Undermajordomo Minor, by Patrick deWitt. New York, New York: Ecco, September 2015. 336 pages. $26.99, hardcover.
Dating back to the old saying “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you,” there is an understanding in our society that performing good deeds is a lucrative venture. Only recently have authors and artists begun to unpack the logic of this statement: if we perform good deeds for others with the explicit expectation that good things will return to us, for whose well-being are we truly acting? Is there a sinister selfishness implicit in this? The question of what constitutes a “good person” is much more complicated than it may seem. Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt, best known as the Man Booker-nominated author of The Sisters Brothers, is a novel that thoroughly explores this cloudy morality through the plight of its protagonist, Lucien “Lucy” Minor.
From the story’s beginning, Lucy lives a poor and sick existence in the town of Bury. As he lies dying, a mysterious figure approaches his bedside and asks, “What do you want from your life, Lucy?” All Lucy can respond at this moment is, “Not to die.” The figure presses him, asking, “If you were to live, what would you hope might come to pass?” Lucy responds, “Something to happen.” As you might guess, Lucy gets his wish: plenty of things happen to him, but in the tradition of the “be careful what you wish for” type of storytelling, none are quite what he wants.
Lucy proves to be an interesting character, specifically because he is not honest or morally pure. He is spurned by not only his would-be lover Marina, but even his own mother. Lucy is far from the stock character who reacts with grace to all the injustices committed against him; instead, he attempts to subtly exact revenge. However, he is also bumbling, so when, for instance, he lies about the prestige of a new position he has received, as an undermajordomo at the far-away Castle Von Aux, he is immediately discovered by the much savvier Marina to be lying—and his lie is exposed in a public and humiliating manner. Such is the morality of this world. Such is also the bleak, bleak humor of this book, in which terrible but humorously appropriate consequences accompany every action.
As soon as Lucy arrives at Castle Von Aux, he finds it to be full of secrets, which is enough to keep mystery fans reading. There is also a cast of supporting characters including workers at the castle, headstrong soldiers, and thieves, all of whom seem to understand the world a little more fully than Lucy. However, the most interesting aspect of the book might be the subtle maturation of Lucy himself. The development of his character is imparted in concise yet profound passages, like the following: “Lucy stood by, considering the enigmatic nature of charisma. If he could change a single thing about himself, it would be to possess that atypical luster certain people were blessed with.” Lucy may be a liar to others in the story, but his honest reflections prevent him from being an unlikeable character to the reader—and in fact, when he embarks on a relationship in the town surrounding his castle, an affair that we know he is totally ill-equipped to handle, we hope he succeeds anyway.
deWitt’s prose manages to be lyrical while at the same time a little too sparse, as if evoking the scant conditions of the run-down Castle Von Aux. At times Undermajordomo Minor is vague enough to be allegorical—the back describes it as a “fable”—but there is also enough substance in the description of settings and characters that readers will still get a sense of real geographical place. deWitt’s writing is especially masterful in its ability to describe characters’ attempted analyses of their feelings, such as when Lucy feels “an unheralded emotion which he couldn’t at the start identify but which he eventually decided was euphoria.” There is a subtlety to this passage—a statement that the emotions we feel are not always clear, and that an element of decision is always a part of the process—that permeates and elevates the novel. Additionally, the back-and-forth dialogue that can grow weary in many novels manages to be fresh and often hilarious in this book, thanks in large part to Lucy’s clumsy yet relentless attempts to outsmart others.
The short chapters and many sections give a sense of pace to a novel that is often about how unimpressive our lives often are in comparison to how exciting and fulfilling we want them to be. Despite some quiet sections where Lucy explores the empty castle, there are also plenty of characters making scenes in order to get the things they want. This is one of those books whose action begins in the first scene. Its three hundred thirty-six pages move quickly, taking Lucy through a formative stage of his life—of course, a little faster than he can manage.
Ben Kinney is an MA candidate at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan, where he is dual-tracking in literature and writing. He is an associate fiction editor at Passages North. Previously, he lived in Clearwater, Florida, where he taught sixth grade language arts for four years. He has an infrequently updated blog at benjaminkinney.com.