Undermajordomo Minor is a tale of gothic terror, transcendent love, and ultimately an experiment in how far tropes can be twisted and turned.
And oh, it’s good.
From one angle, Patrick deWitt’s newest book is a classic Gothic novel – complete with a mad Baron, a wicked pickpocket, a series of thwarted love affairs, and a terrifyingly inescapable cave – which I’ve secretly been calling a grotto, to borrow some stereotypical Gothic language.
And yet from another angle, deWitt transforms these stereotypical details into something completely new – a novel that pays homage to the genre but simultaneously bends itself outside of the box.
Lucien Minor – Lucy, really – never quite feels at home in his village. After an almost-fatal bout of pneumonia and a failed romance with a local beauty, he decides to accept the position of undermajordomo at the far-off Castle Von Aux. With this new start, Lucy intends to reinvent himself by any means necessary – despite the disappointingly high failure rate of his lies and manipulations to that effect.
Once installed at the castle, however, it quickly becomes apparent that the position is not at all what he expected. His meagre pay is never quite forthcoming. Most of the rooms are shut up and dormant, and the castle is musty and cold. Besides the majordomo and the cook, no one else seems to work for the Baron – and yet Lucy is warned to be in bed by ten o’clock each night, and to lock his door. What could possibly be creeping about the castle in the dark?
And as with all great Gothic stories, this novel is hugely fascinated with romantic love and all its flowery appendages. How can love save or transform a person? What ugliness lurks behind jealousy? How far can emotion drive man or woman—or baron or pickpocket—in the search for true love, fulfilling romance, or righteous revenge?
Undermajordomo Minor twists and turns like a country road in the dark, and deWitt masterfully creates and maintains a foundational, unsettling tension. Something always seems to be lurking just out of sight, and whether it means good or ill remains to be seen. The novel’s short chapters – averaging between one and seven pages – carry this momentum forward with an eagerness bordering on relentlessness. You might find yourself swallowing twenty or thirty pages without trying, and yet the story never seems rushed. It’s just so well written that it practically reads itself.
Finally, it’s difficult and yet irresistible to compare Undermajordomo Minor to The Sisters Brothers – which, after all, was nominated for a whole host of awards in its day. Does Undermajordomo measure up? It’s almost impossible to say. Both novels have similar goals – the flippant and easygoing subversion of classic tropes – and yet are entirely different beasts. That said, it’s fairly safe to say that if you enjoyed The Sisters Brothers, you’ll enjoy this one as well. If you happen to like Edgar Allen Poe as well, then this novel is pretty much tailored for you.
This review (in a similar form) first appeared in the May issue of the Ottawa Review of Books.