Sometimes you’ve gotta give up to get ahead. Just ask Patrick deWitt, the Sidney, B.C.–born author of the massively popular novel The Sisters Brothers. Nominated for multiple awards (including the Booker and Giller), optioned for a movie by John C. Reilly with Jacques Audiard tapped to direct, and topping just about everyone’s list of the best reads of 2011, it was a monumental book to follow up. And deWitt’s first attempt at doing so just wasn’t cutting it.
It was the story of a corrupt investment banker who flees to Paris to avoid prison, and deWitt threw in the towel on the project 100 pages in. “I had a residency in Paris,” he gamely relates over the phone from his home in Portland, Oregon, “and I was actually doing research for the book I would eventually abandon. We were staying in a very old building that had been built in the 1600s, and I was reading central European and Jewish fables to my son. There’s something extremely inviting about them. They’re very dark and strange, and it just seemed that whoever had written these stories was having quite a lot more fun than I was having.”
The solution? DeWitt decided it was necessary to find a project he’d actually enjoy writing—and the result is Undermajordomo Minor.
Much like The Sisters Brothers, a quirkily historical western whose main character’s spiritual malaise and wry sensibility were totally relatable for contemporary readers, Undermajordomo Minor takes a classical setting and story structure and makes them seem utterly modern. It’s the story of Lucien Minor, a weak, romantic, deceptive slip of a young man who manages to secure a job at the very odd Castle Von Aux in service to the castle’s tatty, existentially inclined majordomo, Mr. Olderglough. While it’s an ambivalent fable (it’s not really clear what the morals are, here), it’s unapologetically romantic. As in one of those movies where the nerd gets the hot chick, Lucy pursues and woos the girl of his dreams—a trope that seems equally at home in a Judd Apatow movie and a medieval fable. “If I can’t relate in some sort of a concrete way to the protagonist or the auxiliary characters, I do have a hard time maintaining focus,” deWitt agrees. “So I tend to address contemporary concerns, ideas in these stories even if they do take place in the past.”
That past is a murky one: the book’s dreamlike setting uses the hills of an anonymous eastern European country in an era that sometimes seems medieval, sometimes Victorian. The lack of specificity is entirely intentional; with this book, deWitt wanted to free himself from the sort of fact-checking he faced with the Gold Rush setting for The Sisters Brothers. “I’m not interested in historical accuracy or anything like that,” he articulates. “And I didn’t want the cast to speak to a culture. If I placed it in France or Germany or Hungary I would have to do right by those respective cultures. And I prefer to keep it more universal.”
One of the most notable things about Undermajordomo Minor is its pitch-black sense of humour. DeWitt’s wordplay (even in the title) will be familiar to fans of The Sisters Brothers, but this book goes to some very dark places (shades of Eyes Wide Shut). And deWitt acknowledges that some of that probably came from what he was going through while writing the book. “I felt generally distracted,” he recalls. “I was travelling a lot, doing Sisters Brothers–related events and going to festivals, and things in my personal life weren’t going very well.…there’s all these unpleasant elements which added up to a fairly foggy state of mind for me. I definitely think that the unhappinesses that I was going through that had nothing to do with the book certainly wound up colouring the book.”
After those struggles, deWitt plans to keep things a little simpler during the promotion of Undermajordomo Minor. “I’m going to try to stay home more and focus on the work rather than on the running around,” he says. And that’s so he can devote his energies to his next novel, which, when prodded, he can’t help but spill the beans about, his excitement obvious. “I always tell myself to keep it quiet but then I can’t do it, because I’m a natural blabbermouth,” he admits. “Whether it’s wise or not wise, I’ve been telling people that the story I have in my mind is the diary of an explorer—somebody who has been sent to map the world, or circumnavigate the globe, or perform some sort of inhuman task, in a boat.”
But will deWitt be able to relate to this one? Given the inhuman task of writing a book—only slightly less daunting than circumnavigating the globe—it seems pretty likely.
Originally published in the Georgia Straight on October 14, 2015.
You can find a full archive of my Georgia Straight book stories here.