Northampton and Beyond the Infinite
Alan Moore’s latest is as intense as anything he’s ever produced
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Alan Moore doesn’t do small. That’s true both in terms of the size of his works–sprawling comics narratives, a series of short films leading into a feature, or works in prose that could suffice for home exercise–and in terms of their density. Several of Moore’s comics have prompted extensive online annotations: Jess Nevins did so for his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books, in which Moore mashed together several centuries of pop cultural history into a massive adventure story that became increasingly philosophical. Moore is currently most of the way through Providence, an H.P. Lovecraft-inspired story with artist Jacen Burrows; there’s a collaborative project underway to document all of the allusions in there, too.
All of this serves as a kind of prelude to the prediction that Moore’s long-in-the-works novel Jerusalem will likely prompt plenty of discussion about the references, cameos, and allusions made within it, which cover everything from historical references to literary homages, from narrative threads that take hundreds of pages to pay off to cryptically metafictional structural devices. To state that this is a book that swings for the fences–perhaps not a perfect metaphor, given the very English nature of the story being told–doesn’t quite do it justice. It swings for the fences beyond the fences in a way that would also like for an observer to question the notion of fences. It’s Moore’s Ulysses, his Dhalgren, his doorstopper engaging with grandiose themes and experimental styles. Which marks this as a mightily ambitious novel in both scope and style, but which can also lead to an occasionally uneven experience. Is it a bold work? Yes, and a singular one, for better or for worse. Moore has opted to zero in on a number of lives in the Midlands city of Northampton to tell a story about, well, everything.
It begins in 1959, as a five-year-old girl named Alma Warren travels through the city of Northampton with her mother Doreen and her younger brother, Michael. There are neatly witty moments to be found here: Michael’s enthusiasm for life causes Alma to suspect “that he was rather shallow for a two-year-old, far too concerned with having fun to take life seriously.” But there are moments here that defy logic: the strange use of dialogue, which seems both familiar and somehow alien; the presence of a group of barefoot men in a storefront working on carpentry; the sense of some knowledge that’s just beyond understanding.
One of these men is referred to as “The Third Borough,” and this sparks something in Alma: “Alma had heard of the Third Borough, or at least it seemed she had.” Soon enough, more mysterious terms come up: a Vernall’s Inquest, the Porthimoth di Norhan. Vernall is a kind of title, but it also refers to a surname found further back in the Warren family. And soon enough, this strange scene is revealed to be a dream, and Moore leaps ahead to Alma and Michael (now called Mick) several decades later. Shifts between decades in a handful of sentences, the porousness of the boundary between dreams and waking life, the long histories of places and families–all of these are the material from which Jerusalem is made, and they’re concepts to which Moore returns again and again.
The novel is composed of three parts. The first of these, “The Boroughs,” is a fragmented narrative, jumping between the novel’s present-day (in this case, 2006) setting and a series of vignettes from Northampton’s history over the previous centuries. Sometimes the jumps from chapter to chapter seem arbitrary; at others, there’s a seamlessness present–a supporting character in one chapter, such as Henry George, a black American haunted by his country’s history of racism, ends up at the center of the next, for instance. And Moore’s approach here is somewhat naturalistic: there are abundant scenes in which characters walk the streets of the city, noting buildings and structures along the way. (It’s not exactly a shock when a member of the Joyce family shows up, though in this case it’s James’s daughter Lucia.) And there are plenty of scenes of gritty realism: several generations of families living in close quarters, illnesses that carry off small children, the way that physical or mental health can collapse in an instant. And there’s also, in one early chapter, the presence of sexual violence–something that Moore has been criticized for using as a plot element in several of his works. (This article by Kelly Kanayama summarizes this criticism well, and points out certain issues with the handling of sexual vioience in Moore’s writing that could also, unfortunately, apply to Jerusalem.)
Slowly, Moore details in the narrative’s historical gaps, showing the reader several generations of Warrens and Vernalls. Themes and images recur: notably, a torus, a ring-shaped object that results when a circle is spun on an axis. Some chapters are wholly realistic; in others, characters have visions of angels, speaking to them in bizarre languages–“…aeond their cfhourvnegres orfflidt Heerturnowstry awre haopended”–that impart concepts over and above the words used. Other characters see things in the corners of rooms, sparking the sense that they’re being somehow observed by tiny people, or people at a distance. One character, shortly before his death, observes “how the corners of a building were made cleverly, that they could be unfolded in a manner whereby the inside of them was out.” Strange things are afoot here, and even with the narrative leaping through time, this sense of disorientation prevails.
For all of these invocations of the cosmic, the transcendental, and the boundaries of sanity (it’s not for nothing that the novel’s second part bears an epigraph from H.P. Lovecraft), what really suffuses the novel’s first part is a dread-inducing sense of mortality. Numerous characters ponder their finite lifespans; numerous characters conclude that there is no afterlife. The overall effect is incredibly bleak. A middle-aged poet named Benedict Perrit, a contemporary of Alma and Mick, wanders through the city in one chapter, musing on the changes to it over the course of his life and the way that he’s been tormented by writer’s block. In a handful of paragraphs, he thinks back on his own life and legacy.
He was thinking about dying, how he did each morning soon as he woke up, but now there was no hope the morbid thoughts would vanish with the day’s first drink, not when its last drink was just then expiring horribly beneath Ben’s tongue. He was alone there in his room with death, his room, his death, its inevitability, and there was nothing to defend him.
It gets even sadder from there.
The novel’s second part, “Mansoul,” exists as an extended flashback to a moment in Mick’s childhood, alluded to in the prologue, when he was clinically deceased for a while, only to be revived. If “The Boroughs” was largely a work of realism with occasional flashes of transcendence–think David Peace’s GB84 or William T. Vollmann’s The Royal Family–“Mansoul” is something else entirely. The novel’s tone becomes much more fantastical, as another layer of reality comes into focus and some of the stranger moments of the novel’s first four hundred pages are given a wholly different context. Or, to put it another way, readers wondering what the hell is going on with the corners of rooms will find their answer,
Emotionally, it’s something of an intentional rollercoaster, featuring the introduction of the novel’s one truly villainous character, along with a group of adventurers, the Dead Dead Gang, traveling through the borders of time and space. The book becomes much stranger here, at times recalling the Chums of Chance scenes in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, a novel with which Jerusalem has much in common. But it’s also still a middle section: certain narrative threads are paid off, while others are started, several of which won’t be resolved until the novel’s closing pages.
Fundamentally, however, it’s also a more hopeful section. For all of the grappling with concepts of death, mortality, and frustrated ambition that went on in the novel’s first part, this exists as a kind of refutation of it–or, if nothing else, an expansion of the book’s horizons. It’s a welcome shift: this is a book that can become crushingly depressing in its initial pages, and so the more freewheeling chapters that follow allow for a beneficial change in mood.
There are multiple sides of Moore as storyteller present in Jerusalem. The detail with which Northampton past and present is rendered is impeccable; at times, the novel reads like a scale model of the city. (It’s probably no coincidence that a scale model of the city makes an appearance late in the book.) Moore’s skill at pulp storytelling is also on display here: the “Mansoul” section is gripping, a psychedelic chase sequence over hundreds of pages that manages to interpolate several powerful personal histories, a couple of narrative threads that pay off brilliantly at novel’s end, and a neat thematic counterpoint to the fatalism expressed by many characters in “The Boroughs.” But Moore is also fond of pastiche: several of his comics have included lengthy text sections written in a particular style or echoing particular genres: pulp serials especially. This was particularly true of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the third volume of which contained a host of pastiches, ranging from a lost Shakespearean play to pornographic comics set in the world of George Orwell’s 1984 to (perhaps least successfully) The Crazy Wide Forever, a Kerouac-meets-pulp fiction tale. The last of these, unfortunately, indicates that even a writer as skilled as Moore with the emulation of other styles has their limits.
Which is to say that by the time the novel’s third part, “Vernall’s Inquest,” begins, the novel is roughly two-thirds over and has, so far, begun an intense narrative escalation. It is in the novel’s final third, however, that Moore fragments the narrative, shifting styles from chapter to chapter. “The Steps of All Saints,” which answers a number of narrative questions set up nearly a thousand pages earlier, is told as a stageplay, for instance. Sometimes this can be incredibly powerful, as with his juxtaposition of one man’s life in the 20th century with thousands of years of history leading up to him. At others, it stops the narrative dead in its tracks. “Round the Bend,” for instance, is told in a uber-stylized fashion–“At the frays marchins awf the cupse she treps amokst the betterclapsand dayzes…”–which reads less like a choice made out of necessity and more because Moore wanted to incorporate that style into this work.
There’s another wrinkle to this work as well. At the center of this work are siblings Alma and Mick Warren. They’re introduced in the novel’s opening, and their conversational give-and-take anchors the book, providing a recognizably human element amidst the stylistic flourishes and metaphysical explorations. Alma herself has moved into fine art after an early history of working in pulpier terrain, leading some invocations of the likes of Michael Moorcock along the way. But for all of the expansiveness of the narrative, there are also a couple of references that hit closer to home on first reading. (Moore’s Acknowledgements point to a few more figures taken from real life and his own history in Northampton.) The most interesting of them is the presence of artist Melinda Gebbie in the novel. Gebbie is described as Alma’s best friend, which, given the real-life Gebbie’s long history with comics and surreal art makes sense. However, absent from the novel is Gebbie’s real-life spouse: a writer who you might have heard of by the name of Alan Moore.
This, in turn, may lead to speculation as one reads Jerusalem: is Alma intended as a kind of fictional surrogate for Moore? Her pulp background and fondness for multi-disciplinary work certainly suggests it. Or are Alma and Mick a sort of joint surrogate for Moore: Alma the artist, Mick the participant in the ecstatic? It’s an additional wrinkle atop an already-turbulent work. And while trying to place the author into a work where they don’t specifically appear can be a tiresome critical game, one assumes that Moore had a goal in mind when he placed his romantic partner and frequent artistic collaborator into the narrative but left himself out.
What, then, to make of Jerusalem? I found large chunks of it to be breathtaking in their scope; I found many of the passages, especially those in its first part when characters wrestled with mortality, to be incredibly moving. Certain individual chapters, such as “The Breeze That Plucks Her Apron,” about a woman’s evolving relationship with death and the community around her in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are beautifully self-contained narratives, moving in their precision. And that doesn’t even address some of the book’s most memorable scenes and motifs: the history of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” the glimpse of a near-future England, the way that art can both save and destroy lives, a character wandering through time eating a bizarre fruit called a Puck’s Hat, and the novel’s meditations on Englishness, which seem particularly relevant in this post-Brexit era.
The way that certain plot threads pay off over the entirety of the novel is a testament to Moore’s craft. But it’s also unwieldy in places–an aspect that Moore tacitly alludes to when, in the closing pages, Mick encounters a work of art that shares numerous qualities with the novel we’ve all been reading, and finds himself alternately fascinated and bewildered by it. Perhaps the filial relationship between Alma and Mick is a kind of evocation of the bond between writer and reader. That’s also of a piece with Moore’s approach here, in which the form of the novel takes on a number of permutations over the course of the narrative. This isn’t to say that it narratively insulates itself from criticism, but it does seem like a way of making some end runs around it. (Curiously, one could also read aspects of Jerusalem as Moore’s response to Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles–which, given the hostility Moore directed at Morrison in a 2014 interview, seems an interesting case of one-upmanship.)
Fundamentally, this is a novel about the interconnectedness of life, and of the shifting ways that people encounter life and death. It’s both a novel of stark urban realism and a hallucinatory work in which a shapeshifting devil can make an appearance. And while some of the ways in which narratives pay off don’t entirely click–the idea of one character’s tragic backstory helping them to save another isn’t one of the better narrative tropes at work here. But the ambitions of this project make for a book that remains compelling. “[P]overty lacks a dramatic arc,” one character notes about two-thirds of the way through Jerusalem. And in this narrative of humble lives amidst an epic backdrop, Moore makes his own humanistic correction of that.