Don't bank on total accuracy

THE UNDERGROUND MAN by Mick Jackson, Picador pounds 15.99

The Underground Man is, roughly speaking, William John Cavendish Bentinck-Scott (1800-1879), fifth Duke of Portland and one of the 19th century's most notable eccentrics. In the last dozen years of his life, the duke became ferociously antisocial and devoted his wealth (you can deduce its source by comparing the elements of his name with an A to Z of London) to hiding himself from outside view. He had a great subterranean labyrinth constructed beneath the family seat at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire. He then withdrew from human society, communicating with his servants by means of notes and occasionally venturing to London in a closed railway carriage (he got to the station via a long tunnel, so that he would not be seen).

From the bare bones of this crusty obsessive, Mick Jackson has constructed an altogether more appealing character - shy, certainly, but also warm and affectionate. This duke is a baffled innocent, incessantly trying to explain to his own satisfaction the mysterious workings of the world, of animals, trees, his own body. The largely plotless, rambling book is filled with his bizarrely rational speculations - on the rhythms of the tides, for instance, which he suspects may be caused by the shrinking and swelling of the continents, and on the possible astronomical significance of the arrangement of moles and freckles on his own back. It's filled, too, with images of bodies dissected, reduced to the cogs and springs: skinned rabbits, jars full of anatomical specimens, the parts of a bee smeared on microscope slides. The duke is visited at different times by visions of the soft machinery at work in his own body (swimming, he thinks, like fish inside him) of skeletons stripped of flesh, and of souls stripped of physical form - a luminous white child follows him around.

Along with this fascination with the workings of things, the duke takes a boyish pleasure in maps and diagrams. He pores over Gray's Anatomy, he becomes entranced by a phrenologically labelled plaster head, and his work-room is dominated by a circular map of his own countryside, with Mansfield at the hub. Yet he is constantly lost, even inside his own house - bewildered in the maze of Edinburgh, he realises that "a map is absolutely useless unless one can say for certain whereabouts one is on it"; and the peculiar attraction of this fictional duke is that he never finds his bearings, yet never loses hope.

The Underground Man is a hugely charming book, the duke an unusually lovable protagonist; and there are some enjoyable set pieces (including a detailed account of a fart so vast it catches a candle and sets the duke's bedroom on fire). The qualification is that Jackson's prose isn't up to his imagination. He's often reduced to dull superlatives - "fine", "beautiful" - in his efforts to conjure up the wonder of things.

More damagingly, he's tried to write the book in a kind of mock-Victorianese which he can't sustain: too many adjectives are qualified by the word "totally" - which is, like, totally un- 19th-century - and he uses far too many words and phrases which are clearly modern. At one point, he describes a crow taking off: "Then he spread his oily wings and pumped them; rose, banked and disappeared into the trees." It's a moot point whether "pumped" is an accurate way of describing the fairly ragged movement of a crow's wings; but "banked" is certainly wrong - an aeroplane word, not a bird word (and a swift glance at the OED confirms this: the first recorded use in the context of flying was in 1911). Perhaps you think anachronism doesn't matter too much (and after all, Jackson isn't claiming historical accuracy: he deliberately places his duke's birthdate 30 years after the real one's); but in that case, why try to speak Victorian at all?

The problems aren't all to do with dating; sometimes it's just a question of trimming back some rather shaggy sentences. A couple of pages after the crow, the duke plays with the idea that his body is held together with wires - when he moves, he says, these wires "can be seen twitching under the skin like tense lengths of twine". Wires like tense lengths of twine? It's hardly an illuminating simile. Jackson, it's plain, has an abundance of imaginative intelligence at his disposal; with a competent editor to help him make the most of it, he should be an act to watch.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape