The Duke of self-deception

Francis Spufford looks for enlightenment at the end of an eccentric's tunnel vision
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The Independent Culture
The Underground Man by Mick Jackson, Picador, pounds 15.99

There was a real 19th-century Duke of Portland who really did set teams of workmen digging tunnels across his estate, until Welbeck Abbey looked as if it had been visited by a plague of giant moles. The sad mad subterranean Duke of Mick Jackson's first novel is not quite him; nor does the book take place in an anchored period of history, but in a malleable region of fantastic events. On one level this impression arises by accident. Except for a few remarks by other witnesses, the text is His Grace's journal, chronicling life in the cage of his obsessions; and Jackson gives His Grace's voice a degree of wiffling and wambling in excess of what's required. It isn't a Victorian diction.

Jackson's deliberate choice determines that the Duke shall have a voice lost in its own solitude. We always know, as he observes his closed world, that he is projecting his fears, for they never bleed over the borders of his self to attain for us the independent existence they have for him. The Duke hates autumn, sees the change of seasons as "destruction of the most comprehensive kind" - baring the trees, which look "humiliated. Hushed and resentful like a struck child". But we never receive the qualities that he sees in the trees as direct sense data; we never feel the branches as crestfallen, see the sadness ingrained in bark. We only see a dotty geezer poking about in a wood.

In the same way, though Jackson is working the device of the almost infinitely huge building the house doesn't take on the nightmare sprawl of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, or even the comic profusion of Malplaquet, the ruinous stately home invented by T H White. In fact, it's the servants in this novel who keep the house sane.

The octopus of tunnels the Duke has had built ought to have left the mansion irretrievably gothic. But as Jackson writes him, His Grace is a white-bearded child, rather bewilderedly at play. Because of his immense wealth, he can order his whims into existence; yet the freedom to drive a coach and horses up tiled passages is accompanied by an infant's dependence on the people who look after him.

Mrs Pledger the housekeeper, Mr Clement the butler, Mr Grimshaw the groom are all substitute parents.Wherever the Duke forages, he is sure to come upon a sensible man or woman, digging or polishing, who'll hear his theory that the moon is a hole in the sky with only a patient Ah or Oh at the oddness of the gentry. The Duke's oddness forms a zone extending no further than he can reach.

This is a limitation on a novel, especially since the Duke possesses a child's incuriosity about the inner existence of anybody else. His encounters are governed by no logic of plot or development. But the Duke's predicament is also a fictional opportunity. What Jackson evokes with invention is the play of energy within His Grace's lonely self-absorption: the strange comedy and bravery of a self-diagnosis attempted with inadequate means.

Something is wrong, but what? An ache tunnels its way from one opaque portion of his anatomy to another. Lacking even the whisper of a hint of the idea of an unconscious, the Duke's reckoning with himself becomes a romance of containers. Caverns, dumb-waiters, suits all seem to invite him inside, only to arouse immediate anxiety, a need for the release of long-sealed contents.

A pot of jam seems a fine thing to be, he thinks; later he longs to be a letter in an envelope. A moment of serenity offers him a vision of his internal organs as "fish, nestling at different levels of my pool". But this school of thought has perils as well as charms. The Duke is an amiable literalist, and Mick Jackson's fantasia becomes a sly race between the release of repressed memory and the wandering of his mind toward an unsymbolic method for letting his insides out - in which case, farewell Duke.