Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Underground Man

By Mick Jackson.

This was a fun one, and an odd one.

The plot is essentially--and I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but I'm going to--an old man. Okay, it's a bit more than that. It's an old man going slowly mad.

There is also a whole big 'secret' that is almost presented as a twist, but it didn't really hold me. I'd already guessed it quite early (not a brag, it was just a pretty standard assumption) and it wasn't that relevant. It played a minor part in the whole 'going mad' business, but it made a bit too much sense to really overshadow the other madness-bits. For example, the drilling of a whole in his own skull, and his subsequent psychic abilities.

So the plot is not a clever piece of careful architecture. But that's really not a problem. I've talked about it before, and I think I christened it the Wodehouse Method. That's a good name, so I'll call it that again.
The Wodehouse Method. Basically, if you write entertainingly enough, the plot can fuck right off.

Jackson approaches it slightly differently to Plum. It's entertaining, but not only funny-wise. It has a lot of funniness, but it's usually due to bits of slapstick* or caricature rather than wordy prose-lols.
Half the entertainment comes from the inclusion of curiosty and curious things. Wouldn't-it-be-cool-ifs, that actually are. The Duke builds tunnels under his house, has lots of interesting nonsense theories about people and trees, owns an excellent map, and finds religious text in his bread.
I think it's the theories that I will remember most. I love theories. I would really love to sit down and chat with this fictional old Duke. Alas, and all that. The chap is distinctly fictional.

So it's the Wodehouse Method, but not as we know it. But the underlying truth (be interesting, all is forgiven) remains... underlying-ly true.

Except it doesn't. Except it does. (Oh God, I think I just quoted the Doctor.)

It does, because I enjoyed this book, still. But it doesn't, because the flaw still shows through. I think this book could have been a lot better. There is such a richness of analogy in the Duke's musings, that they could have tied together beautifully into a clever plot, I am adamant. But they don't.
Maybe it's too 'novelly' to do that, but that sounds like grade A wankery, to me. You're writing a novel, you can make it as contrived as you like. You get to pick what you write about, remember?

There's an argument (I've heard) for realism in novels. That's all well and good, and I can think of a few great books I've read that function more like life than plots, and have middle endings, neither good or bad. But there's a time and a place. A 19th century Duke who thinks the moon is a hole in the sky? You don't need to be 'real'.

There's two lessons there. There's the same lesson I learnt with Jerome and his boring boats: you've got to be careful with the Wodehouse Method. Jackson does well with it, but he still could have afforded to tighten up the plot screws and dab the loose ends with liquid contrivace.

And: let a book be booky.

*One slapstick example of many: he gets really ill, thinks he's going to die, thinks he's giving birth to something, holds his candle down there to get a better look, the 'baby' is just a huge fart, straight throught candle, which sets his room on fire. It's funnier the way he tells it.


  1. Haha! Interesting. Don't recognise the Doctor quote. Think it is a paraphrase or maybe one of us said it.

    It seems the Wodehoue method is a fickle mistress. By the way I nearly mistyped fickle, went a letter too left on the I.

    Think about it.....

  2. Realism is fine, so long as it's real realism. (See, I can do that kinda thing too.) Real life, mine at least, is extremely strange and sureal more often than I care to explore too deeply. But if an author were to do so... I'd probably read it. However, if their version of realism is to just make everyone boring and predictable, I'm out.

  3. there are ideas i love here. booky being booky is one of them and that the genius of wodehouse's playful language and utter funniness trumps plot. not sure if i could swing getting through interesting trumping plot.

  4. I love your comment to let books be booky. I'm not sure I'd be able to get through this book, but your review was very entertaining.

    PS: I just gave you an award here