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.