Don't bank on total accuracy
THE UNDERGROUND MAN by Mick Jackson, Picador pounds 15.99
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.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Amber Peat: Body found in search for missing 13-year-old who left house after argument with her parents
- 2 California man brutally beat 82-year-old Sikh grandfather he mistook for 'one of those people'
- 3 School kitchen manager 'fired from Colorado school for giving hungry students free lunches'
- 4 Gay teenager 'forced to have sex with his own mother' to 'cure' his homosexuality, campaigners in India say
- 5 Charles Kennedy 'had better judgement drunk than many sober politicians' says Ian Hislop
Syd Barrett's inner visions
Britain's Got Talent 2015: Simon Cowell 'feels like an idiot' after Jules and Matisse scandal
Game of Thrones season 6: George RR Martin doing 'anything he can' to get new book The Winds of Winter out before next HBO series airs
Game of Thrones, Battle of Hardhome: 20-minute Wildlings versus White Walkers battle took a 'solid month' to film
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 9, The Dance of Dragons: Jon Snow returns to The Wall after epic Battle of Hardhome
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Michael Gove determined to scrap the Human Rights Act – even if Scotland retains it
Threat to scrap Human Rights Act could see UK follow Nazi example, warns UN official
Church of England 'one generation away from extinction' after dramatic loss of followers