Monday, September 14, 2020

Alan Moore is a Mad Wizard! (thoughts on JERUSALEM, his second novel)

Alan Moore's JERUSALEM is a tour-de-force of writing that is mesmerizing, frustrating, incomprehensible, and enlightening, all at once. Long considered the best writer in the comics medium, ever, over a decade ago he decided to put his toward his second novel. Following the old saw, write what you know, and also, I imagine, wishing to choose a subject that would keep him interested long enough to complete the story, which clocks in at a near-devastating 1266 pages, Moore chose to write about his home of Northampton -- in the east Midlands of England, where he has lived his entire life -- most specifically writing about the Boroughs, a small, impoverished section of Northampton that is home to the downtrodden working class, from which Moore's family draws its origins. 

The conceit of the novel is the belief that Northampton is the center of England, not only geographically, but also politically and culturally and religiously, among other aspects of life. Charlie Chaplin has a connection to the Boroughs, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett as well, Oliver Cromwell, George Washington, Thomas à Becket, and many others also passed through the Boroughs or came from this part of England. It's impressive to think so many important names many of us are familiar with touched this tiny town, and Moore wants to share that. 

We follow the lives of the Vernall/Warren clan, from the mid to late 19th Century through to the middle of the 21st (with a long trek to the very end of time in one of the chapters, up in Mansoul, the dimension just above ours, which some might consider Purgatory). And through them, we learn about this small patch of land, encompassing no more than a square mile. Through various points of view, we are taken on a tour of the Boroughs, and through the personal reminiscences and historical knowledge of these characters, we learn about this history, we see the rise (for ever so short a time) and gradual decline of this area, we come to understand how these citizens have been poorly treated by their government, and yet, they still cling to a humanity and a hope that is laudable. 

Moore also plays with ideas he has examined in his comic work, most especially that of eternalism, or the idea that time, rather than something that flows from immutable past to present to unseen future, is already set in stone. Time, in this philosophical take, and all the events comprised of our lifetimes have already occurred, will always occur, and will be repeated ad nauseum. This is similar to one of his and Dave Gibbons's approaches to their seminal work, WATCHMEN, wherein Moore & Gibbons wanted readers to be able to go back and forth within the comic, in order to make connections that would add more layers to the story they were telling -- all the information was provided for a full understanding of their narrative, but it might not be in the order one needed to fully digest it, so the idea of flipping pages back and forth to fill in those informational gaps was something they wanted their audience to undertake, which is an apt metaphor for the eternalistic viewpoint. 

In JERUSALEM, there is a higher-level dimension, known as Mansoul, wherein one of the characters, Mick Warren, finds himself after a candy lodges in his throat, killing him. Ten minutes later, he miraculously regains consciousness, but during that interim he is able to have myriad adventures up in Mansoul, as a collection of dead children, known at the Dead Dead Gang, take him through the seams of this fourth dimension, to see various important moments in Northampton's history. And since they can return Mick back to any time they wish -- again, with their ability to dig through time to any point they want, in this upper dimension -- he can take as long as he wants and they will drop him back down when he needs to be there to awaken. 

It is in this upper dimension that the inhabitants are able to look down at us and see how our lives are made up of moments that repeat forever, as we cycle through our lives. Instead of seeing people in a single snapshot, as we might view them, here on Earth, they see long habitrails of color, which represent their movement throughout a certain space. They are also able to see around walls and roofs and such, so that they can view these skeins of color that make up a life. Consider:  if we, in our three-dimensional reality, look at a picture of the interior of a house on a piece of paper (a two-dimensional reality), we are able to see inside that house because we are at a higher level dimension. Or consider what an ant walking along a leaf (a relatively two-dimensional experience) must think is happening if a human hand comes down from the sky and picks it up, taking it into a higher dimension (thanks to JMS and Babylon 5 for that description). Similarly, these characters in Mansoul are looking down on a dimension one below itself, so it only seems logical they would be able to see our 3D structures as if they were unfolded, offering them a view not available to those of us "down here."

JERUSALEM is broken into three sections. The first follows the major players in the Warren/Vernall clan, throughout history, offering a multitude of characters for readers to remember. The second section follows Mick as he joins the Dead Dead Gang in Mansoul and traverses the history of the Boroughs, back to medieval times and up through the future. But, where Moore really goes to town with his distinct perspective is in the third section of the book. This section starts to tie things together, showing interactions from part one in a different light, at times, as we discover whom some of the famous people are that these Vernalls and Warrens have met. In doing this, Moore chooses to write each chapter in a different manner -- one is a poem, one is a private detective pastiche, one is in the vein of Samuel Beckett, and one includes another one of Moore's well-known fascinations: wordplay. 

When Moore was 40, he decided to become a wizard. His affection for writing, for words, for the alphabet, would seem obvious from his productivity as a writer, but he also views letters as the basis of magic. A spell is something one casts as a magician, and to spell is to create words that describe, in the abstract, something concrete and real, a sort of magic. It's an interesting point of view, and one that Moore likes to play with. In his first novel, the opening chapter was set far back before written language, and so he restricted himself to a very small set of words for the writing and would only write in the present tense, making that a challenging 40 pages to get through. With JERUSALEM, Moore wrote a chapter, a page of which is shown above, that used new words and non-words to get across the essence of Lucia Joyce's experiences in the novel, while she was in an insane asylum in Northampton. 

Moore combines words and phonetic combinations, to create new words, and if he utilizes an English word, such as "see," it is most likely not the word needed at that point and probably is actually a middle syllable for the word needed for that particular idea. It's amazing, not only in the bravura manner with which he writes these 40-plus pages, but also amazing in the way that it utterly and completely works. It took me a week to get through this chapter, but if you let yourself give over to what Moore was doing, it made complete sense. You could fathom what was being said by allowing for the sounds of the various nonsense words to string together in your head . . . BUT, even more fascinating was the fact that many times, most all of the time, the words Moore utilized to craft these other words actually added a second layer to what was happening and made me think more deeply about the story. And this wasn't just a page here or a page there; it was multiple times on a page, multiple times in a paragraph. It was brilliant, and so satisfying.  

It was a bloody magic trick!

In the end, it took me a couple of months to read JERUSALEM. If you're a fan of Moore's and have read a lot of his earlier work, I think you would enjoy it. Even if you aren't familiar with him, this would be a good read, if you're not afraid of working hard when you open a book. It's ambitious and amazing, and if you like a good challenge for your bedtime reading, you should definitely check it out. You'll certainly get your money's worth at well past 1200 pages long.


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