How droll the world is!: A Review of Patrick deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor

by Liz Harmer

Liz Harmer’s stories and essays have been published at Literary Hub and in PRISMThe New Quarterly, and The Malahat Review, among others. In 2014, her essay “Blip” won a National Magazine Award.

Undermajordomo Minor
House of Anansi Press
128 Sterling Road, Lower Level
Toronto, ON M6R 2B7

2015, 339 pp., $32.00, ISBN: 9781770894143


Lucy Minor is, from the start, aware that life is something to be played at. About to leave his family for the first time, he decides that he is “mourning the fact that there was nothing much to mourn about.” We watch him imagining being watched as he smokes his pipe for the first time: “Lucy was looking forward to pointing with his pipe in a social setting; all he needed was an audience for whom to point, as well as something to point at.” Lucy is, as this passage indicates, all about gesture, all about style and form. The content is beside the point.

Undermajordomo Minor opens with Lucy seeming to have miraculously recovered from an illness, hoping to live only so that something might happen to relieve him of his boredom. A job is arranged for him at the mysterious Castle von Aux, and Lucy leaves his home in hope of adventures, which, almost immediately, befall him. Everything around him on his train journey suggests danger, but the danger never threatens Lucy: Undermajordomo Minor, despite its many gothic elements, is comic at its heart. Nothing is all that serious in this novel; human behavior is bizarre and insane and abusive and hilarious and, ultimately, harmless.

Take, for example, the apparently senseless ongoing war that costs a character his life but remains in the background through the text. This war feels not like a terror but like one option for humans among many, each of which might be of equal merit.

“When he asks ‘and what is the point of the game?’ he might as well be asking ‘what is the point of this life?’ ”

Lucy gets off the train, and our narrator calls the first sighting of a group of warring soldiers “some manner of human industry taking place in the snow.” The exchange between Lucy, Memel (a thief), and Mewe (another thief) is representative of the novel’s humour and attitude:

“Those are people up there,” [Lucy] commented.
“Ah, yes,” said Memel.
“What are they doing?”
“Wasting their time.”
“Wasting their time doing what?”
“Playing a silly game.”
“And what is the point of the game?”
“To kill but not be killed oneself.”

This passage offers us a key to the text. Because it is a coming of age novel, and because Lucy is on a quest for adventure, when he asks “and what is the point of the game?” he might as well be asking “what is the point of this life?”

Memel goes on:

“Well, not to worry. You aren’t in any danger.”
“No?”
“Very little danger. A small danger…

(And here we have one of deWitt’s signature jokes, the deteriorating assertion: danger going from not any, to very little, to small).

…Keep on your toes, and you’ll be fine, I would think. The others are much worse off.”
“What others?”
“The killed, the killing. The rebels and their tyrannical opposition … They are often out and about.”
“These two parties are at odds, is that what you’re saying?”

(Here again, a good laugh, an ongoing joke: Lucy unintentionally understating in his slow-to-process way). Memel confirms:

“They are at war.”
“Why are they warring?”
“Ah,” said Memel. “Long story.”
“And what is the story.”
“It is most complicated and long.”
“Mightn’t you tell it to me in shorthand?”
“It would never do but to tell it in total.”
All this was troubling to Lucy. “Perhaps you will tell it to me later,” he ventured.
“Perhaps I will,” Memel said. “Though likely not. For in addition to being a long story, it’s also quite dull.”

Do you hear echoes, in this dialogue, of Lewis Carroll, as I do? Do you hear Monty Python? deWitt is at his best in exchanges like this one, in the fun he has with the back-and-forth.

When Lucy finally does meet the soldiers, they are also a great source of humour. When they come to interrogate him, his first observations diminish their self-seriousness; they might be at war, but their outfits are ridiculous. When he hears guns go off, he finds the sound “miniature” “cotton-wrapped” and even “quaint.”

Undermajordomo Minor has a good deal in common with deWitt’s previous novel The Sisters Brothers, a darkly comic western that was shortlisted for all of Canada’s major prizes and won two of them. Undermajordomo Minor, deWitt’s third novel, is released in the shadow of that rare combination of commercial success and critical acclaim, and it is difficult to read it without thinking of the other book. The covers and the titles encourage this comparison. Anansi’s covers of the Canadian books were designed by Dan Stiles and feature graphic shapes of black and white and red:

SistersBrothers

UNDER MAJOR

And there are the titles, both of which use puns on last names to make a little laugh. The Sisters Brothers is a perfect title. Undermajordomo Minor is far less so, because while he is hired as “undermajordomo,” Lucy never goes by “Minor.”

Because of these gestures linking the two books, I opened Undermajordomo Minor unable to orient myself to the different setting. The Sisters Brothers is a quest novel following two killers for hire as they move toward gold rush San Francisco. Undermajordomo Minor is also a quest, this time set in some weird, fictional mythic Europe that seems to be during something like the 19ᵗʰ century. It feels like gothic plus farce, where Sisters Brothers is western plus farce. They are both quests, and they are both funny, and they share a few other signature deWitticisms.

“Do you hear echoes of Lewis Carroll, as I do? Do you hear Monty Python?”

Despite these similarities in style, Undermajordomo Minor diverges from the earlier novel in significant ways. The Sisters Brothers, though it is odd, is much closer to realism; it is filled with familiar place names and plays out against the backdrop of real historical events. Meanwhile, Undermajordomo Minor is part mythic and many parts romp. Its setting is vague, and its stakes are relatively low. Lucy is so good-natured and hopeful, so untroubled, that he seems untouched by troubles experienced by peripheral characters. Whereas many of the adults have been broken by circumstance and participate in various kinds of abuse, Lucy believes that all things will work out for him; he is well-liked by both his eccentric bosses and his thief-acquaintances; he falls in love with the most beautiful girl in town, and engages in a rivalry with another of her suitors, but we never feel worried that things won’t work out for Lucy Minor, so long as he can find an audience for whom to point a pipe.

One of the pleasures of the novel is its disgusting, gluttonous, over-the-top descriptions of food. In an early, standalone bit, a character eats half a wheel of gouda and passes out to suffer

through a cycle of horrific dreams and visions: Alexander furiously copulating with his wife while eating his, Eirik’s, cheese; his wife laying on the table nude while Alexander carved elegant swaths into her broad white calf with a paring knife, for she herself was fashioned from cheese; that his penis was cheese

and so on. At the Castle von Aux, the cook Agnes makes unpalatable food, a madman feasts on rodents in darkened stairwells, and it soon becomes clear that cheese penises, a beauty “to be consumed,” and a “high opinion of Agnes’ tart” won’t be the worst of it. In a chapter titled “The Strange and Terrible Ballroom Goings-On” Lucy accidentally witnesses an orgy among the Count, Countess, Baron, and Baroness—perhaps deWitt is nodding to that famous joke of incest and insane debauchery called “the Aristocrats.” The Count does unseemly things to an actual tart (“grinding” it and eating it with the “aplomb of a hog lapping slop”) while Lucy stands behind a curtain with a literal salami stuffed up his sleeve. Eventually the salami and a lit candle are used in unexpected (well, perhaps somewhat expected) ways.

“ … the sins of the wealthy are more obscene than the noble sins of the poor.”

What is going on with food and sex in this novel? It is possible that a comment is being made on the similarities between greed, lust, and gluttony, each of these sins being much more disgusting than are stealing and murder; the sins of the wealthy are more obscene than the noble sins of the poor. There is a danger in getting what one wants. By this point, Lucy has already fallen in love with the great beauty Klara, and he perceives in this attraction a danger to himself. “If love [has] so degraded a personage of the Baron’s powers,” Lucy thinks, “what might it do to him?”

The long ballroom scene indicates a certain secret of human—adult—behavior that Lucy is attempting to make sense of from his perspective of perpetual bewilderment: “The group as a whole were evolving or devolving,” Lucy thinks, comparing them to animals. “There came a phase of general copulation among the party-goers” and “Lucy did not know and could not deduce what format or protocol they were guided by, but it did seem there were invisible cues of etiquette being adhered to.” Even here, deWitt is neatly, hilariously deadpan, the calm implied by the formality of “copulation” and “deduce” and “invisible cues of etiquette” being a mismatch for this scene of sloppy debauchery. The aristocrats degrade their women and are themselves disgusting.

Later, in a kind of underworld (though not a supernatural one), Lucy must join some wild men in eating raw fish, freshly caught: “[They] bit into the clammy bellies of their fishes, rending away the flesh in animalistic swaths. Soon blood and scales were shimmering in their beards.” Lucy is sickened by this, and as in the scene of orgiastic devolution, he will not partake but will sit apart, unwilling yet to become like them, until, eventually, he does.

Lucy never moves from innocence to experience, exactly, but heroically moves untouched through every trial. For a portion of the novel, Lucy experiences the melancholy of love, the fear of losing his beloved, but, just as we are not convinced by his performance with the pipe, we are not convinced of his melancholy. Klara and Lucy “set up to play house in a manner which was at first light of spirit but which took on a certain seriousness, then an absolute seriousness. This is how it would be, was Lucy’s thought, and it worried him because he had never been so satisfied before.” He fears seriousness, because if he treated a thing seriously it could hurt him. To be serious, or to become an adult, would be to become willing to degrade others or to succumb to madness, and Lucy finds this version of adulthood distasteful even as he hungers for it. When one of the aristocrats attempts to assault Klara, Lucy attacks him, turning his face to “a butcher’s display of dried blood and flesh.”

When he does return home, after several trials, including that trip to the underworld, he finds that even the most important, presumably miraculous or supernatural event in his life is easily explicable. While expectations are upended—thieves are wise, rulers are mad, vagrants seem godlike, jobs don’t pay—in the end this world has a logic internal to it that can be deciphered. Lucy ends up where he began, on a train imagining a future he intends to seek, and all, having ended well, is well.

“How mute the world is!” exclaims the book’s epigraph from Robert Walser. But the world of Undermajordomo Minor is not so mute. Explanations and aims are not thwarted as they are in the other novel that kept coming to my mind as I read—that is, Kafka’s The Castle. In both novels there are similarities of tone—the super-formal diction and the looping logic of language intended to reveal its emptiness, its meaninglessness—and in both there is a sense that nothing is quite real or true, even the love story. The behaviour of the characters in Undermajordomo Minor also recalls the strange behaviour of the characters in The Castle. Kafka’s hero, K., is always trying to get information from people who send him in linguistic circles instead or on hopeless quests, or they become hurt or begin to follow him around.

“ … the super-formal diction and the looping logic of language intended to reveal its emptiness, its meaninglessness … ”

A good part of Undermajordomo Minor, too, follows the same logic. Dialogue in the novel often goes like that long early exchange between Lucy and Memel, where Memel admits he likely won’t tell Lucy what he wants to know. Lucy’s predecessor Mr. Broom has disappeared mysteriously; several times, Lucy is told that something awful happened to Mr. Broom but we are not told, for a long time, what that awful thing is. The Baron von Aux, who is Lucy’s presumed boss, is nowhere to be seen. The difference is that, unlike in Kafka, we are told what happened to Mr. Broom, and we do meet the Baron. Not only are there insinuations that something strange is going on in the bedrooms (or, as it may be, the ballrooms) of the aristocrats, but we are granted full access to the details of their degradation. The mystery is solved and the answer is given. In deWitt’s world, you can take a train to a place, and it will arrive there.

In The Castle, K. arrives in the village where he has been hired as a land surveyor.

The village lay under deep snow. There was no sign of the Castle hill, fog and darkness surrounded it, not even the faintest gleam of light suggested the large Castle. K. stood a long time on the wooden bridge that leads from the main road to the village, gazing upward into the seeming emptiness.

Compare this to Lucy’s arrival in the village in Undermajordomo Minor: he, too, arrives to a snowy village, but for him the Castle is neither hidden nor elusive. “He looked up at the castle, and when he did this he startled, for it was much closer than he’d sensed it to be, as if the property had uprooted itself and met them halfway.” To read The Castle is to surrender to our absolute dissatisfaction: we will not know; we will never know; we will never arrive. (Perhaps it is not irrelevant that Kafka didn’t finish the book in his lifetime). Rather than a world that is inscrutable or “Kafkaesque” in the sense of nightmare mazes that actually have no way through, Undermajordomo Minor gives us a world in which, to our surprise, we are not thwarted at all.

Undermajordomo Minor shows us what it is to come of age in a world without meta-narratives, a world in which the adults know nothing. There seems to be some critique, here, of unchecked desire; however, there is also a valorization of the pursuit of all desires. It isn’t clear what position the novel takes. Lucy is disgusted by the ballroom scene, but he pursues his own desires all the way to attempted murder and is rewarded for that pursuit.

Undermajordomo Minor shows us what it is to come of age in a world without metanarratives, a world in which the adults know nothing.”

As Memel, an endearing thief, says, “There is nothing noble in suffering, nothing worthwhile in mindless labours. And if you see something you want, children, you should take it. Because the fact of your wanting it renders it yours.” This would seem to be a dangerous position to take, one that would result in rape, abuse, and murder, among other atrocities, but while many of the characters are harmed by it, many, too, are not. Maybe some things are better than others, or maybe they aren’t; the novel shrugs.

Rather than mute, the world here is simply not to be taken seriously. The puzzles don’t satisfy, so one ought to just stop asking about them and start loving somebody instead. What if K. had given up and surrendered? What if he had stopped insisting that the world make sense and just adopted a puppy, as Lucy does? Rather than mute, this world is loudly, generously ridiculous.

The tone is deadpan, in a comedic style that feels freshly applied here, and I imagine it ideally being delivered by John Cleese or Bill Murray. Much of the humour relies on a discrepancy between content and expression, either neutral understatement or crazed overstatement, and the pleasures of this are significant. Consider the faux-seriousness of the following exchange:

“You’re not dead?” he said wonderingly.
“No, I’m not dead. Hello.”
“But where in the world have you been?”
“Away.”
“Where are your shoes?”
“I lost them.”
“Why is your suit in rags?”
“I have suffered through an era of unluckiness.”

And:

“He’s died. They’ve exploded him.”
“Who has?”
“They have.”
“What does that mean, exploded him?”
“It means that he is no longer of a piece.”
“Where is he?”
“Here and there—that’s what I’m telling you.”

Everywhere in this strange world there is a discrepancy between reality and reaction. No terrible event presents a real threat. The tone of wry amusement becomes the novel’s strongest characteristic. In the opening of The Castle, K. says “Enough of this comedy … You are going a little too far, young man.” But Undermajordomo Minor glories in the weirdness of its world, which gives us much to laugh at and nothing over which to worry. DeWitt’s voice is like that of the knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who claims that the full amputation of his arms is “just a flesh wound.” If you are still worried about whether there is a grail, you’re missing the point.


Liz Harmer’s stories and essays have been published at Literary Hub and in PRISMThe New Quarterly, and The Malahat Review, among others. In 2014, her essay “Blip” won a National Magazine Award.

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