The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt's critically acclaimed second novel, was a hyper-violent Western told in a deadpan style. With Undermajordomo Minor the contours of the deWittian landscape have come into sharper relief. DeWittland is a place of exaggerated, creeping horror; a place populated by unfeeling characters who engage in bouts of baroque violence; above all a place suffused with grim humour. It's also a place in which the limits of genre are explored: where The Sisters Brothers took as its source the western, Undermajordomo Minor is a kind of uproariously perverted fairy tale.
The novel tells the story of Lucien "Lucy" Minor, a young man who, on the death of his father, leaves his village to take up a job as "undermajordomo" at a nearby Gothic castle. Lucy is weedy, cowardly and an inveterate liar, but he is also immensely likeable. He sees himself as the hero of a story, but doesn't know what it will be about. "His head was enshrouded in fragrant smoke," writes deWitt, "and he felt very dramatic, and wished someone was watching him to witness and perhaps comment on this." Luckily for him, someone is.
At Castle von Aux, Lucy meets Mr Olderglough, a Jeeves-like gentleman's gentleman, and begins looking after the baron, a mysterious figure who spends his evenings stalking the corridors of the castle and writing letters to his estranged wife. The letters remain unanswered. Soon Lucy becomes friends with two roguish thieves from the local village - Memel and Mewe - and, inevitably, falls in love.
Like The Sisters Brothers, it's set in an indistinct but recognisable landscape: a vaguely European locale composed of the fairy tale archetypes of village, forest and castle. It is told in a style that is now recognisably deWittian too: dreamlike scenes are recounted in meticulous prose that pays more attention to action than it does to emotion. Short, punchy chapters bear playful headings reminiscent of the intertitles of a Wes Anderson film. One chapter is called "The Inveigling of Klara by the Strange Eastern Stranger, Godless Corrupter"; another, "The Location, Apprehension and Restoration to Normality of the Baron". Literary influences acknowledged at the end of the book include the work of Italo Calvino, Roald Dahl and Bohumil Hrabal. It's a list to which I would add the bleak comedy of mid-career Beckett.
If Undermajordomo Minor is a funnier book than The Sisters Brothers, it is also a slighter one, and the basic structure of the gags does get a bit repetitive. Many of them depend on a deflationary final clause: "Here was every single thing he owned, and it didn't seem like much to him, because it wasn't"; "His face bore the penitent look of one who has just been caught cheating, because he had just been"; "It felt as though the train were late, this because it was." After a while they write themselves.
But the main problem is that the allegorical underpinnings of the novel don't seem to make much sense. Is the "Very Big Hole" into which characters are cast anything other than a very big hole? On this, deWitt is no help: "The Very Big Hole was very, very big," he writes. A depraved scene in a ballroom is certainly diverting, but doesn't seem to add much to the rest of the novel. The violence of The Sisters Brothers earned its keep by convincing us of the pathological affectlessness of its central characters; here I wasn't sure what a lot of it was doing.
Of The Bloody Chamber, her magnificent reworking of fairy tale stories, Angela Carter said: "My intention was not to do 'versions' or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, 'adult' fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories." DeWitt attempts to tread a similar path, taking the tropes of a genre and making them new. But here, ultimately, their content remains frustratingly latent.
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt