I was sent an uncorrected proof copy of this a little while ago. Usually such submissions are accompanied with a note along the lines of ‘you will probably hate this but…’. This is because the sender knows me and my reading habits quite well. Such notes are perhaps not uncalled for. There was, this time, no such note.
Patrick DeWitt will be familiar to many for The Sisters Brothers, shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, the year the judges wrought the unforgivable crime of demanding readability; expecting prizewinning literary fiction to be readable is like expecting it to be enjoyable. It was a much talked about shortlist and a lot of people got very cross that the UK’s biggest fiction prize was being rendered just that tiny bit more accessible to the reading public. The result was an increase in the usual publicity, which translated happily into awareness and then into sales. So well done the 2011 Man Booker judges.
The Sisters Brothers was prominent among the shortlist. Lots of people were reading it. Lots of people were buying it. Lots of people were saying how good it was. A few people pointed out that horses did not come out of it well.
Praise is a tricky business. Anything on a pedestal, be it put there by judges or the buying masses or swathes of media coverage in the right places, is at risk of being knocked off. Widespread acclaim is not universal acclaim, and so many different types of books are read by so many different people for so many different reasons that to hold one or even a handful of books above all others and claim they are the best is to attract criticism both positive and negative. Look at any customer reviews for a highly-rated novel and for all the lengthy five star puff-pieces there will be miserly one star diatribes from those who either did not ‘get it’, did not like it, or just could not understand what the fuss was about. A book should be read first and foremost because you want to read it and not because you should read it; reviews, recommendations, publicity are all secondary to that (and I am aware of the counter-intuitiveness of saying such in a review of a book).
So I read The Sisters Brothers. The post-modern western with occasional elements of magical realism was good. I think it was perhaps not as good as I was led to believe and I was baffled by the almost universal acclaim for it, but for that I can only blame what I heard and not what I read. I think it was strange that it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but then the Booker Prize has never failed to bemuse me, having yet to read a single winner that I liked (I have not read all of them, and I never will, but among those I have read is Vernon God Little and there are not enough hours in the day to talk about that).
So a new Patrick DeWitt prompted trepidation. There was not the note alluding to a likely dislike but there was an unwritten note in its place that suggested a similar outcome. How weird and pleasantly unexpected that I would like Undermajordomo Minor so much that it is probably going to be my second favourite novel of the year?
Undermajordomo Minor is the story of Lucien ‘Lucy’ Minor. Lucy is young, melancholic, weak and adept at telling lies. He is odd and affected
and perplexed by the world, surrounded by people who think little of him (his mother included). He is unhappy, but having secured employment under its majordomo – the endearingly obtuse My Olderdough – he takes himself off to the castle of Baron Von Aux, imagining a life that might be a bit less luckless, friendless and loveless. Life, however, has other things to offer. There is the beautiful Klara with whom he is quickly smitten, there is the astonishingly handsome soldier with whom the beautiful Klara may or may not have an existing arrangement, there is a curious war beyond the castle walls that serves only to occupy the young men of the village, there is a Very Large Hole, a Baron who roams the castle at night in a state of derangement pining for the errant Baroness, the unspoken fate of the previous undermajordomo (‘because it is unspeakable!’) and a salami, and much, much more.
Put like this it could come across as a story at which too much has been thrown. It is far from that indeed. But it is not good to over-explain a book I like. It somewhat ruins the surprise. And the unexpected is one of the strengths of this book. For all of its fairy-tale elements – characters whose motives and logic exist solely within the world of the narrative, a place and period that defies pinpointing – the stories within, and specifically that of Lucy, do not lead you in the directions you would expect. This is a post-postmodern fairy-tale. The Princess Bride would be a fair comparison were it not for the excess of self-awareness that bloats and ruins it (the book, that is, not the film).
This is an apparently sweet and funny novel that oozes charm, but whilst that charm sinks its teeth into you there is a sharpness behind it that bites deeper. There is an abundance of gleeful and brazen storytelling lacking in too much fiction, populated with engaging eccentrics that are not as happy-go-lucky as they might initially appear. The many mysteries that develop and deepen throughout – the Baron and Baroness, the fate of Lucy’s predecessor – provide pace, but this is fundamentally the story of the titular undermajordomo: there is no miraculous revelation, nor a convenient transformative quest leading to a tidy resolution. It ends as it begins, with Lucy.
A book that was read to pass the time quickly became a read for which time was made, which is such a simple but telling thing. It was, quite simply, terrifically entertaining whilst succeeding in remaining thoughtful at the same time. I shall not be telling you that it should be read, but when it does come out in September I shall be making sure that everybody buys it.