him, falls in love with a girl who seems mysteriously distant, and tries to navigate his nonsensical surroundings: along with the castle setting, Lucy’s bafflement at the forever obscure situations he finds himself in seems, dare I say it, somewhat reminiscent of Kafka’s The Castle.

DeWitt’s debut novel, Ablutions, was a messy, unimpressive second-person story following drunken Los Anglers in a prose style that seemed as inebriated, but his Booker Prize shortlisted follow-up, The Sisters Brothers, has something of genius about it: it was as hilarious as it was profound, with the poignant relationship of eponymous hitman siblings; their anxieties, shared historical traumas and mutual reliance flawlessly evoked. After this, Undermajordomo Minor feels like a step backwards. Its pervasive ridiculousness is entertaining, but somewhere in all the noise the sincerity that DeWitt had shown himself to be so gifted at gets drowned out. Brothers may have had a section narrated by suffering beavers, but you could always believe the kinship of Eli and Charlie Sisters. The characters that surround Lucy Minor may be amusing, but you never feel any true connection is achieved between them. It’s a great shame.

Towards the end of the novel, Lucy accidentally witnesses what feels like a satire of aristocratic decadence, as an orgy breaks out between visiting aristocrats at the castle. While witnessing these unsettling acts being performed with a lit candle, he privately bemoans ‘the absolute lack of humanity in the room’. Like the orgy, this book may be endlessly playful, inventive, and compellingly bizarre, but there’s an all too noticeable lack of real emotional engagement.

By Rory McCarthy

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.