The bright red background and bold black and white lettering on the cover of Patrick deWitt’s new novel immediately invite a comparison of Undermajordomo Minor with its immensely successful (and similarly designed) precursor, The Sisters Brothers (2011). The comparison is in some ways disadvantageous to Undermajordomo Minor, for its plot is thinner than that of The Sisters Brothers and its protagonist, Lucien (Lucy) Minor, is not nearly as captivating as the loveable Eli Sisters. And yet Undermajordomo Minor’s fresh take on the Gothic romance is just as dazzlingly realized as the earlier novel’s reconfigured Western. DeWitt’s objective in both cases is not to satirize generic conventions but rather to work within them, baldly demanding that we embrace their tropes and submit to the twists and turns of his capacious imagination.
Because deWitt is more interested in genre than in character or plot, the most compelling part of Undermajordomo Minor is its initial establishment of the scene. Young Lucy Minor leaves his childhood home in the small hamlet of Bury to take a job as “undermajordomo” in the Castle Von Aux, an imposing structure looming “blacker-than-night” above a remote alpine village. Here he works under the melancholic majordomo, Mr. Olderglough, who manages the castle’s affairs while the Baron Von Aux broods in his room and wanders the dark corridors confused and occasionally chewing on rats. The Baron is mad with lovesickness, Lucy learns; though his wife absconded over a year before Lucy’s arrival, the Baron still writes to her daily, futilely, longingly: “The scope of your void humbles me,” he tells her in one of these tragic and articulate missives. In the village, meanwhile, Lucy befriends a kindly pair of burglars named Memel and Mewe and falls for the beguiling Klara; only Klara is already in love with an “exceptionally handsome man,” a soldier in the “area war” that rages on endlessly and apparently aimlessly in the nearby woods. And thus the stage is set for a decadent dinner party, a deathbed confession, a botched murder, and a perilous escape. As affections blossom and disintegrate, Undermajordomo Minor proposes that whatever thieves, rascals, and “very large holes” lurk in the shadows, love might finally be the most dangerous menace of all.
Undermajordomo Minor is not really about Lucy; he is just a pair of curious eyes, peering at this extraordinary setting and eclectic cast of characters through a telescope in a far-off castle window. Adam Lewis Schroeder’s All-Day Breakfast, on the other hand, is a lengthy and often introspective first-person narrative which is all about its protagonist. Peter Giller is, like Lucy, an utterly “minor” sort of person: a substitute teacher in small-town Nebraska, a recent widower and father of two. After he and his eleventh-grade students are accidentally sprayed with mysterious pink goo during a field trip to a plastics factory, they begin to exhibit strange symptoms: superhuman strength, uncontrollable anger, the ability to reattach their limbs with staples and thumbtacks, and above all an overwhelming and insatiable craving for bacon. Although they do not eat brains and they have never died—as far as they can tell—Peter and his students determine that they must be zombies, and they set off on a cross-country road trip in search of a cure.
The point of view in All-Day Breakfast is fresh and intriguing: it is a first-person zombie thriller, narrated by the man careening down the Interstate in a stolen ambulance full of teenagers missing body parts and craving nitrites. Unfortunately, as Schroeder endeavours to mingle genres and approaches—the novel is meditative, measured, tragic, and literary even as it is ridiculous, goofy, and crude—he does not commit fully enough to any one mood and the story is consequently muddy and meandering. Who is its intended audience? Is it literary fiction, or is it a straight-up comedy? Lacking direction, much of the humour falls flat; Schroeder’s obsessive references to “brains,” for instance, feel forced and self-conscious (“Funny how the brain works,” Peter remarks repeatedly), and condescending comments about women (“Women are resourceful,” Peter notes, recalling that his wife once pulled a library card out of her bra) do not develop Peter’s character but seem simply gratuitous. I am not urging greater seriousness on a novel that should be fun; on the contrary, All-Day Breakfast would have been more successful had it more whole-heartedly embraced the low-brow, the slapstick, or the absurd.
We should nevertheless admire Schroeder’s energetic attempt. Although deWitt’s stylish prose and the affective tapestry of his fairy-tale world exist on a different literary plane from Schroeder’s rambling narration and awkward attempts at humour, both novels provide a dynamic space where even the oldest of motifs and conventions—zombies, barons, love stories, folk tales, road trips, and science experiments gone wrong—can live on: surprising, contemporary, and certainly undead.