'Undermajordomo Minor' is an imaginative fairytale marred by small imprecisions

The latest novel from the author of 'The Sisters Brothers' tells the story of an enigmatic Baron in a language all its own.

Undermajordomo Minor By Patrick deWitt HarperColllins 336 pp.

Gowers, thou shouldst be living at this hour! I refer, of course, to Sir Ernest Gowers, irreproachable author of 1954’s "The Complete Plain Words," who would have had a thing or two to say about the grammar in Patrick deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor. 

Here on page 5, for example, the hero of the novel, Lucius “Lucy” Minor, is amateurishly smoking a pipe. “He took another draw, but being a fledgling he became dizzy and tingly; tapping the pipe against the heel of his palm, the furry clump clomped to the ground like a charred field mouse, and he watched the blurred tendrils of smoke bleeding out through the shredded tobacco.”

Now, “charred field mouse” is pretty good, and you might even be impressed by the blurred tendrils, but keep your eye on that “tapping.” I think it’s what Sir Ernest would call an unattached (or unrelated) participle: Its subject should be Lucy, the one doing the tapping, but grammatically, as the sentence runs, the subject of “tapping” is “the furry clump” – which doesn’t make sense. We run into the same problem on page 67, when Lucy looks through a telescope. “Peering into the device, the village leapt into view....” Which would suggest that the village is peering into the device, etc. etc. To be clear, this isn’t stylishly compressed writing. Nor is it bad writing, as such. It’s just – wrong.

Sigh. But let’s not blame Patrick deWitt. Let’s blame his copy editor. If he had one. We all know that the publishing industry is falling to pieces. The point is that shaky syntax, even if registered only at an unconscious level, can give the reader a sort of slipped-disc, not-quite-airtight feeling – a sense that he might not be in entirely safe hands.

And this tremor of instability, compounded by other small imprecisions, pursued me through my reading of "Undermajordomo Minor." Which surprised me, because deWitt’s last novel, 2011’s inside-out Western "The Sisters Brothers," was a small, wild masterpiece of idiomatic control. The voice of Eli Sisters, narrator, killer-for-hire alongside his much wittier and more dangerous brother, Charlie, was perfect – an antique formality always at the point of being overloaded by dejection, violence, strangeness, harsh comedy.

“I was often forced to whip him,” reflects Eli of his horse, the wretched Tub, “which some men do not mind doing and which in fact some enjoy doing, but which I did not like to do; and afterward he, Tub, believed me cruel and thought to himself, Sad life, sad life.”

"Undermajordomo Minor" is a fairytale. Black Forest–y setting, whiff of Mervyn Peake’s "Gormenghast," whiff of Wes Anderson. When I say Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast I mean impressive fantastical scale and gloom (and a castle with a mad baron in it). And when I say Wes Anderson I mean hipness, undigested elements, twinkling wit, whimsy on the loose, a palette similar to that of "The Grand Budapest Hotel," layered, almost lacquered detail, and – in spite of this – a strange haste in the storytelling.

Lucy Minor, restless teenager, leaves his village and his flour-covered mother to travel to the faraway castle of the enigmatic Baron Von Aux, where he will take up the post of assistant to the majordomo. (Hence: Undermajordomo Minor. Superb title.) He travels by rail, "Grand Budapest Hotel"–ishly, across some unspecified, unhistorical portion of central Europe, and deWitt lashes the canvas with brilliant painterly strokes in his description of two pickpockets working the train: “The men were just setting upon him when a train traveling on the westbound hurtled past, rocking the compartment and drenching it in flashing light, and disturbing most everyone’s rest. The thieves quit the compartment like shadows thrown across a wall; and though many passengers were momentarily awakened by the passing train, none had seen the pair go, and so none realized they had been robbed.”

To quibble, though. Another image: “Behind them, at the apex of the looming mountain, Lucy could make out the pops and puffs of the area war, the soldiers scrabbling about, insects swarming cream.” This is a description of the pointless military conflict going on around the castle walls, with random skirmishing and discharges of musketry. The scale of it is nicely and quite Andersonianly done, the toylike “pops and puffs” of distant gunfire. That “insects swarming cream,” though – that’s jarringly modern and icky and not right. I’m being fussy, indeed I am.

But I geezer-ishly repeat: This never happened in "The Sisters Brothers." That was a novel precise in diction, conception, and internal physics. The idiom, inventive and ironic as it was, never wobbled. In "Undermajordomo Minor" the general lingo, the dialogue too, is sort of slightly rococo mid-19th-century, but then someone says, “We just like to fight, is what it is,” and someone else says, “No peeking, is what I’m saying here.” Clang, clang. It may be that deWitt has mashed the octaves of language and produced a beautiful thing, to which I happen to be deaf. But I don’t think so.

Some more about the story: The Baron Von Aux – like Lord Sepulchrave, 76th Earl of Groan and master of Gormenghast – is bonkers. He eats live rats and hides in the dark. Mr Olderglough, Lucy’s boss at the Castle Von Aux, is also bonkers, but in a more amiable style. The circular banter between him and Lucy has a sitcom vibe to it. (“Has anyone ever told you you possess a likeability?” “Not that I can recall, sir, no.” “You possess a likeability.” “I’m happy to hear as much.” And so on.) The pointless warfare rages – or scuffles, rather – around the castle walls. An orgy, orgiastically detailed, is held at the climax of a great banquet. Nearby there is a Very Big Hole, at the bottom of which.... But no spoilers. It’s daringly imagined, expressed in wavering colors, not quite fully rendered, such that when we get to the end of it we think: Um.... Would one more draft have done the trick? We’ll never know.

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