'Jerusalem' by Alan Moore: Just don't call it 'Ulysses for Druids'
September 10, 2016 6:17 PM
By Wayne Wise
In Alan Moore’s ambitious new novel, “Jerusalem” (Liveright, $35), a monk in the middle ages walks from the Holy Land back to Northampton, England, carrying a heavy stone cross the entire way. This may be the best metaphor for the experience of reading this novel.
“Jerusalem” is dense, both in terms of physical size (nearly 1300 pages), as well as for the ideas it contains. It is a modern attempt to emulate James Joyce, and as a result it may vie with “Ulysses” as the best book no one has ever read, even though it probably should be. I found the experience at times draining and difficult, but in the end felt rewarded for my effort and attention. Mr. Moore’s prose is rich and complicated and at times ponderous. Once you slip into the rhythm of it, it is also poetic, insightful, and beautiful.
It is impossible to summarize the plot but, in general the core story arc goes something like this. When Mick Warren was four he choked on a lozenge and died, only to be miraculously revived. An accident when he is much older releases a flood of strange memories of his experiences of the afterlife. He relates these to his misanthropic sister Alma (who I believe, based on clues in the text, to be an avatar of Mr. Moore). He feels as though there is something in his experience that is meant to be communicated to the world. Alma then creates art based on Mick’s visions. This is all established in the Prelude, with the ‟Afterlude” summing up the entire book at Alma’s art opening. In between Mr. Moore attempts to explain the nature of history, the afterlife, angels and demons, racism and class warfare, religion and the ecstatic experience, the roots of Gothic thought and subculture, and any number of other random topics, written in a variety of styles.
The rest of the book is divided into three sections. The first is a series of walking tours of Northampton, echoing the perambulations of Leopold Bloom in “Ulysses,” undertaken by a number of various characters set in different time periods. This serves to introduce many of the ancestors of Mick and Alma Ward, other significant characters such as Marla the streetwalker and poet Ben Perrit, as well as many ghosts and angels. The history of Northampton is encoded in it’s topography and there are connections that can be drawn throughout the ages.
The middle section of the book chronicles the adventures of four-year-old Mick Warren in the afterlife during the brief time he was dead. He becomes involved with a group of kids who call themselves the Dead Dead Gang. Imagine the Little Rascals as written by a brilliant, philosophical madman with pretensions of explaining the metaphysical mechanisms of the entire universe.
I can’t explain in a paragraph what it took Mr. Moore hundreds of pages to explore, but in general what he says is, as some theories of Quantum physics indicate, all of time exists at once. When we’re alive we can perceive only our three-dimensional reality and experience the fourth dimension of time only by moving forward through it. From the higher dimensional realm of the afterlife, the Upstairs as he terms it, those who live there can perceive all of it at once and are able to move both backwards and forwards to witness individual moments, without the ability to effect them. The best metaphor for this is the physical reality of the book itself. The entirety of Jerusalem exists in physical form, written on the page. The reader experiences it a moment at a time, moving forward through the narrative. But, at any moment, can flip back or look forward and experience other parts of the text. It all exists, no matter where we are in our personal experience of the narrative. The first page is the Big Bang and the last page is the great collapse of the narrative universe. We exist in a higher dimension that allows us to apprehend the whole. In a philosophical sense this is an argument for a predetermined fate, a concept Mr. Moore certainly addresses.
Section three is by far the most challenging. While it appears disjointed at first each of these chapters not only moves the story forward but serves to tie together the many, many threads he has introduced. Mr. Moore writes from different points of view, exploring a variety of styles, some maddeningly experimental. One chapter is written in the form of an epic poem. Another is a crime noir detective story with the main character, who is not what he appears to be, investigating the connections between Northampton and William Blake. There is the script for a stage play which features the ghosts of several poets and thinkers, including Samuel Beckett, which is appropriate given the “Waiting For Godot”-like structure of the play and its meta-commentary on the entire book.
There are the chapters that appear to be overt paeans to Joyce. One is a stream of consciousness flow without punctuation, a la’ Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in “Ulysses.” Another is, without a doubt, the most difficult chapter to read and the one that is most likely to thwart those who try. Earlier in the novel Mr. Moore establishes the idea of the language of the angels: Words that sound like nonsense, but unfold within the mind of the listener to contain layers of meaning and metaphor. This entire chapter is an attempt to capture that experience, composed entirely of a made-up language. It is nonsense poetry spoken by Lucia Joyce (the daughter of James, who spent part of her life in an asylum), that gradually, as it is read, begins to reveal an internal logic and meaning.
Alan Moore is best known as a comic book author, responsible for books such as “V For Vendetta” and “Watchmen” (which Time Magazine ranked as one of the top 100 novels of the 20th century). He is a practicing magician (of the Thelemic type, not the stage), performance artist, and noted curmudgeon. All of these identities help inform the content of “Jerusalem.” Throughout the narrative he appears aware of the criticisms that will be leveled against this book and among the many meta-levels of meaning encoded within he takes the time to offer his own critique. In the Prelude he describes a character’s speech by saying, ‟All this was said with a wild-eyed urgency, apparently unconscious of its tics or its repetitive obsessions, it’s conspicuous lack of any point.”
It was tempting to post that as a review and simply let it stand.
The question that must be asked when encountering a work of this scope and magnitude is, ‟Was he successful?” Only time will tell how this book is received and regarded, but my immediate answer is yes. For all of the challenges involved in reading this tome (I regularly referred to it as my summer albatross), I came away with the sense that I had taken a worthwhile journey. I am convinced that there are insights, revelations, and joys that would come from successive readings. It is possible that scholars will be picking this apart for years to come.
The experience of reading “Jerusalem” is much like the quest of the characters of Snowy Vernall and his granddaughter May. In life they were touched by angels. In the Upstairs they walk to the very end of time and the universe to find the great answer, where Snowy discovers, ‟If there’s a significance he has to find it for himself.”
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