Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt

Patrick deWitt's Undermajordomo Minor is a dark comedy that transforms European folktale elements into something entirely original. Imagine a mash-up of Wes Anderson's film The Grand Budapest Hotel with Pauline Reage's The Story of O and PG Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster.

Lucien (Lucy) Minor, a puny young man from a village of giants, accepts a position as assistant to the majordomo at a distant castle. When he gets to the castle of Baron Von Aux, you know it doesn't bode well for him when he is instructed to lock himself in his room at night.

I reviewed deWitt's The Sisters Brothers, a few years ago. As in that earlier novel, this one has dialogue that I found extremely amusing. In the following passage, the majordomo Mr Olderglough has asked Lucy what he thinks of a plan that has been proposed:

Lucy said, "I think it is somewhat far-fetched, sir."
"Are you not up for it?"
"I'm not, actually, no. And to be frank, sir, I don't believe you are, either."
"What sort of attitude is that? Let us rally, boy."
"Let us come up with another plan."
"Let us look within ourselves and search out the dormant warrior."
"Mine is dormant to the point of non-existence, sir. There is no part of me that wishes to lay nakedly abed and await that man's arrival."
"I tell you you will not be alone."
"And yet I shall surely feel alone, sir."
Mr Olderglough looked down the length of his nose. "May I admit to being disappointed in you, boy."
"You may write a lengthy treatise on the subject, sir, and I will read it with interest. But I highly doubt there will be anything written within those pages which will alter my dissatisfaction with the scheme."
"Well I'm sorry to have to tell you this, boy, but it must come to pass, and it will."
"I believe it will not, sir."

We will leave Lucy and Mr Olderglough at this point in their oh-so-polite disagreement. In their world, soldiers fight because they are soldiers, not because there is a war, and servants work because it's their job - even if they do not get paid. Befriended by a family of thieves, Lucy struggles to find meaning in his life.  

This gothic tale charmed me from the very start. There are no illustrations in Undermajordomo Minor, yet the books that I think most closely capture its essence are in graphic novel format: Tinder (Sally Gardner); Through the Woods (Emily Carroll), The Adventuress (Audrey Niffenegger), Baloney (Pascal Blanchet); and Beautiful Darkness (Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet). It would make a great movie.

I look forward to hearing Patrick deWitt at the Vancouver Writers Fest on October 23, 2015.

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