(House of Anansi Press)
The most visible innovation of postmodern fiction was the movement’s steroidal creation of new narrative modes, most obviously manifested as formal, on-the-page techniques, including but not limited to: temporal dislocations, unreliable narrators, metafictive playfulness, ironical remove, and an abundance of typographies and footnotes. The further we get from the real-world and literary context in which the practitioners of high postmodernism operated, the more those formal techniques look like over-corrections to the plotless, psychological realist novels of the first half of the twentieth century. Once the cohesiveness and reliability of the novel has been broken, what’s left behind?
Turns out, the real legacy of postmodernism is more subtle; in separating form from function, postmodernism liberated genre. The best writers of this ill-defined “movement”—I’ll nominate Atwood, Barthelme, Borges, Calvino, Coover, Eco, Fowles, and Nabokov—understood this, and played around with the knowledge. A cluster of contemporary writers has picked up the thread, penning detective stories, westerns, fables, historical fiction, and picaresques—traditionally “low” forms, all—that nevertheless attempt the same emotional deliverance as the Very Important Novels you read in college. Few do it better than the Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt.
DeWitt’s last novel, The Sister Brothers, was a bloody western set during the American Gold Rush. His new novel, Undermajordomo Minor, is a fabulist comedy of manners, a laugh-out-loud fairy tale adventure, and a surprisingly wrenching romance. Imagine Don Quixote meets Young Frankenstein, with more violence, orgies, and heart-swelling moments of tenderness and sadness.
The quixotic try-hard of Undermajordomo Minor is Lucien “Lucy” Minor, a sickly and ineffectual 17-year-old from the rural hamlet of Bury who accepts the position of undermajordomo at the remote and forsaken Castle Von Aux. Upon arrival, he soon finds that things are not as they seem—nor as they should be. The Baroness is AWOL, leaving the Baron stark raving mad; the chambermaid has taken on cooking duties; and Mr. Olderglough, the glum majordomo (and Lucy’s boss), offers little in the way of directive or explanation. The remainder of the staff of the once-great castle have all left or are presumed dead.
This doesn’t matter, because beyond the castle walls is much better: Thieves, madmen, and aristocrats populate the quaint village, which time has forgotten, and the mountains beyond are home to a mysterious war, legible only as “bodies moving about, and puffs of smoke floating along on the air.” Within minutes of his arrival at the train station, Lucy is relieved of his pipe by a father-son pair of pickpockets, and of his last coin by an “exceptionally handsome” soldier named Adolphus.
Lucy’s Adolphus troubles don’t end there. The soldier is his rival for the affections of Klara, a comely lass who is the elder pickpocket’s daughter. Our hero spies her on his first jaunt down to the village—a delicate beauty, “so lovely to behold that Lucy wouldn’t have looked away for the world.” When Adolphus learns of Lucy’s machinations to win Klara’s heart, trouble ensues.
In many ways, Lucy is a quintessential picaresque protagonist: low-born, eccentric, essentially good-hearted, and fluently dishonest (in this case, with other people). He is described by one acquaintance early on as an “unmoored soul in search of nestled safe-harbor.” And true to the form, Lucy’s travails comprise the plot of the novel. He busies himself with errands and assignments, steals afternoons with Klara in the hills, and makes friends with the thieves in the village. His sense of futility slowly ebbs. All the while, the great mystery of the Castle Von Aux comes into ever-sharper focus.
But while Undermajordomo Minor is fantastically hilarious, deWitt doesn’t play his characters and conceits solely for laughs. His electric imagination is matched only by his emotional perceptiveness. He’s a master of absurdist dialogue (I was reminded of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) and dazzling set pieces, yet beneath the boisterous hijinks and ink-black humor, Undermajordomo Minor is a tale about the violence of love, the difficulty of finding one’s place, and the secret sorrows that govern our behaviors. The middle-third of the novel, which details the flowering of Lucy and Klara’s relationship, is one of the best, most penetrating extended descriptions of falling in love—that fluttering admixture of fear and excitement—I’ve ever read. Aswoon in the overwhelmingness of that feeling, Lucy finds himself “surprised to discover how badly he wished to combat [Klara’s] sadness, to better it, to eliminate it,” deWitt writes. “And if he accomplished this, what would there be to take its place?”
Falling in love is fearsome because such an intense feeling cannot be sustained for long. One day, Lucy clandestinely watches Klara weeping by the river. Adolphus has been captured, and although Klara loves Lucy now, Adolphus was her first suitor, and the heart doesn’t forget. “In watching this transpire,” deWitt writes, “there appeared in Lucy’s mind the knowledge that the life she and he were sharing was finite. Its rareness was its leading attribute, after all, and such a thing as this couldn’t be expected to carry on forever. A feeling of gratitude was born in him; and it was so powerful as to produce a sensation of lift.” Who, upon witnessing the vulnerability of a loved one, has not felt so tender as that?