A genuine pleasure of working my way through the Booker is encountering writers of whom I have never heard. Some authors were familiar to me long before I had taken stock of nominees, and in part it was having knocked their books off the list when I set myself this target that made me believe it was achievable. Mick Jackson however was a complete unknown and I had no idea on starting The Underground Man as to what to expect. This was Jackson’s first novel and followed his MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. The course has an impressive record having produced such Booker winners as Anne Enright, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan; Rose Tremain, another nominee and a course tutor, receives a credit in the acknowledgements. Jackson is in excellent company and I had high hopes.
The Underground Man was inspired by the real figure of the highly introverted William John Cavendish Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland (although, with a name like that, introductions at parties could drive anyone into seclusion). The story itself is entirely fictional. The Duke in Jackson’s book is presented as eccentric and childlike, but also inquisitive, caring and clearly intelligent. He is fascinated by scientific exploration but allows this fascination to become obsessive as he gets increasingly withdrawn and, having constructed a large network of tunnels underneath his estate, the Duke is able to largely remove himself from society. Through a series of diary entries by the Duke interspersed with accounts from people living locally (who only see his eccentricity), the novel explores the workings of a socially anxious and introverted personality, and unravels the memory of a childhood trauma which affected the Duke.
For a first novel this is impressive. It is well-paced and the personality of the Duke is developed gradually and sympathetically. It is a mark of the quality of the writing that even by the end, the Duke’s behaviour continues to feel rational and calculated despite it growing in strangeness. Or at the least, it remains understandable. Moreover, Jackson has a strong ear for a good turn of phrase. There is an air of profundity to much of what the Duke says, even if the thought is not entirely original or significant. For instance, on reflecting on the effect that the different lifespans of animals (represented by the metaphor of a candle flame) might have on the way they perceive time, the Duke muses:
Time’s back is bent on the candle flame. For each one of us the sun arcs through the sky at a different speed. For some creatures life must be but a series of shooting suns. Others must have but the one sun which takes a lifetime to rise and fall.
I’m not convinced that this reflection is of great import and it goes no further than this paragraph. Even in context it adds little as the Duke has already considered this topic in greater depth preceding this. However, it sounds great! The heavy alliteration is obvious but look also at the repeated vowel sounds in the last sentence: “Others”, “must”, and “but”; “one” and “sun”; and “lifetime” and “rise” all contribute to a sense of lyricism in the passage. I also enjoy the effect that “rise and fall” has when spoken aloud: the vowel shifts from the back of the mouth to the front imitating that sense of falling.
In fact the book as a whole sounds excellent.
Sadly, I found the ending highly disappointing. I shall keep my observations vague (and somewhat assertive) as I’m reluctant to spoil what are intended to be surprising plot twists for the first-time reader. The trauma revealed near the end is never significantly developed as a mystery to be solved within the book except for a handful of moments that appear tacked on and inorganic to the rest of the story. Similarly the conclusion feels uninspired and somewhat irrelevant. I put the book down with the impression that Jackson had borrowed what have been successful elements of other books and shoehorned them into his own. Had he removed the final account and the attempt at creating a mystery, it would have been none the worse for so doing.
The Underground Man is based on an interesting premise and there are moments of brilliance within it. But it is inconsistent and unpolished. However, I would say the same of The Cement Garden (McEwan), have said the same of A Pale View of Hills (Ishiguro) and reviewers seem to say the same of The Wig My Father Wore (Enright); few writers start perfectly. Jackson shows promise and I still have high hopes for his future work.