Heart of the Storm: On Patrick deWitt’s ‘Undermajordomo Minor’


A 2002 essay by the academic Andreas Huyssen outlines the critical problem that some people “still want to force us to choose between high and low, or as Susan Sontag put it in the 1960s, between Dostoyevsky and The Doors”. Postmodernism, he argues, has lost its critical edge, hybridization — between lofty and populist, bridging nations’ cultures — has become the norm.

Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt has loaded up his car and is headed to the heart of this storm. His first book, Ablutions, brought the folk mythic of Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson to the delusions of a degenerating alcoholic working in a bar. His follow up Western, The Sisters Brothers, blended the Coen brothers with Frank Miller. His latest, Undermajordomo Minor, is billed as a fairy tale but has cited influences as diverse as Robert Coover, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and C.F., a musician-cum-zine author published by late Brooklyn publisher PictureBox Inc. So is it fair to consider him in terms of a binary between high and low? Is his work entertainment, something to get us off? Or is it original, beautiful, communicating deep ideas? Do we need to pick?

Undermajordomo Minor, on the face of it, is straightforward enough, a plot plucking memories from our childhood reading: Lucien Minor, a 17-year-old miserabilist, can’t quite connect with the world. He leaves home to escape boredom by working at a distant castle for a mysterious Baron, meets various colorful characters, falls in love, has some rivalry for his paramour, and seeks closure.

All this is as seen through deWitt’s distinctive lens, and from the opening pages Minor is “mourning the fact that there was nothing much to mourn at all,” because he’d never had a close relationship to his parents. He is detached, arguably depressed — what might kindly be described as “melancholic,” if one is to romanticize low mood — and can’t seem to feel at home anywhere.

In describing this, deWitt deploys a similar narrative structure to that of “intermissions” in The Sisters Brothers — set piece subplots, teed up with filmic titles. There’s a scene where Minor encounters two thieves, Memel and Mewe, on his train out of town; the arrival of an elusive Baroness, with whom his feral boss is having a volatile relationship; his own travails with a love interest and her alpha-male soldiering spouse; a failed murder attempt by Minor ending with a digression that sees him fall into an abstract Very Large Hole in the ground.

The prose is at points sparse — declarative and distant — like a bedtime story, at others full of naïve grandiloquence. Upon meeting a group of soldiers: “Lucy was afraid of these men, naturally, for they carried themselves so grimly, and it seemed they intended to set upon him and for all he knew bring him to harm.”

A plus for pace, but locations — Minor’s hometown Bury, the castle where he works, the village it overlooks – are not photorealistic, delicately picked out still-life, but more like watercolor. A settlement is “collected, like leavings, debris;” the Castle Von Aux comprises “a broad, crenellated outer curtain wall and two conical towers…built at the sloping base of a mountain range, standing grey-black against the snow.”

In opposition to that, characters are larger than life, almost Disneyish. Majordomo Mr. Olderglough, to whom Minor reports, is “an elegantly skeletal man of sixty…his right arm hung in a sling, his fingers folded talon-like, nails blackened, knuckles blemished with scabs and blue-yellow bruising.” An obnoxious pair of visiting aristocrats are variously “slick, blubbery” and “crimson, panting” — images straight out of Roald Dahl.

The result lends portent, aids exaggeration and farce. Textually, the obvious comparisons are from European fiction skirting the boundary between realism and fabulism — The Brothers Grimm, Stefan Zweig, George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Color is symbolically used to denote sadness, particularly blue: the smoke around a train, Minor as “The Blue Boy.” The allusions here are mythic — Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Gothic literature. And there is still the odd, comedic, deWitt flourish: the straight-faced incongruity of Lucy endeavoring to smoke a pipe is set-up, and put away, clinically. “Feinting, he removed his pipe and pointed its stem at the storm clouds, now tabled across the valley,” beggars incredulity, and laughter.

On a larger scale, because of the abstracted reality, we can choose to read the narrative as entertainment, or as allegory. When Minor falls into the Very Large Hole it might be a chance for him to meet two men who’ve also paddled into tough romantic straits, have failed to escape, and lack the chutzpah of a younger man. It’s also no great shakes to see the hole in terms of mood — an obvious link would be to Shane Jones’s 2010 book Light Boxes, which drew criticism for its alleged solipsism and for being too twee, despite being an innovative exploration of seasonal depression.

Unlike that book, deWitt doesn’t fall into any metafictional trap–– though the Baroness does at one point slam a book shut, “resentful at the promise of an entertainment unfulfilled” — but he does put clear water between himself and his previous novels.

It’s easy to parse his gradual movement from a linear narrative to something marginally more picaresque, retaining the sharp, script-like precision of The Sisters Brothers. Along with shortening sentences, his prose is gradually becoming more straightforward, and less gnomic — veering from the jabbing finger of second person, to the personalized first, to more conventional third.

Any arbitrarily conceived progression aside, there are various familiarities. Plot points of dissatisfaction and emancipation from a troublesome job have cropped up in all his books. They also all have a single scene of orgiastic hedonism featuring the debasement of women. Minor’s name is shortened to Lucy, a glancing allusion to the feminizing, arguably softening effect of the naming of Eli and Charlie Sisters. DeWitt is unafraid to meddle in effluvia — the blood, cocaine, and sex in Ablutions; the B-movie violence of The Sisters Brothers, the surreal perversions in one scene here — and then there is the obvious symbolism, an atmosphere of pathological melancholy surrounding failing relationships and unrequited love, particularly from a male viewpoint.

So returning to the question with which we opened, are we left entertained, or something else? Or both? If we are to measure amusement in smiles, and pages turned per hour, then this succeeds on that front. DeWitt has solved the hard problem of chasing a much-loved novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize with something just as engaging, and in places, funny. The verse-like coda is sweetness, in extremis: Minor’s heart described as a “church of his own choosing, and the lights came through the colorful windows.” We are distracted — depth is hinted at — we move on.

And that’s where one might leave it, if it weren’t that the author is so clearly trying for something more, a desire to impress on us that with beauty and knowledge comes only sadness. In his acknowledgements, deWitt lists 19 authors, 15 of them men, whose work he considered when writing the book. And that’s when the trouble starts. To begin, that’s because it is hard for Undermajordomo Minor, indeed, any book to stand up alongside I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal, one of the authors cited. There are obvious similarities: both books consider young men’s early dreams colliding with disenchantment. In Hrabal’s novel, a once zealous character — who worked in European hotels — ends life in a sustained period of Schopenhauerian asceticism and abnegation of will. Minor, meanwhile, just doesn’t seem to learn. The list goes on: Dennis Cooper’s George Miles Cycle is arguably much more brave, shocking, and unrelenting in its descriptions of violence, drugs, and sex. Coover knowingly subverts fairy tales, but more rigorously deconstructs his narratives. Sammy Harkham, like C.F., another comics writer, is immensely innovative with his narrative structure and unforgiving in the density of his ideas. DeWitt also cites a fair smattering of existentialist writers — Thomas Bernhard, Knut Hamsun – whose straight talking introspection can easily be seen here.

All that aside, it’s obvious that listing these writers sets deWitt up with an insurmountable task, and every author seeks inspiration from a diverse array of sources. But if we return to Huyssen, that deWitt has chosen to decontextualize such a large palette of writers from at least 10 different countries — influenced by their tone, settings, structural interests, imagery — seems a very contemporary phenomenon. Curiously, the field he describes in his acknowledgements is dominated by literary fiction — including Robert Walser, who once worked as a servant in a castle — and not genre writers, whose writing this book overwhelmingly resembles.

With The Sisters Brothers, deWitt was casting his line into a pool arguably underpopulated by mainstream fiction. With Undermajordomo Minor, he is fishing in much more crowded water. On the one hand, this book is extremely entertaining, but he’s purposefully undermined the neatness of Zweig or Dahl to deprive us of the greatest “satisfaction,” if we are to use the words of his own character. On the other hand, if deWitt wants to make great art, he’s got to push as hard as the people he is drawing upon. The profundity he achieved in his debut, and now craves again, may still be another book or two away.

Tossed on Life’s Tide: Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank with You

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It takes close to 1,300 pages of Richard Ford’s critically acclaimed Frank Bascombe novels to reach the stories’ philosophical rub. Halfway through Let Me Be Frank With You, the latest and fourth installment in the series, Frank is visiting his ex-wife Ann in hospital. “Being an essentialist, Ann believes we all have selves,” he thinks, mulling over why he still fails to connect with her. “Character to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do.”

For fans of these painstakingly crafted books – beginning with The Sportswriter (1986), and moving through its sequels Independence Day (1995), and The Lay of the Land (2006) – the revelation that Frank is existentially adrift might not be news, but it’s rare to see both Ford’s literary approach and Frank’s disconnection laid out with such brevity. Since we first met him 28 years ago – “My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter,” reads the tetralogy’s opening line – Frank has defined himself by roles he’s played, whether it’s jobs (journalist, realtor) or periods of his life (the Default Period, the Existence Period). However it’s always been implicit that there is an associated void, an attraction to “mystery” ahead of facts, a detachment exacerbated by the uncontrollable nature of life and partly explained by it. To see this relinquishment to contingency spelled out so clearly goes to the heart of why Let Me Be Frank With You succeeds. Such clarity also complements the novel’s unconventional structure – the book is molded as four separate stories instead of the complete written through novel we have seen previously.

To recount the details of Frank’s life, as is usual in a review, seems somehow a betrayal of his character, since classifiers and summaries of his relationships and homes don’t quite define him the way his actions do. For the sake of context, though: Bascombe lives in New Jersey; he has variously been a short story writer, a failed novelist, a teacher, before turning to real estate; his first marriage to Ann hit the rocks when Frank indulged in serial affairs, prompted by the death of their young son, Ralph; he has two other children, the wayward Paul, who goes into the gift cards business, and the stentorian Clarissa, a vet. Frank survives prostrate cancer and is now, at the age of 68, back with his once estranged second wife, Sally.

These events, and Frank’s submission to them, have always loosely been built around set-pieces. The Sportswriter features a meal Frank has with the family of a young nurse he’s dating, Vicki, and an interview he conducts with Herb, a wheelchair-bound former footballer. Independence Day’s climax occurs after Frank spends a disastrous trip away with Paul during the titular holiday, and The Lay of the Land has him preparing for Thanksgiving. However all of them also see Frank adrift on a sea of characters, places and events that meander away from solid structural ground: Independence Day’s father-son bonding session kicks off over halfway through its 400 pages and The Lay of the Land’s ruminative digressions saw Michiko Kakutani criticize it for its “pages and pages of self-indulgent self-analysis.”

Now, in Let Me Be Frank, Ford writes just four loosely connected set-piece stories to get to the heart of what Frank is — four different events, all of them out of his control (hurricane, stranger appearing, wife’s illness, friend’s death) doing what he’s doing yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and dealing with them as best he can (there’s also a certain irony here, as Frank himself abandoned novels early in his career because he had, he says, “no talent” for the “longer form”). If there is anything essential to Frank’s character, it’s that he’s simply responding to what life throws his way. Ford heightens this by throwing in anecdotes not seen in the previous novels. There is also incredibly little about Frank’s childhood ever highlighted, something unthinkable, say, in Updike’s Rabbit books, where we feel like we have been living with Rabbit for several decades by the end of the saga. Frank, however, stays continually slippery, even if he becomes more comfortable in his discomfort.

The length of the book also gives Ford’s prose welcome precision. We still have the hallmark descriptive passages, mimetic dialogue and quotidian obsessions, but not so much in bulk. The beginning of the book’s first story, “I’m Here,” ventures into Updikean alliterative fury with its account of “fresh-cut lumber, clean white PVC, the lye-sniff of Sakrete, stinging sealants, sweet tar paper, and denatured spirits” but is mostly a detached take on the aftermath of a hurricane, a neat device for the sloughing off of previous identities. As he approaches death, Frank says he’s also “stripping back words,” which in his view “should no longer be usable”, as an aid to clearer thinking. He’s equally, he says, getting rid of old friends. “Since time invested determines the quality of a friendship, having more than five genuine friends is pretty much impossible.” Links to the past come through Proustian involuntary memory, when a Peter, Paul and Mary song heard over the phone leads to a musical potted history. “My mind fled back to the face of ultra-sensual Mary — cruel-mouthed, earthy, blond hair slashing…”

We have a persistence of the paradoxes that defined Ford’s earlier writing (“Sometimes things can seem worse just by not being better,” Frank tells Walter in The Sportswriter) as the character trudges into guilt-ridden fatalism. “I’m ready to cease and desist,” he says. “Yet somehow I feel implicated by everything’s dilapidation.” History comes to haunt him in the book’s second story, “Everything Could be Worse,” which recalls Joyce Carol Oates’s 1992 short story “Where Is Here?” when a former resident of Frank’s house in Haddam, who left in bloody circumstances, pays him a visit. This is the most formulaic narrative here, ending as it does with a momentary epiphany for Frank, and showcases the character’s obsession with phatic communication, the difference between what we say and what we really mean.

All the Frank novels have this: what he wishes he’d said instead, what he could have offered which would have achieved the same objective, the statements he considers to be lies.  “It’s not that difficult to counsel the grieving,” he says. “I could’ve said, ‘Roosevelt was a far better choice than Willkie back in ‘40.’ Which would be as grief neutralizing as ‘What a friend we have in Jesus.’”

The remaining two stories zero in on Frank’s long-term adversary Ann, his first wife, who is now suffering from Parkinson’s. Most intriguingly, he has at last realized what led to the breakdown of his marriage, “what is unquenchable and absent in her,” several decades too late. Their combativeness has reached a nihilistic stalemate, where Frank dutifully visits his ex in her medically serviced apartment and the pair rehearse the same old arguments, though without the attendant wistfulness on Frank’s part that once gave frisson to their meeting. “Deaths of Others” relives the suicide of Walter in The Sportswriter with the failing health of Eddie Medley, another former member of the beleaguered, ever depleting Divorced Men’s Club. It ends with a shoehorned denouement, not unwelcome if a reduced shadow of the more nuanced treatment of Walter’s death.

To finish, it is worth dwelling where we are with Frank with respect to Rabbit Angstrom, since the former’s rise came just as the latter dwindled, and the similarities — the obsession with property, the Emersonian rhetoric, the philanderer destroyed by the trauma of a child’s death, Haddam’s copper beech replacing Brewer’s cherry blossom — should not detract from the major differences.

Updike claimed to want to structure the Rabbit novels around a Joycean Odyssey, whereas Frank is tossed on life’s tide, the significant physical events that define him transpiring as if to someone else. Partly, this is because of his estrangement from Ann, and his children, but he also lacks a spiritual anchor, any lasting moment of transcendence that elevates him above the mire. Ironically it is Updike, a lifelong agnostic towards Emerson, who channels the latter’s “transparent eyeball” much more through his fiction (though it is Frank who is always quoting Emerson). Frank views the world as if he’s in a cinema, staring at the screen, preoccupied by something else. He’s also a greatly cleverer character than Rabbit and is a lifelong Democrat, a champion of the downtrodden, and is considerably less lucky. Ann never forgives Frank in the way Janice seems to with Rabbit, though the latter is far less contrite for his misdeeds.

Both men are Emersonian in their ability to reinvent themselves, “like a cat falls on his feet” as Emerson would say, and united in their absences and angst, a void Rabbit partway fills with Updike’s spirituality. With Frank, there’s no such luck. He’s cast adrift with only that which he can carry, without the lies of history and character to shoehorn him into unreality, and all the more truthful for it. Ford has only paid passing heed to his own rules in his Frank series, and in doing so pays tribute to his character’s protean nature. Where Ford attempts to contrive epiphanies, neat metaphors and acts of God, he does Frank a disservice.