I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book. I loved DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, but I kept comparing this one to the other, and finding fault. At first, it seemed too loose, too slow to start, too fantastical, but at some magical point, I liked it a lot.
If you can imagine a triple X rated Alice in Wonderland, you might get a sense of what this book is about. Here Lucien, also known as Lucy, is like Alice in that he innocently sets out on a peculiar adventure. The place he arrives at is weird and strange, even including a ‘very large hole’.
Born into poverty, unloved and unremarkable, Lucy gets a job at a largely abandoned castle, a day’s train ride away from his miserable birthplace. Once at the castle, he is consistently stumped and bewildered by the goings on, where his questions are always unanswered by way of circular responses. Eventually he comes to see the castle as a dank and sinister dwelling, which somehow depletes both bodies and souls.
At first, I found the many circular answers frustrating, as I wanted to know the answers as well, but DeWitt’s style is too funny for me to stay irritated. Lucy tells his supervisor of his strange experience his first night in the castle:
“A man sir. Tried to enter my room last night.”
“Yes, and a strange man he was.”
“Is that right?” Mr Olderglough said wonderingly. Pouring in the cream, he stirred and sampled his tea; finding its taste satisfactory, he nodded in appreciation of life’s small but dependable comforts. “And what was so strange about him, I wonder?”
“Well the fact of him trying to get into my room was strange.”
Mr Olderglough pondered this. “I don’t know that I would call that strange, in and of itself. What are rooms for if not entering, after all. Or else exiting.”
Another point where humour grabbed me was this:
Mr Olderglough looked down the length of his nose. ‘May I admit to being disappointed in you, boy.’
‘You may write a lengthy treatise on the subject , sir, and I will read it with interest.’
There is a strange S and M orgy scene, which feels out of character with the rest of the book, but it fits within the idea that the castle itself somehow infects people to lose their best selves.
In some ways, this book struck me as lighter in theme than The Sisters Brothers, but I changed my mind at this book’s conclusion, where the wisdom of the book becomes evident. I’d definitely recommend this novel, if you can tolerate the weird sexuality.
Reviewed by Mary Oxendale Spensley