Monday, September 26, 2016

Readings: Under Major Domo Minor

Author Patrick deWitt is back with another wittily (!) titled little novel that manages to defy genre and era. However, this time the effect was not quite as novel (!) as the last time. This was primarily because the characters ultimately remained un-knowable. The strangely deadpan humor and almost exasperating roundabout conversational style is no doubt very engaging. But it does not hold up in the face of the fact that one is never quite sure as to why any of this is happening at all. 

The protagonist, young Lucien Minor, takes off from his village, the deadly dull Bury, after mysteriously escaping death from a serious illness. His father dies instead: a fact that seems to make him even less popular with his stoutly practical mother. He sets off to take up a job in the Castle von Aux, as second-in-command to its major domo, one Mr. Olderslough. Hence the inexplicable title suddenly becomes clear.

En route, he meets two petty thieves named Memel and Mewe whom he befriends, and in the village he meets Memel's daughter Klara, with whom he falls in love. Lucy, as he is known, has a peculiar penchant for lying. Other than that he seems pretty vacant and listless, but then he is only seventeen, and this seems to be a problem I face with such young protagonists. They're teenagers, so motivation and solid character traits are very difficult to pin down. 

So what happens during his job at the castle? Oh, nothing much, except that its owner, the Baron, is a raving (and I mean raving) lunatic, his wife the Baroness is estranged, the major domo himself appears to be slowly losing his marbles, the cook Agnes serves up only unpalatable gruel at all meals, etc. Lucy, however,  does manage to carry on a fairly successful affair with Klara when she's not being aggressively pursued by the local aimless warrior, Adolphus. 

Then the Baroness re-appears, and there is a party hosted at the castle soon after. The guests and the hosts proceed, at this party, to have a rather unsavory orgy which Lucy witnesses. Hereafter, the narrative totally loses steam. In fact in the last third of the book I kept searching for what the story was meant to represent, for surely I was missing a gigantic metaphor of some sort? The ending, also, was meant to tell us that there is a sequel, failing which, it will have left me feeling very unsatisfied indeed.

However, far from this being an inferior work, Under Major Domo Minor is in fact quite accomplished. It is not easy to construct a world peopled by characters whose exchanges are for the most part, unique, and at its heart the writing is quiet and lucid. (I particularly enjoyed the droll and circuitous chats between Lucy and the batty Mr. Olderslough.) It's just that at the beginning, the novel was so promising, and by the end, so disappointing.

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