A work as grand and various as that
Reviewing Jerusalem by Alan Moore, published by Knockabout in the UK and Liveright in the US.
Let’s divide things arbitrarily into threes. If Alan Moore’s career is considered in the usual periods of early Moore, mid-Moore and late Moore, we’re clearly into the last one. The first has a mountain of work but a trilogy of clear standouts: Watchmen, V For Vendetta and Miracleman, all now available again for the first time in decades but none of which are owned by their authors. They were built on a mountain of genre writing, of sci-fi and humour and superheroes and, the largest in terms of page count, horror. They were the triple peaks of Moore’s attempt to make comics grow up, to earn the medium as much respect as any other, a period where he ran not just with his direct collaborators but with a school of like-minded souls; praising Frank Miller, doing piecework for Howard Chaykin.
Watchmen is outdated now. It was designed to be outdated; it was designed to be the final word on superheroism, a genre-killing piece that salted the ground after it meaning nobody could write idiotic might-means-right power fantasies again. It was also intended to spell the end of comics’ naive period, its importation and invention of literary devices intended to lay to rest a tradition of writing stuck halfway between childrens’ books and the flat devices of genre. It failed, epically, on both counts, though that wasn’t Watchmen’s fault. Miracleman took the other tack, celebrating the four-colour dream of superheroes who made everything right by following one through to its logical conclusion of a whole world made super by a superman. And V was at once political, dystopian and pulpy, an ensemble piece about the realistic good one man, one vigilante, could do. Neither of them got followed up either. And then Alan was gone from comics, for a while.
The next phase, the mid-period, was characterised by an artistic and commercial imperative: Moore didn’t want to be ripped off any more. In ascending to fame that outshone most of the medium he’d been done over by comics’ Big Two and vowed never to work with them again. So initial forays were into films and into proper publishing, creating A Small Killing with Oscar Zarate for Victor Gollancz before the next big three arrived, simultaneously and fully formed, each project exploring a new genre within comics: the literary novel, the historical novel and erotica. Big Numbers, with superstar artist Bill Sienkiewicz, self-published by Moore’s Mad Love imprint. From Hell, with autobiographical artist Eddie Campbell who’d been in despair in Australia before being plucked from small-press semi-obscurity to illustrate this project. And Lost Girls, with underground comix’s Melinda Gebbie, appearing alongside From Hell in Steve Bissette’s self-published horror anthology Taboo. Comics’ work-for-hire overlords wouldn’t own any of these projects. A new dawn of ownership of work, of ethics, of bypassing the byzantine world of the direct market had begun.
The best laid plans of mice and men, etcetera. Only two of these three signature works of the mid-period were completed; one took a mere 17 years, the other 25. Big Numbers, the self-published one with the most immediate route to the public and the most straightforward literary appeal, the one with the artist everyone had heard of, managed only two issues. A third was completed in very different style and never released. There’s no solid information on what happened to the fourth. From Hell and Lost Girls both struggled against Taboo’s erratic schedule; the former went solo, the serialised collections becoming the format for new chapters and hopping between imprints to end up being self-published by the artist. Lost Girls saw two floppy collections of three episodes each in the early 1990s before vanishing for two decades, thought dead but being privately produced and financed by Moore and surfacing in a lavish collection in 2006. As with early Moore, they ended up as creator-owned artworks built on a mountain of work-for-hire, this time chiefly for the Image founders.
From Hell justified the wait. Lost Girls was generally assessed as a disappointment, the writer’s obsessive formalism and the work’s pornographic focus meaning neither plot nor characters had much independent life, for all the beauty in Gebbie’s artwork. Big Numbers died one-sixth through, the only 80-page giant Moore’s ever managed to complete. What work, then, completes the trio of mid-period works? Voice of the Fire, of which more later, was Moore’s first novel but was published with the same embarrassment by Gollancz as A Small Killing, the paperback original barely making it into normal bookshops and being remaindered in quantity; I bought mine for full price, finding it filed with the rest of the backstock in Manchester Waterstones, then saw a bunch of them on the shelves of a remaindered bookshop in Wales in the early 00s. Can we count the four titles of America’s Best Comics as a single work or do we single out Promethea, seemingly the most personal of them? Certainly the ABC line, including the still-continuing League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, seemed to be where Moore discovered he liked writing comics again. Are these part of mid-Moore? Where is the line drawn?
Arbitrarily, I’d draw it after the conclusion of ABC, which finished with a pair of specials containing work which still hasn’t been collected, so low was Moore’s reputation with the Big Two publisher he’d been conned into returning to. The final ABC publication, the superb Black Dossier, delayed years by DC and published only in compromised form, seems the perfect final act, an extension of the imagination far beyond anything a comics publisher still obsessively mining the writer’s smattering of superhero work-for-hire pages was prepared to give headroom.
Which brings us to Late Moore. And what have we had, so far? The conclusion to an earlier work, The Bojeffries Saga which ran concurrently with V and Marvelman finally collected with a modern-day misfiring addendum, sporadically funny but demonstrating the difficulties of returning to something you wrote as a much, much younger man. Fashion Beast, a lost film script from the mid-period realised as a comic. Neonomicon, a cash grab that brought the will-this-do quality of Moore’s work-for-hire Image comics over to his creator-owned work. Crossed +100, more work for cash. The continuation of the League across two trilogies with little of the first two series’ verve and only here-and-there hints of the Black Dossier’s triumphant opening-up of imagined universes. Providence, of which more later. And a second novel which took a decade to write, covering 1175 pages and a million words, and which took me around three-and-a-half months to read. Jerusalem.
To return to our arbitrary threes, Jerusalem is the last in a trilogy about Northampton. The first, Big Numbers, was technically about Hampton and was never finished. The second, Voice of the Fire, sets the blueprint for the last. Ten chapters, each presented as a short story largely unconnected to the others, each set in a different era from the Stone Age to the modern day, each told in different literary style, each set in Northampton. Buried by its first publisher perhaps because of the opening chapter written with a vocabulary of 500 words which, the author said, was to “keep out the scum”. The focus is different, an outward broadcast to the world about the history and tenor of Northampton, establishing it as a location of the macabre, England’s undercurrents. Jerusalem is an inward broadcast in which the nexus of storied and ordinary in Northampton make it the known universe. But most of the chapters of Voice could be transplanted into Jerusalem without much dissonance, and sometimes there’s the rueful hankering, for both reader and writer, that they should be there. John Clare’s chapter in Voice is a limpid, emotional synthesis of his poetry and his personal history, the claustrophobic spectacle of a beautiful mind broken, but in Jerusalem he’s walk-on comic relief. Maybe one day there’ll be a Jerusalem 25th anniversary collectors’ box set that megamixes both books together.
Jerusalem is a book split into thirds, 11 chapters each third and a present-day, meaning 2006, framing sequence at both ends. Threes again. The first and the last third follow Voice of the Fire’s template; each chapter a different narrator, a different era, a different set of events. A subsection take place on or leading to May 26th, 2006, the Bloomsday of this Ulysses. Otherwise they range around from the outlier of a monk in the Middle Ages to the industrial era that made the Boroughs what it was when Alan Moore, or his alter-ego within this novel Alma Warren the artist, knew it first, knew it as a child. A hive of working-class life, traditions, standards, a microcosm of the wider industrial Britain. A microcosm of everything, the reader will learn and learn again. There’s variation between voices, between the crackhead prostitute of 2006 and former slave of the 19th century, between the pisshead poet and the deathmonger, but they’re chiefly third-person with a narrator that never tires of his own prose, never gives up on a new way of describing the everyday. Moore’s purple here in a way that he hasn’t been since his Swamp Thing captions. His mastery of language and image, his exhaustive search for similes, largely pays off; I’d read close to 950 pages before I began to bristle at one paragraph describing the same object three times, and descriptive prose isn’t generally the kind of prose I enjoy. Various chapters in the final third depart from that high style for other literary approaches, from playscript to poetry to parody, and I’ll get to those in time. For the vast bulk of the book’s vast bulk, you’re getting a supreme craftsman of descriptive prose doing his thing at as much length as he wants, and it’s a display easy to enjoy.
And still talking in thirds, ignoring that middle one for now, there’s also a template plot for many of the chapters. The same thing happens but following different characters in the majority of those 700-odd closely packed pages. What happens is: someone walks around the Boroughs. Whether Alma Warren, whether a Christian monk, whether dead or alive, whether covering a journey of millions of years or idly pacing outside a music hall, everyone walks around the Boroughs. Jerusalem is a peripatetic novel, and the Boroughs aren’t that big, so before long the reader too knows about Spring Lane nursery school, knows how Scarletwell Street got its name and the single house at the bottom, sees that map on the endpapers and knows all the names.
In this it takes from its clearest inspiration, the aforementioned Ulysses. I haven’t read it, which puts me at a disadvantage when discussing it. But I know enough to know that it follows Leopold Bloom as he walks around Dublin for a single day, his thoughts packed with allusions, ideas, symbolism. And in Jerusalem Moore’s characters likewise promenade around a single city, each physical step transporting them through an individual and shared mental landscape, locations vanished or vanishing, territory more or less unreal. Ulysses also seems a structural influence in terms of the switches in styles between chapters, most notably a playscript, a stream-of-consciousness and the Lucia Joyce chapter written in the style of Finnegan’s Wake, of which more later. But it took me an absurdly long time to spot the main literary influence, given that he’s the first person quoted on the dustjacket.
Iain Sinclair is a peripatetic writer of extraordinary prose, branching, twisting labyrinthine sentences that finish with such sure-footedness that they’re belatedly perfect, the only possible way to say that. He’s been roaming around writing for decades but made his first impact on Moore and literary society at the end of the 1980s with White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, a From Hell precursor. Achieving a low-level influencer’s renown in the 1990s with his non-fiction and especially London Orbital, a walk up the Lea Valley and then around the M25, an attempt to read the changing city. Moore and Sinclair are almost collaborators, appearing together in the mythologised Chris Petit film The Cardinal and the Corpse. Norton in LOEG: Century comes from Slow Chocolate Autopsy, Sinclair’s novel with Dave McKean, and Moore tries to capture Sinclair’s crystalline, fractured voice in there. The two briefly walked together in Edge of the Orison, Sinclair’s retracing of John Clare’s walk from London to Northampton. I haven’t read that one – I lost heart 50 pages in, you very much have to be in the mood for Sinclair – but I’ve read most of the others, including Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, an elegy for the vanished radical-left borough of London that resembles a parallel evolution of Jerusalem, a trainline seen from the motorway. Moore is striving for Sinclair here in his prose and in his project, a four- or five-dimensional map of a single tightly bounded geographical area. His prose doesn’t equal the density or the lucidity of Sinclair’s, but that’s a mild criticism; nobody’s does, the style itself the instrument that brings light to Sinclair’s obscure or mundane subject matter. But as a lodestar to guide a writer through a monumental work, there can’t be many better.
Into the book. And after a fifty-page framing sequence introducing Mick Warren, the closest thing we have to a protagonist, and Mick’s sister Alma, Alan Moore’s female Copperfield/Zuckerman, in which repeated distances in the writing kept snagging on my pernickety reader’s flow, it was smooth sailing. It was good reading. Beginning in 1865 with a Vernall, father to the bloodline of borderland-guarding mystics who run throughout the novel, being driven insane by a visitation from an angel while retouching the ceiling of St Paul’s, each chapter gives you something. Each is an illumination, each is a puzzle-piece, each almost a short story, teetering on independence but with shared referents, moments, and always streets. We skip from Marla the prostitute’s final day in the piece of hell she’s made in the Boroughs to a ghost’s eternal travails through its years there to a monk bringing Northampton a piece of Heaven in 810AD to the young Charlie Chaplin waiting on a street-corner. It’s been so long since I read these chapters, all the way back at the beginning of the book in October, that when I flick back through I’m startled they’re all laid end-to-end, not a dud among them, expertly building a palimpsest of the town, unfolding to become bigger and more complex while never exceeding those original boundaries.
Rough Sleepers, the third chapter proper, proceeds beautifully with a conceit that Moore couldn’t have got away with in comics; the gradual reveal that narrator Freddy Allen is dead, is haunting the Boroughs, is trapped by his own remorse for actions uncommitted between the First Borough of material reality and the Second Borough up in the ceiling above it. Apart from some obfuscating language at the very start, we’re is never quite told any of this, the narrative proceeding as if it’s just fact, well-known, we’re all familiar with the half-life of the ghost-seam. The reader’s mounting suspicions that something is going on here are answered by the mounting unreality, Freddy matter-of-factly just a little further on than us in this workaday ramble through the afterhalf-life. Modern Times, a corner idle by Chaplin outside the Vint’s Palace music hall during which he runs into a member of the Vernall-Warren clan, is a bravura sketch of the artist as a young man and his times, a lingering on the threshold of a 20th century unimaginable but already in motion. Structurally unnecessary – you could do the book without it – it justifies its place by its excellence and by the other characters woven into the thread, May Warren the death-monger’s loss later on more poignant because of this outsider’s view of her happiness, a memory that will cross the Atlantic long after the child is dead. Black Charley, who’s up next, rolling down the hill on his rope tyres.
There are two uniting threads in this third, apart from the Boroughs: the history of the Vernalls, a madness-touched clan of seers, advancing chronologically until Mick Warren introduces the middle section. And the players of May 26th getting through their days, crossing each other’s paths, building to their separate climax. Benedict Perrit the published poet and drunk, staggering around his hometown measuring his days in pints and half-pints, realising his failure to become anything, is the latter. Snowy Vernall the seer, the man unblinded by any illusion of free will who knows his every step in advance up on a Lambeth roof as his child is born, the former. May the deathmonger, mother of a child too radiant for the Boroughs to suffer to live, the former, her course charted by her baby’s death. Not every chapter is memorable; the final pair, about Tommy Warren and his son Mick, Alma’s little brother and the kickstarter of the whole novel, set things up nicely enough but don’t linger in the memory. But Jerusalem’s first third is solid, varied, on its own longer than many novels but evidently preparatory, creating foundational pillars on which this wedding-cake of literature can stand.
It is worth saying at this point that, as a reader, I’m not unfamiliar with big books. Evidently I’m coming at this one as an Alan Moore fan, as someone who’s eagerly awaited or sought out every scrap of his writing for more than three decades, and that’s fine, that’s a valid perspective. But though I haven’t read Ulysses I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow, I’ve read Infinite Jest, I’ve read Underworld, I’ve read any number of big difficult literary works. Last year I read Jonathan Littell’s 1000-page The Kindly Ones out of spite. So the genus isn’t strange to me. I’ve got maps for these territories.
And Jerusalem follows, to some extent, the template of the big postmodern novel. Polyphonic, a collection of different voices brought together only by the reader’s eye, an assemblage with hidden connections. There are always those connections, the little snags and loops the writer tries to slip past the reader, the walk-ons of other characters and the glancing mentions of key plot elements. The reader of big novels is trained to spot them. Only here that training is profoundly unnecessary because they’re signposted, highlighted, underlined in neon. Every cameo by Marla through the rest of the book is glaringly obvious, the tap of the author’s finger on the shoulder felt and the stage whisper drowning out the rest of the text. The Chaplin chapter that doesn’t identify Chaplin is an excellent piece of business, subtle and intelligent, but when we meet May Warren she goes over it again in detail in case we missed the subtleties, and later on the book just straight up shouts it, has May posthumously realise “That man was Charlie Chaplin!” It betrays, on the writer’s part, a lack of trust; Moore wants you to see what he’s done. My guess is this is one of the tics that comes with being a comics writer restricted to prose; first the description, the logorrheic flow making up for the lack of images, and second this loss of subtlety. In an Alan Moore comic Marla would be a background detail striding past in her plastic mac, Chaplin would be identified by his face, his act, with no later clarification necessary. It’s odd to not trust the reader this way, when you’re giving them a chapter of Joycean angel-language later which would seem to presuppose sophistication, which is why it seems likely this is a writer’s flaw, the understandable overcompensation to finding your toolbox of techniques has been much reduced. That’s the charitable explanation, giving him the benefit of the doubt. The uncharitable explanation is that Moore wants you to know how clever he’s being, which becomes a lot more of a problem later.
The drag coefficient in the next section, in the middle third, definitely comes from the writer’s switch between mediums. It’s one long narrative, a Just William beyond space and time, a 600-page novel – inflating for type size – without a beginning or end. A middle that’s all middle. Michael Warren dies and journeys to the afterlife, the ceiling, Mansoul, the Second Borough. He falls in with the Dead Dead Gang, a bunch of ghosts who’ve decided to spend a portion of their eternal afterlives as children, tearing around playing games and causing mischief, with the occasional wrong-righting when unavoidable. They’re our guides to this infinite dimension, a place where space equals time in a far more literal way than downstairs; peek through one skylight and see one moment, move to the next one along and see another. Meet demons, meet angels, watch the game of five-dimensional trilliards which governs our existence or is governed by it. And all above the Boroughs, and doubtless everywhere else as well but importantly, significantly above the Boroughs, a keystone in the universe’s firmanent.
The concept are big. And Moore wants them and their visual respresentations, this framework of the mundane and divine he’s created, to be fully understood. Which means that once Michael’s up there we’re almost reading an Alan Moore script, one of those famously weighty documents which blessed and hapless artists must translate into visuals. That’s how it’s presented: big, unwieldy chunks of description which must conclude before we’re granted a few lines of dialogue, then the same again. Writers with more prose under their belts could have, I couldn’t help feel, handled a tough task more deftly, without all the sand in the clockwork. Descriptive writing isn’t my favourite type of writing; I’m not a John Updike fan. Very early on, therefore, the chapters become a slog, a sleetstorm of descriptive writing trudged through while following the obscured thread of the story. And it doesn’t let up. When the Gang take a trip into the ghost-seam, a supposed lark and detour which lasts hundreds and hundreds of pages, they enter a monochrome realm where everyone leaves afterimages behind them. But over those hundreds and hundreds of pages we’re reminded of this frequently, the visuals we’re meant to be holding in our mind’s eyes refreshed by infusions of new descriptions, new ways of saying monochrome and afterimages. The reader isn’t trusted to keep that on board. The net result is deadening, an invitation to skim. No matter how poetic and proficient each new description is, you’ve heard it. You get it. Please don’t tell – ah, you’re telling us again. A comic artist could just draw this shit, could dial it up or down when required for effect. Moore’s trying to be his own artist, to do both jobs without realising in a different medium there’s only one job to do. The cumulative effect is exhausting.
Also exhausting is the trip around Mansoul we’re taken on. It should be a romp, tousle-haired kids making eternity their playground, pulling pranks on ghosts and giving wedgies to demons. That seems like the intention, the grand idea standing behind this cage of words howling to be set free. An irreverent approach to outlining a grand cosmology. But it doesn’t work for two reasons; first, the incessant description slowing every scene, every page. Second, it’s just too long. The kids go too many places and see too many things, half of which doesn’t pay off. Michael flies around with a demon, is rescued by a deathmonger, goes upstairs to the trilliards game he’s a crucial ball in, dives into the ghost-seam, visits Oliver Cromwell, watches the Great Fire of Northampton take hold, rides the Ultraduct, takes tea with Reverend Pickering, calls into the Jolly Smokers, wanders the asylums, drifts into the near future, sees the Destructor. Mansoul is exhaustively covered, the streets of the Boroughs trodden in a card-shuffle of timezones, and it’s exhausting. There’s no urgency and no design apart from ‘Where we going now?’ and the whims that take us there. The characters are transparently following the author’s design. This happens all the time in Pynchon’s novels, a lovestruck magician from the Old West suddenly plunging into the world of European metaphysical mathematics, and it’s irritating in those too, but it’s done with an excusable breeziness, everyone never more than a few pages away from almost drowning in mayonnaise before a miraculous escape. There’s none of that cheerful inconsequentiality here. There’s an itinerary which these supposedly carefree children doggedly stick to for reasons that fail to convince.
That’s harsh. And of course it’s not fair, and of course there’s great stuff in here. Pulling away the curtain of existence to see the workings, or Moore’s explanation of them, can’t be without delights. The architecture of Mansoul, the containment of four dimensions within an ostensibly three-dimensional space, is classically realised. The arcades of the Second Borough are an infinite Northampton shopping street where every moment of every life is available for window-shoppers. There’s too much description, every paragraph larded with it and the kids’ dialogue never given an opportunity to feel natural, to fall into any kind of rhythm, but there’s a line to be treasured on nearly every page. And though the journey is far too long and meandering it goes to interesting places no matter how contrived the route; the majesty of the Works where the Angles play, every detail and corner overlaid with dizzying depths of significance and meaning. Cromwell’s appearance would’ve been better as a short to itself, without the necessity to make Dead Dead John an amateur Cromwell scholar. The standout is the Great Fire of Northampton chapter, with a pair of fire-sprites dancing through the town, a sequence which couldn’t have been done without ethereal observers, and though the gang’s meeting Reverend Doddridge uses a comic-strip contrivance to tell his story, it’s executed with such clarity and elan that it transcends infodump to be a delightful piece of showing-off.
But by this point the repetitions are beginning to stack. By the time we meet Doddridge we’ve heard about his church, with its curious door halfway up a wall, so many times that it sparks not curiosity from the reader but a groan. This shit again. And though the wild psychedelic imaginings of the Ultraduct and the Destructor are transfixing spectacles they don’t carry a lot of significance. They’re another piece of the map we’re being shown because we have to tour around the whole map, the Second Borough no less enumerated street-by-street than the first. There’s welcome extra depth when the pretense of the three-year-old focal character is ditched and we find out more of the inner lives of the Gang, but it’s another drag on the narrative, another spoonful of treacle stirred in. You start to wonder if stuff is necessary, which is fatal in a book of this size. When Drowned Majorie recounted her escape from the Nene Hag, a devouring river-spirit who can destroy even the eternal dead – and there’s an issue with that, and the Destructor, which I’ll come back to – and it turned out only to be backstory, that was the first point I asked if the novel needed it. Not that the writing was bad or the concept didn’t fit or anything, but that it was a sideshow. Then, once the question’s there, you ask it again about the Jolly Smokers’ excursion, and again about the wander around the madhouse, and the mortar holding this edifice together begins to crumble and you don’t know what couldn’t be lopped off.
This middle third, Michael’s post-mortem wanderings with the Dead Dead Gang, ends with a triumphal parade down the Attics of the Breath, the arcades we began in, on a woolly mammoth with every ghost and angel and soul cheering on the way. Again it’s a sequence I’d like to see illustrated but not because of any flaws in the prose, just because it conjures wonderful images, like a Rupert story gone far beyond wild, every fantastic children’s tale crossing over with every other. That final stretch is the perfect example of what this third was meant to be. Though perhaps I’m unable to separate my own soaring relief that it was finally over, a capricious meander through time longer than most novels. Most long novels. And when over, the final third went straight back into the first third’s style of rotating narrators, different viewpoints with a fantastic chapter from the angle of an Angle. Into the home stretch, over the hump, ready for Alan to tie it all up.
But in the final third I found myself musing on another trifecta, one I hadn’t been expecting. Which three, I tried to decide, of all of the chapters in the last third of Jerusalem was the worst? Which were the three that were most painful to read? It wasn’t an easy decision. There was a field of runners and riders. It wasn’t a competition I’d expected to have to hold.
The disclaimer first; the chapters of this final third that aren’t bad are usually superb. The soarers are side-by-side with the clunkers, often alternating. The good: Clouds Unfold, the first chapter of the angel’s-eye view of the Boroughs, almost a formal reintroduction to the characters and events from the book’s first third. Luminously written in short passages, glimpses of a higher reality that would break material minds, an overview of this one small patch of land bristling with history, it reinflates the reader’s expectations. Burning Gold, a simultaneous history of Borough hard-leftist Roman Thompson and of money, that great fiction which history has conspired to support for centuries, again breaks with those page-crushing slabs of prose, again gives the reader breathing space, putting two barely-related narratives in parallel to expose the connections between them, the secret life each has within the other. The closing Go See Now This Cursed Woman, in which the events of May 26th finally transpire, in which the fate we saw Marla walking towards 900 pages earlier is reached, in which Michael Warren sleeps while the world turns and events outside the Boroughs are finally acknowledged, if only as secondary. And Eating Flowers, the masterpiece of this closing section, following a pair of Vernalls after death up there in the Attics, running for billions of years until the termination of time, never leaving the Boroughs, an afterlife told simultaneously with the narration of Snowy’s final day. The clouded death of a panopticon and the futile, but perhaps necessary, near-infinite quest of his afterlife. There are moments in this one where the description is too much, three similes in a single sentence, but when you’ve got billions of years to cover and an observer who is almost a lens, the prose almost has to be purple, oozing with scintillating adjectives.
Which, then, are the competitors in this race to the bottom? Well, not A Cold And Frosty Morning, a day in the life of Alma Warren, which despite being epically self-indulgent has enough charm to carry its length. It’s – what else? – a wander around the Boroughs with Northants’ resident mage and visionary, genderflipped and made an artist instead of a writer but otherwise not discernable from Alan Moore in any significant way. And yes, while it becomes clear that Alan’s never tossed off a quip he doesn’t think worth preserving for eternity, his roster of Northampton’s luminaries would have a hulking hole in it if he wasn’t included. When the author’s feelings for a place are so personal, an authorial surrogate helps illuminate them.
Not The Rafters And The Beams either, the end of the story of Black Charley from the first third, and the linking of his lineage to a friend of Alma’s, which fails only by being forgettable. Not the blank verse of The Jolly Smokers, which ties loose ends that turn out barely to be connected anywhere else, a fancy knot which dangles uselessly. Not even the epilogue, Chain of Office, in which Alan and Alma’s vainglory is much less forgivable and which I’ll come to later.
And not, surprisingly, Round The Bend, the Lucia Joyce chapter which proves all Alan’s boasts about its unreadability to be well-founded. The entire thing, all 44 pages, is written in a sub-Joycean prose elaborated from Finnegans’ Wake. I’ve never read Finnegan’s Wake but I feel no guilt about that; nobody’s read Finnegans’ Wake. But after struggling, battling through eight or so pages of this chapter, I image-searched a few pages of the impenetrable masterpiece for comparison only to find that Round The Bend out-Joyces Finnegans’ Wake. In Joyce’s novel, neologisms intended to represent collisions between two or more words or roots, coined to represent multiple meanings simultaneously, appear every five or six words at the heart of every clause of every sentence. Even dipping in, you feel like you’re listening to an oral history from a culture you’ve never encountered, one alien to your own packed of idioms almost grasped. The neologisms, the phrases that seem time-honored but as strange to you as another language, are at the centre of the text, repaying attention and attempts to transliterate.
In Round The Bend, however, it’s not every fifth or sixth word. It’s every word. Every single word in every single sentence is a neologism, a mangled collision of meanings to unpick, a layered strata of significance. But that leaves the reader with a very different experience; instead of being drawn along by the riverrun of the narrative, there is no flow. Every sentence is a crossword puzzle to be picked through and though individually that’s possible, each one deciphered and stacked with the rest, when you get stuck on a word everything grinds to a halt, the holographic sense of the story cleared for this one problem. Carrying any sense of a page is impossible. Reading it, in the sense we normally experience reading, is impossible.
And then when you do decipher it, the question is why. Finnegans’ Wake is apparently half-fable, half-dream, a family history told in a single disputed incident of wrongful incarceration, a comic monologue of disputed fact and wildly unreliable narrators. Round The Bend is… a wander around the Boroughs. Well, not the whole Boroughs, but those districts of it affliated with mental illness: St Andrew’s Hospital and the other madhouses which have held residents of the First Borough throughout the ages. It is, therefore, just like most of the other chapters of Jerusalem. Finnegans’ Wake is intended as a work in which the form and the content are inseparable, a story which could not be told any way other than it is. Round The Bend is a chapter of Jerusalem run through a hypothetical Joycean option on Google Translate.
I read it after I gave up reading it. Which is, after I tired of deciphering two pages a night, I abandoned the pretense that it was readable like a novel and instead skimmed it, the whole rest of the thing in one session. You can follow events. Lucia meets John Clare, the Nene Hag, briefly Ogden Whitney and gets it on with Dusty Springfield. That’s what happens. How it works as a part of the whole novel I can and can’t say; I can’t say because I didn’t make it properly through so I didn’t see the connections, I didn’t have any grasp of its themes. There’s probably lovely writing in there, obfuscated. But I can say how it works; it breaks the spell of the book, pushes the reader back, forces an extra degree of separation. Wilfully forces you to consider how much of this really works. And in a big book that doesn’t trust you like a big book should, that insists on tugging your sleeve and pointing out its own interconnections, including this chapter is an act of violence against authorial intentions, stubborn ambition overriding integrity. The determination to have a difficult chapter of intellectual showmanship running rough over the text’s need to be a whole. It, put plainly, fucks up the book. And it isn’t even one of the worst three chapters in this final third.
The third worst, to commence the countdown, uses another Joycean device. After the relative uniformity of the first two sections of the book, Moore seems to have decided that he needed to experiment with form in the last one. Ulysses, not coincidentally, does that. Cornered uses the device most associated with Joyce’s writing, stream-of-consciousness. Like the Lucia Joyce chapter, it has no good reason to do so.
Cornered follows a former Northampton borough councillor, a local small-time politician, on the evening of 26th May, 2006. It follows him, you may not be surprised to learn, on a wander around the Boroughs. The wander is long, and obsessively recorded street-by-street, encounter-by-encounter. Everyone else we’ve met makes a cameo because of course they do. But the reader, as readers do, waits for the point, follows through this torrent of words for the point, and eventually realises that the point is the thing we keep being told.
Because there are two messages in Jerusalem, and councillor Jim embodies the second one. The first, that time is not the one-way process it seems, that our every moment exists forever in eternity, is ostensibly the reason the book exists. It’s what Moore’s dwelt on in interviews, an idea he seemed to come to via From Hell, a reading of our universe that lives and breathes on every page. There is no death, no heaven, no hell, nothing that was once is gone. It’s all there forever. It’s the crystal seed from which the whole structure, the First Borough and the Second and the Ultraduct and all the rest, is grown.
But competing with that, gaining on that, is a second message. As Moore writes about the Boroughs, as a mountain of words accumulates, he appears to realise what he’s lost. That the working-class culture in which he grew up, the forces that shaped his father and grandfather and great-grandfather, that gave the world Chaplin, is dead. He knows this from the beginning – ASBOs of Desire is about the devastation that’s left – but a head of anger grows, a resentment, a sense of a world stolen. He’s not wrong. I’m a generation younger but I remember those years, before Thatcherism cleansed working-class solidarity from British society with the bleach of the free market. For someone so deeply connected to their roots, it must be all the more painful.
Jim is brought into the narrative, therefore, as a third-act villain. He was instrumental in the sale of the two blocks of flats at the centre of the Boroughs to the Newlife housing association, for a peppercorn amount. He defends this, again and again, as something that if he hadn’t done somebody else would have, and it’s also repeatedly mentioned that he had a visit arranged to Iraq to profit from the invasion. He’s the current bête noir of the British left, therefore: a Blairite. And for this, he is made the bearer of all the sins against the Boroughs, given responsibility within the novel for the murder of the working classes. Which is self-evidently disproportionate. He, and people like him, were complicit, certainly. They betrayed, ideologically, and did their part. But his excuse is true and he was just a small part in the vast machine of capitalism which no longer needed a well-paid manufacturing class in Western countries. To hang an albatross around his neck is disproportionate and, at this late stage in the book, both arbitrary and spiteful.
And the very attempt to lay blame points out a deeper flaw, namely that the two messages of Jerusalem are at odds with one another. If there is no death, if every moment is a jewel in eternity observable in every facet from every angle, then the death of the Boroughs is no more a tragedy than the fall of a raindrop. It’s not dead; where would it go? It’s still there, still living, just further back in the book. That, rather than the gratuitous stream-of-consciousness or the attempt to frame a villain, is what puts this chapter in the three worst. It demonstrates its own falsity and has nowhere else to go.
Number two on this dismal hit parade is, at least, a fixed point. There’s no more enumeration of streets. And it is crucial to the overarching plot, though it manages to be so while telling you nothing that hasn’t already been told. The Steps of All Saints is ostensibly the script of a play, and while taking place in that single location convenes figures from across centuries; John Clare, John Bunyan, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Becket, and a couple of Vernalls. It’s a one-act play, set on a single crucial night in the lives of the never-named HUSBAND and WIFE, who it’s impossible not to know are Johnny and Celia Vernall, parents of accordionist Audrey Vernall, great-uncle and great-aunt of Alma and Mick Warren. It’s a defining night, the night when Audrey goes round the corner, locks them out and plays Whispering Grass all night, the night where a dark family secret is finally exposed then covered up.
We’re late in the book, though. We’ve been to the asylum twice already, and met Audrey Vernall. We know her story. We know what we’re about to find out this night; the oldest, most sordid family secret of all, what was then called incest and is now called child abuse. Perhaps the framing of that night as a play, and the addition of a Greek chorus of Northampton-connected literati, are an attempt to find a new angle, to make the revelation fresh and freshly-horrifying. It shouldn’t be mundane, however mundane it is. But the way it’s approached is nothing but a distraction.
The play isn’t a play. It’s a chapter written in the style of a play; it would never be performed. It should never be performed, because it’s boring. The presence of Samuel Beckett suggests that perhaps this one-scene drama is attempting to pastiche, or homage, Waiting For Godot. You wouldn’t know it from the text. John Clare, so vivid in his chapter of Voice of the Fire, is a confused clown. Paedophilia is a joke apart from when it’s serious. The ghosts run through aspects of their lives, occasional coincidences, like duelling Wikipedia articles; the dialogue’s fine but there’s no point to it, nothing they’re building towards, no real reason why this particular crew of ghosts has been brought together to witness this scene except that they haven’t featured in the narrative yet. And, unforgivably, the play and its casting of HUSBAND and WIFE makes the central drama bloodless, eternal and inevitable and boring. Here, perhaps, details could have made it. Torrents of description would have helped. The single, painful detail of Johnny stripping the bed while his daughter wept was all that stayed with me. The chapter is an experiment in form that fails, a confluence of characters that’s unmemorable, an exposure of a family’s pain that’s unremarkable. I read it bristling with irritation. For a while I thought it was the worst chapter in the book, until I read the worst chapter in the book.
The Rood In The Wall, two before the end, is the worst chapter in the book. It is inexcusably bad. It has no place beng there; if you’re reading this and you haven’t yet finished Jerusalem, skip it. You’re missing nothing. If it could be pulled whole from the book, between disgusted thumb and forefinger, and taken and dropped in the bin I would’ve. It’s unforgivable. It taints what’s around it. It makes the whole book worse.
What is this shit? It begins with a character who calls himself Studs Goodman, waking up in the bedroom at his mother’s house. In Northampton, obviously. Studs narrates in a parodic noir style, in short notice revealed as nothing but an affectation of an actor, Bob Goodman, who’s a mate of Alma Warren and has been given a job of research by her. He visits the library to use the internet, prints a bunch of pages, goes to a churchyard to read them, goes home. Seriously, that’s the action in these 38 pages; a man does an errand. In the epilogue it’s revealed to be a wasted errand, as part of a dialogue which would be a slap in the reader’s face if the dialogue itself wasn’t already that. I’ll quote it later.
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen readers are familiar with the growing certainty that something is being missed, of hearing dropped references clunking all around, of making that post-reading trip to the internet to find out who these characters are. And so it was with Bob Goodman. He’s real; he’s an actor who appears in Gangs of New York, in Game of Thrones, in Doctor Who, rarely in named parts. He’s not well-known; he’s not the first Bob Goodman when you search Google, and he’s not even the first “bob goodman actor”. But he exists and he is, the reader can only surmise, a mate of Alan Moore’s which is why he’s been given a narration part here, a bit of nepotism. Because the chapter’s nothing to do with Bob Goodman. He’s only a sock puppet to advance a theory.
That theory is: James Hervey, a Northamptonshire clergyman born in 1714, invented the Gothic movement. There’s a line from that to every kind of genre fiction, from fantasy to Mary Shelley’s spark that gave life to science fiction in Frankenstein. Northampton created goth, and goth arguably created the fictive landscape around us today. That’s what Studs has to tell us. And I have to say I had to open Jerusalem and find the right page and type out the details to pass that along, because I remembered none of it. Because it shouldn’t be there.
Who cares? Who cares if original goths Bauhaus, later most of one-hit wonders Love & Rockets, were from Northampton? It’s of no more relevance to this novel than Fields of the Nephilim being from fucking Stevenage. It’s just a bit of a theory, a bit of research, that Moore hadn’t managed to fit elsewhere in the book. So for a closing chapter, when hundreds of pages and hundreds of thousands of words should be building to a finish, we instead get this DVD extra. Why is it Bob Goodman? No reason; a laugh, an in-joke to a friend. Why is he narrating in a parodic hard-boiled style? No reason other than the above, and perhaps because Alan can do that voice, did it in an episode of Splash Brannigan, and found it provided a veneer of entertainment. A spare bit of theory narrated by an out-of-work actor in a voice chosen at random. And that’s in your masterpiece, your magnum opus, the work that in a demeaning bit of fourth-wall breaking in this very chapter is described, by reader-winking analogy, as “a piece of modernist or… post-modern writing… massively long by modern standards… [shifting] in its style and its delivery with each new chapter, hopping from one mode or genre to another and including ‘narrative description… inner monologe, anedotes, autobiography… short stories… poetry… [and] work that is reminiscient of a modern film-script.” Studs, we’re told, in a sentence that challenges anyone to finish this book, “would like to see one of these modern pantywaists even attempt a work as grand and various as that.” Alan Moore’s winking at himself. It’s not attractive.
Then there’s the negligible poem chapter and the final chapter, already discussed, which tie up the events of May 26th but seems to forget a bunch of loose ends. What happened to Marla’s Princess Diana photo album? Or Mick Warren’s promise to a demon to take a life? When the revelation of who lives in the lone house on Scarletwell Street has already been already given away, the actual telling of it has little impact. It’s a conclusion, but bringing together Marla, Freddy and Audrey is a partial finish, three minor characters suddenly given responsibility for closing a whole saga. Still, there’s always the epilogue.
But the epilogue, all fifty pages of it, manages to be at once vainglorious, misfiring and boring. Actually boring. It’s Alma Warren’s art exhibition, attended by her brother, a subplot that’s been thoroughly flagged. Benedict Porritt, last seen settling down to write a poem about the Boroughs, is attending, as is Roman the left-winger. The reader expects a literary summation, a clarification, a refining. Instead, what we get is a judge’s dry, methodical, chronological summing-up. The art exhibition, you see, is Jerusalem; 33 works, each painted or drawn or collaged in a different media, each sharing a title with a chapter of Jerusalem. We follow Mick Warren, no art lover, doggedly from piece to piece, each described in detail. They sound alright, some of them, but there’s no escaping the fact that this is a victory lap completed in the presence of the author-surrogate, an extended backslapping session watched over by its orchestrator. “Isn’t it good?” Alan/Alma is saying. “Aren’t I clever? Wasn’t this wonderful? Come on, let’s go round it again and you tell me which were your favourite bits.” It’d be awkward and unnecessary if the book had been a triumph, but after the shambolic collapse of its final third it’s an open-topped bus parade unearned and resented. Alma’s dialogue, warped beyond any possible naturalism by the contortions the scene forces her into, is painfully tin-eared, a shrieking parody of wit and egotism. By the time she’s saying “Was that what your voices told you? Oh dear. The doctors were afraid that this might happen…” to straight-man Bob Goodman, her lines have all the drollery of your uncle at a christening.
The end, the very end, I’m afraid to say I spotted the first time through. I claim no great intelligence for this. Either from having read big books or just from having read this big book, attuned to its rhythms, it was obvious. On page 641, as the Dead Dead Gang leave Doddridge Church and Majorie sees two men sitting on a low stone wall laughing, I thought: that’s it. That’s the ending. Alma and Michael pissing themselves at some joke will be the final page of the book. And so it was, Jim the councillor and framed murderer of the Boroughs brought in to take the blame, an old joke recycled and repurposed, not funny, a shared moment of laughter which never tempts the reader to laughter for a moment. The prose remains as exquisite as ever, but the payoff’s a joke. There’s no conclusion. Porrit’s poem, set up as an epiphany, is thrown away midway through, a casually dotted i. Right to the very end, it’s a crash-landing.
Hey: not all big books are all good. The Barthes quote, “Everything has meaning or nothing has. To put it another way, one could say that art is without noise,” isn’t ever really the case when you’re talking about a thousand pages. It’s widely agreed by readers of Infinite Jest that the Steeply-Marathe dialogues are the least compelling sections of the book. DeLillo’s Underworld, after a bravura opening, pelts the reader with 200 pages of mundanity and returns to it for a weightless ending. Gravity’s Rainbow is a mess throughout and the final pages more curtailment than conclusion. They’re still great books, even if more often I return only to their good bits than go through the whole thing again.
That’s what I did with Voice of the Fire; after the first reading I’ve never read the opening chapter again but I’ve read Confessions of a Mask and Partners in Knitting and The Sun Looks Pale Upon the Wall multiple times. So does it matter that Jerusalem turns into a mangled wreck in the final third when there’s so much that’s good in the first?
The exhausting of goodwill is the problem. The early chapters of Jerusalem aren’t a bundle of short stories, like Voice of the Fire; they’re building to something. They’re parts of a whole. And when the reader knows that they’re a false promise, that they’re half of a bridge arch that on the other side is rubble, they lose lustre. Underworld’s long, dull Nick Shay section in opening is rhythmically important, it’s there to contrast against his eventually-revealed past, against all the violent moments of the Cold War. I don’t read it, but I know why it’s there. But the book Jerusalem is building to be stops happening. It gets lost in the afterlife, in the Second Borough, and never returns. Rereading that first section, with its bloodlines of Vernalls and its May 26ths, would be shot through with bitterness at the potential unfulfilled.
Where does this leave Late Moore? Whither the trilogy of great works, now one of them’s an imposing monument adorned with warning signs? When the League, while annexing new fictional territories, seems content to tread thematic water, repeating its no-more-heroes mantra for two trilogies? Unexpectedly, there seems little cause for concern. Because Providence, the 12-issue exploration of Lovecraftian lore following up on Neonomicon – same publisher, same artist, same fictional universe – has roared from nowhere to become the first great work of the late period. Not even from nowhere; from a negative position, Neonomicon being a colossal misfire, a horror story that skipped the tension and went straight for the risible bit with a man in a rubber suit. Jacen Burrows managed to drawn subterranean monster rape as if it was happening in a striplit office, no more remarkable than Marie doing the filing. The story belaboured bits of tossed-off continuity from a short text story written more than a decade earlier. There was no real style, no real device from a former innovator in the medium, just straight chronological storytelling and dialogue. The lead character had depth deserving of more than the story that surrounded her.
Moore, cracking his knuckles over a typewriter as Eddie Campbell envisaged him when he began Swamp Thing, took this problem on. He approached it with the same verve as that long-ago career-making job, building something rich and wonderful from unpromising beginnings, working to the artist’s strengths. Burrows can’t draw horror? No problem, we’ll do a horror story in which 95 per cent of the horror happens offscreen. Cthulu’s played out? Not if you do Lovecraft at one remove, only hinting at the stories which only hint at the monsters. Lovecraft’s problematic? Then let’s deal with that head-on, let’s use an outsider as our focal character, let’s examine those attitudes to race and Jews and homosexuality in the context of their times. And though Providence shares with Jerusalem its inability to get anyone down the street without following them step-by-step, and while the final issue isn’t out yet so feasibly could be a dud, I’m confident that this is the first great of the Lates. Now we just need another two.
Alan Moore is retiring from comics. He’s announced this in many interviews. He’s also announced a final volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the long-promised Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic with Steve Moore, a comics project with Joyce Brabner, a further Lovecraft comic and the continuing Cinema Purgatorio with Kevin O’Neill. Even if he’s as good as his word, therefore, there’s plenty yet. Otherwise he intends to move into films, famously a medium where quality of writing offers no assurance of the quality or even production of the end product, and further novels. I’d read them; there’s indisputedly enough in Jerusalem to indicate a great novel is possible, even likely. Changing from the medium you’ve spent a lifetime mastering to one where you’re a relative neophyte is tough, perhaps tougher than Moore had imagined. Hardly uncommon, though, for a writer’s second book to be a disappointment. However onerous the reading was, we can surely expect more from a third.
Jerusalem was a casualty of its author’s ambition, his desire to make a definitive statement in prose, to be unfettered by page counts and page rates and how many words can fit in a speech bubble. When you’ve spent your career in those cages, perhaps it’s inevitable that absolute creative freedom produces a work that’s at once chaotic and conservative, that doesn’t know whether to follow rules or bend them or break them. The temptation is to say that it would have been better if it wasn’t so big and page-by-page that’s true, the prose could stand to be leaner, the Dead Dead Gang’s wanderings to be shorter, all that. But the promise of that first third is partly predicated on its size, on how monolithic this book was going to be. Cutting those three worst chapters from the final third wouldn’t solve that. It’d only imbalance it further, pitch it forward harder. The stinging irony is that Moore’s spent decades writing first-draft masterpieces, novels where the first chapters are printed and immutable when you reach the last, and somehow always managed to pull off dazzling conclusions. Here, with unlimited scope for editing and rewriting and structuring, he’s somehow managed to create a work where the ending’s rushed, piecemeal and dissatisfying. He’s always been the greatest formalist in comics, parlaying the limitations of the medium into strengths, dealing out dystopias in eight-page chunks or using the template of a tiny superhero line to dissect the whole genre. But, to anyone, the gift of infinity and eternity is belittling. Given Jerusalem, given the golden, eternal city, we’d all run around clinging to the familiar like the Dead Dead Gang, reverting to forms we know and never knowing when to stop. We’re all given it. And none of us know what to do with it.