Book review: what Alan Moore’s Jerusalem really needs is less of everything
Moore’s first novel is actually longer than the Bible and, unlike the graphic work that made him famous, suffers fatally from a lack of restraint. But there’s a visionary work struggling to get out from this morass
by Alan Moore
Somewhere in this sprawling behemoth, this teeming leviathan, this pythonic mammoth of a novel there is a very good – even visionary – book struggling to get out. Notoriously, it runs to more than 600,000 words and is longer than the Bible, but none of this will deter fans of Alan Moore, who has earned a dedicated cult following for his work on famed graphic novels such as Watchmen and V for Vendetta.
The plot is simple enough. We open with Alma Warren, an artist and eccentric, whose brother Michael once nearly choked on a cough sweet and miraculously came back to life. Many years later a bonk on the noggin has allowed him to access the memories of what happened when he was between life and death. He is worried that he is going mad, which seems to be something of a family tradition, going back at least as far as his great-great-grandfather Ernest Vernall.
Alma uses Michael’s memories or hallucinations or epiphanies as the inspiration for a series of paintings, and on the night of the private viewing, various lives converge en route to the gallery in the Boroughs, an area of the English city of Northampton. There is a heroin-addicted prostitute looking for a client, a middle-aged poet still living with his mother, a predatory monster, a bewildered boy, a compromised council official, someone who works with refugees, a car crash.
Some chapters fill in the Vernall family history; others deal with the countercultural history of Northampton: Lucia Joyce, daughter of James, confined in a local asylum; John Clare and Malcolm Arnold; Samuel Beckett and Thomas a Becket and a surprising amount of hymnology. There are also ghosts, often intersecting across centuries: a monk who brought a relic to Northampton as the “heart of England”; a “rough sleeper” ghost who laments the problematic logistics of ghost sex and is charged with a mission of deadly import.
Finally, there are the chapters set in Moore’s most visionary mode. These are mostly associated with what happened to Michael Warren in his betwixt time: in which “Builders” play “trilliards” with human souls in a metaphysical pool hall; two Vernall spirits embark on an epic pilgrimage to the end of time; and there’s a night flight with demon king Asmodeus. The final chapter gives us Alma’s exhibition, where the titles of the painting correspond with the titles of the individual chapters in another one of the crisscrossings found throughout the novel.
There is much here that is magnificent, but the problem lies in the language. Beckett’s most famous play was purportedly described as one in which nothing happened, twice; Jerusalem is a novel in which everything is said at least twice. The opening sentence of this review will have given you a flavour of that – needless tautology, with nouns chained to adjectives like prisoners in a gulag.
Take this as an example: “The inner glow remained inside the gooseberry-toned configuration from the point at which it surged in via the chasm of the doorway, followed it as it briefly veered to Michael’s right and resumed its path towards him, a manoeuvre undertaken to avoid the obstacle of the drowned mesa that he reasoned must be their living-room table.”
Or: “A diffused gold plume rose smokily through the engulfing negative-space gelatine, a cloudy and unravelling woollen strand of lemonade that trailed up to the gumdrop pane of the vat’s surface quite near Michael’s plaid-clad feet as he stood on the framing wood surround.” The graphic novel form, in which Moore found fame, demands of the practitioner a measure of restraint.
Pity, because when it is good, it is very good. When Michael first emerges into “Upstairs”, there is some fine wordplay which gives a pleasing sense of his disorientation. “Wiz this play seven?”, “It must be a missed ache” – it is a technique that Tom Stoppard used to brilliant effect in Travesties. This section also introduces the most beguiling part of the mythology, the “Dead Dead Gang”, a kind of supernatural equivalent of the Baker Street Irregulars in Conan Doyle or the Gorbals Diehards in Buchan, but closest in spirit to the Chums of Chance in Pynchon’s Against the Day, especially given their affection for genre fiction.
The chapter devoted to Lucia Joyce is, by contrast, a pallid imitation of the prose of Finnegans Wake – Moore hints at this influence in calling the opening chapter “Work in Progress”, the title Joyce used before revealing the true name of the book. But Finnegans Wake is more than a string of puns and portmanteau words. Moore’s version is monoglot, and therefore one-dimensional.
The noble political anger one would expect is still here. “Despite the very real continuing abuses born of antisemitism, born of racism and sexism and homophobia, there are MPs and leaders who are female, Jewish, black or gay. There are none that are poor.” The problems are still here, too, though: the chapter narrated by prostitute Marla, obsessed with Jack the Ripper and Princess Di, seems to confuse expletives with authenticity, including 32 F-words – to take one page, chosen at random – and five C-words. This is caricature, not characterisation.
Jerusalem contains a great many inventive and instructive cosmologies. Let me offer my humbler own. Most cultures describe an aboriginal chaos, and into this plenitude intervenes a figure – call it God, Demiurge, Artificer, Urizen – who gives it form, distinction, coherence, elegance and even meaning. An equally good synonym might be Editor.