I had a book of Aesop’s fables as a child. Teaching me with lush illustrations and intelligent animals not to be an asshole, like a PSA from antiquity. The lessons were biblical: be honest, don’t be greedy, good is rewarded, and evil is a self-defeating endeavour.
It’s tempting to call Patrick deWitt’s new novel, Undermajordomo Minor, an existentialist fable for grown ups, albeit without any anthropomorphized animals spouting life lessons. In setting and tone Undermajordomo Minor is fable-like, a bedtime story full of dark castles, forbidden love, angst and disturbing sexual practices. And, you know, some metaphysical truths, too.
deWitt’s new book shares a worldview with it’s predessesor: a bit cynical, a bit absurd, somewhere between surreal farce and uplifting tragedy
It’s also funny. It shares that with The Sisters Brothers, deWitt’s previous novel that earned seemingly every literary award Canada could give it. Whereas The Sisters Brothers was a western by way of the Coen Brothers, UnderMajorDomo Minor, is a castle story, gothic and strange, shot through with scenes that play like comedy sketches.
Most importantly though, deWitt’s new book shares a kind of worldview with it’s predessesor: a bit cynical, a bit absurd, somewhere between surreal farce and uplifting tragedy. It’s a worldview that, sadly, and sweetly, fits our reality, even though—like a children’s fable, it’s specifically exaggerated and stilted to prove a point.
The plot is relatively simple, as fables typically are. Lucy, a restless lad with a propensity to tell tales—call it millennial ambitition/entitlement in an age centuries before those became buzzwords—leaves his small town for a job as an assistant to the major domo, basically the butler, of a faraway castle. He falls in love. He meets thieves, murderers, sadomasochistic dukes and duchesses. Outside the castle walls a small war is constantly being waged, though no one understands, or explains, what it’s about. Further away from the castle, there is The Very Large Hole—a seemingly bottomless pit, that exists as the metaphoric anchor of the kingdom. Lucy experiences all of this, and—spoiler alert—survives.
That last bit, that’s the maybe the point of the fable: there is comedy in absurdity and war, there is hope and love, even in a castle that is dark and mad. But, like the goofy exploits of the selfish or righteous animals of Aesop, the moral isn’t as important as the story, or how the story is told. At least, not to the reader—as important as those life lessons were, I woudn’t have remembered them as a child if the medium wasn’t entertaining.
And, in terms of entertainment, deWitt is a master. The prose is unflowery and the dialogue is perfectly proper, and thus absurd: somehow coming off like a storybook and corporate emails, all at once. It injects just enough familiarity into the fable to make it true. Real and edifying.
Because we all live near a Very Large Hole, a mad castle, near a pointlessly violent war. Life is a bedtime story, and we survive it.
Patrick deWitt’s new book Undermajordomo Minor is available in bookstores and online September 5th.
“My writing wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the comedic impulse.”
It’s a challenge to write regardless, and staying focused on that is hard even if you’re excited about it. So, how do you know when definitely need to abandon a project?
It’s quite similar to knowing that you need to stop being friends with someone, or you need to break up with someone. It becomes to be more trouble than it’s worth. And there were times in writing this where I felt a desire to flee because it was a difficult book to write, but I never felt it so acutely that I spoke of it to anyone. You have to know yourself well enough to cut your losses. But it’s not a fun process.
The Sisters Brothers was, at least in Canada, the nearest thing to a “literary sensation” that we get. Did that put more pressure on you, or is that something that you don’t think about?
I did feel pressure. I was surprised by the arrival of this pressure, because I hadn’t been feeling it. I should have felt it, but I didn’t. And then one day I just suddenly did. It was really quite crippling. And there was this whole middle section of me writing this book where I was writing every day and I was getting the words down, but a lot of what I was writing during this period of time of being self-aware I later cut because I was obviously really distracted.
Sisters Brothers was a western for people who don’t read westerns. And this is kind of a gothic tale. Tell me about choosing to work in different genres.
I’m always casting around for things to write about. With the Sisters Brothers, for example, that just lit up the second I started fiddling around with it. And I didn’t want to write a western. And I had great reservations about writing a western. And my agent and my editor were concerned that I was writing a western. Because my book before was what you would call ‘literary fiction.’ So, to go from that to what was arguably a genre book, they thought it represented a step backwards, aesthetically.
“I will always go with whatever feels correct. Or whatever has that energy to see me through to the end of it.”
I don’t really worry about what it means from a career standpoint. I will always go with whatever feels correct. Or whatever has that energy to see me through to the end of it. The only thing that matters is that I believe in the work that I put out. And everything else is secondary.
One thing that I love about this is how the characters speak. It’s very specific. I wanted to know how you came upon that voice.
I think that’s sort of a bastardization of the language in fables. I like the idea of people having these really perverse, lengthy, redundant conversations in extremely respectful language. It’s the perversion of extremely mannered, rigid social structures. Within these rigid social structures, you can express all sorts of really grotesque and unpleasant and perverse notions, but then you tack “Sir” onto the end of every sentence, and somehow to me I found that really enjoyable and pleasant. And it was a really nice way to address the bleaker aspects of this story.
In another interview you were asked about comic writing. I have the quote here: “Comic writing is something I arrived at a long way around in the years that I was figuring out how to write.” How did you accept the fact that you were going to write funny books?
It was just an impulse that I couldn’t get away from. And I was absolutely trying to write books that were “serious,” and extremely ambitious—a novel of ideas type book. That was the sort of stuff that I was reading, but at a certain point, I couldn’t deny that I was better, not just at writing comedic—I’m especially thinking of dialogue—I was better at writing comedy than drama.
My affection for drama led me to writing dramatically and comically at the same time, so if there’s an overarching tone to my work, I think that it’s a straight-faced approach to ridiculous.
I’m always trying to strike the right tone, but my writing wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the comedic impulse.