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Patrick deWitt's 'Undermajordomo Minor' winks at fairy tale conventions

Patrick deWitt's 'Undermajordomo Minor' winks at fairy tale conventions
"Undermajordomo Minor" and author Patrick DeWitt. (From left: Ecco; Danny Palmerlee / Ecco)

On the acknowledgments page of his third novel, "Undermajordomo Minor," Patrick deWitt cites as inspiration a variety of writers, including Thomas Bernhard, Italo Calvino, Roald Dahl, Shirley Jackson and Jean Rhys. This tells us something important about his intent. Like DeWitt's last book, "The Sisters Brothers," which was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, "Undermajordomo Minor" is a work of fiction with its roots in literature, a response to other books more than to any interaction with the world.

That's not a criticism, just an observation; DeWitt is not interested in straight naturalism so much as in the mechanics of a particular kind of story, narrative as fairy tale. In "The Sisters Brothers," it was the western, which he deconstructed as neatly as Charles Portis and E.L. Doctorow did. This time, it's the fable, as DeWitt tells the story of a young man, Lucien — also known as Lucy — Minor, who travels from his home village of Bury to become the Undermajordomo (or assistant to the assistant) "of one Baron Von Aux's estate in the remote wilderness of the eastern mountain range."

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Such a setting is as Mitteleuropean as anything in Franz Kafka, even if the author of "The Castle" is not on DeWitt's list of influences. Neither, for that matter, is Jorge Luis Borges, although his fingerprints emerge in places here as well.

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It's not pastiche, however, that DeWitt is after; maybe "reanimation" is a better word. What I mean is that, throughout the novel, he seeks to play against our expectations, to take the moral lessons inherent in his chosen form and rewire them, give them additional dimension and heft.

Lucy may be inexperienced, with no real friends and only minimal connection to his family — his mother puts his room up for rent before he has even moved out of the house — but he is also resourceful and in his own way seductive, charming in the ways of love. Indeed, the central movement of "Undermajordomo Minor" involves his relationship with Klara, a young woman from the Baron's village, with whom he has a passionate affair.

That this causes complications goes without saying; Klara is involved with Adolphus, leader of a rebel insurrection that fights in the hills above the castle for reasons of its own. She is also pursued by the Baron's friend the Count, who recognizes Lucy's infatuation and jokingly challenges the younger man to a duel.

"He was merely making sport," DeWitt writes, "and yet there was an undercurrent of true violence at play as well. You had but to look at the man to see he'd never in his life asked twice for anything he desired." That's a terrific line, a vivid expression of the corrupting effect of privilege, what happens when no wish has ever been denied. It leads as well to a key moment of conflict, in which Lucy has no choice but to defend Klara's honor.

And yet part of DeWitt's point is to challenge even these preconceptions, our sense of how, exactly, a novel like this is supposed to go. Were this a standard bildungsroman, Lucy would learn something important from his confrontation with the Count, something indelible that would change both him and (not coincidentally) the movement of the plot.

"Undermajordomo Minor," though, doesn't offer such easy satisfactions; DeWitt raises the stakes only to reduce them, only to leave the tension unfulfilled. This I think is the whole idea — to comment on the conventions of form while subtly undermining them, winking at us all the while. It is as if he were saying: We all know how this should go, but what if it went this way instead?

Such what-if games reside at the heart of fiction; as DeWitt told an interviewer in 2013, "I understand the clichés, and it was fun to address them, but it was also fun to make up a world that surely never existed." He was talking there about "The Sisters Brothers," but a similar logic applies to "Undermajordomo Minor." Lucy, man/child, blurs the boundaries — he is a naïf with experience. He both knows the world and doesn't know the world, and he is prepared to sacrifice everything for love.

Late in the book, after an accident befalls him, he finds himself lost with two other men. Lucy wants nothing more than to escape, although it seems a futile effort, since there appears no way out of his predicament. "We must try again," he exclaims, "… Otherwise we'll die here." His comrades have a different point of view. "That's not how we see it," one declares, and when Lucy presses him to elaborate, he continues: "We'll live here."

If a fable is required to have a moral, that might be what this moment supplies. It recalls a line earlier in the novel, when, reflecting on the finite nature of existence, Lucy realizes that "[i]ts rareness was its leading attribute, after all, and such a thing as this couldn't be expected to carry on forever."

This is as close to philosophy as "Undermajordomo Minor" gets, the sense that time is fluid, that we are here only for a little while, that we need to seize our satisfactions where we can. Such is equally the case for Lucy, who in the end must decide whether (and how) to pursue fate and fortune, and for DeWitt, using imagination to reinvent, or reinvigorate, a form.

The result is a novel that carves out its own amusements, much as its protagonist does. And why not? "There is nothing noble in suffering," explains Klara's father, a petty thief named Memel, "nothing worthwhile in mindless labors. And if you see something you want, children, you should take it. Because the fact of your wanting it renders it yours."

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Undermajordomo Minor
A Novel

Patrick deWitt
Ecoo: 336 pp., $26.99

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