Three-quarters of the way into Alan Moore’s 1,266-page novel Jerusalem, where Moore unveils his Grand Theory of Life, Death, Time, the Universe, and the History of Albion, and I just don’t know what else Moore can do to top this. Moore’s place in the literary canon (notice I didn’t write “graphic novel canon”) is, for me, unassailable, but a book like Watchmen only hints at the sheer intellectual excess and ambition of Jerusalem. From Hell (my favorite), Promethea, and Voice of the Fire, Jerusalem’s clearest predecessor, come the closest.
Jerusalem is a monument to Moore’s mindbogglingly prodigious imagination, whether he’s describing “history” or creating a new world. (I put “history” in quotation marks for a reason.) Indeed, it’s Jerusalem‘s anchoring in historical reality (or, an existing philosophical / religious framework — think of Promethea‘s Sophie Bangs and her exploration of the Major Arcana and the Kabbalah) that paradoxically makes the novel even more believable. The wealth of research allows the reader to better imagine this fantastical universe “on top” of the “real” one. (I put “on top” and “real” in quotation marks for a reason too, but I need to stop.)
Bunyan, Milton, Blake, Edward Abbott’s Flatland, the Lesser Key of Solomon, The Wire, and the history of England (specifically Northampton): they’re all part of the blizzard of references Moore throws at you. But on my phone I can easily look up the Battle of Naseby, or Charlie Chaplin’s bio — and people unknown to me (or most ordinary readers?) like John Clare, Philip Doddridge, John Newton, or Ogden Whitney — and discover that some of the liberties that Alan Moore takes aren’t so far-fetched after all. Well, maybe except what he does with Dusty Springfield. (It’s easy to get sidetracked when reading, but I think Moore would have annotated this thing if he could, but that would add another hundred pages.)
And the detail isn’t just historical, it even describes current reality: You can follow the characters’ wanderings around Northampton on Google Street View and actually see the very details of the buildings he’s describing — including, yes, THAT DOOR. (Just go up Chalk Lane and click one or two times and turn to your right facing the Castle Hill United Reformed Church.)
And by god, these chapters. There’s a chapter in verse. There’s a chapter that’s written as a play, a little riff on Waiting for Godot — but with more characters, including Samuel Beckett and Thomas Becket. There’s a chapter that’s written in noirish purple prose, from the perspective of a failed actor who imagines himself as a gumshoe as he digs through a library. (An aside to historians: this chapter wonderfully captures the thrill of digging through the archives such as this chapter, which in essence is a history of the Gothic to goth, from obscure Northampton clergyman James Hervey to David J from Bauhaus. You just need to trust Moore on this one.)
There’s even a chapter (“Rough Sleepers”) I had to read three times to figure out what was going on — the second because I had to stop halfway and re-read because of some small revelation, then a third because of yet another clue that made me reinterpret what I had just read. (You only begin to understand for sure about 300 pages later.) My favorite chapter involves shuttling back and forth between a fitful sleeper wandering inside his head and — to quote the press release, “a naked old man and a beautiful dead baby” — on a journey to the end of the universe. And almost all of it is rendered in glorious prose; there are delightful turns of phrase on every page.
And then, on page 884, just when you think you’re in the homestretch, Moore smacks you with a chapter told from the perspective of an asylum patient, Lucia Joyce (daughter of James and Nora Barnacle), and the whole thing is straight out of Finnegans Wake, a dream-like pastiche of all multilingual puns and portmanteaus, riverrunning past Eve and Adam’s for almost 50 freaking pages and
[Three weeks later]
Well, it was a busy time, and the US elections also happened. But those were surely the longest 50 pages I’d ever read — it’s a slog, it’s a sympathetic portrait, it’s hilarious, and it’s filthy and disturbing in all sorts of ways.
The stylistic variations are part of showmanship, certainly — but not in a David Foster Wallace trawl through the OED-sort of way where footnotes have footnotes. Jerusalem features more of a goofily overwritten and playful kind of virtuosity.
There are, however, some more barriers to entry, other than the nagging feeling you’d appreciate the book more if you’d read in advance Bunyan, Milton, Blake, etc., and it’s also why I can’t just give the book a wholehearted five stars. Some reasons, small and large, below:
Trivial, but still: The tiny, tiny print to accommodate over 600,000 words. I can’t imagine Alan Moore, who’s almost two decades older than me, can actually read his own book. And if eyestrain wasn’t enough, I hope the readers who buy the hardcover version — because it looks great on a bookshelf, naturally — do their bicep curls before they tackle this book. They certainly wouldn’t want it to fall on their faces if they read lying down in bed.
W.W. Norton’s blurb for the book talks about how “an infant choking on a cough drop for eleven chapters,” which is quite inaccurate. (That’s like saying Breaking Bad is about a high-school chemistry teacher dying of cancer for 62 episodes.) But I’ve read less mention of the fact there’s a sickeningly explicit scene of sexual violence that goes on for pages, not counting the various humiliations Joyce experiences in her chapter. Dammit, Alan Moore — I know it’s supposed to be horrifying, but it’s one small reason why I can’t give your book five stars.
Narrative. At page 200-something, Moore is still introducing characters, with little semblance of narrative propulsion; people come and go and it’s not clear if they’ll ever return. I started to flag at this point. Remember how A Game of Thrones begins, with chapters and chapters of new characters and families and allegiances and you can barely catch up? I at least had faith they’d all meet up, or would at least be aware of each other’s existence, but that’s not the case with Jerusalem. I wondered if this was going to be a novel of linked stories instead. The chapters are indeed linked, other than the setting, but merely through hints, or slipped references to non-events that occurred hundreds of pages earlier. Yes, it’s hard to keep track.
Indeed, the plot doesn’t really get rolling until page 380-something, involving an almost entirely different cast of characters — but holy cow does Moore kick it into high gear. The long, superb middle section is itself reminiscent of an Enid Blyton Famous Five children’s book, where every episode is a Case or an Adventure, but juggling several time periods, sometimes within a paragraph.
This isn’t really a problem — I loved all those whale chapters in Moby-Dick that seemed to stop the story dead — but your experience might vary.
Structure. Like Mark E. Smith (not from Northampton), I dig repetition, but a bunch of the chapters employ the same framework: characters walking across (or above, or through) the same streets, at different points in time (sometimes within the same paragraph!), and musing about the changes in the neighborhood. (Moore uses this peripatetic structure to frame different philosophical and historical debates in From Hell.) Cumulatively the result is a comprehensive and detailed portrait of the Boroughs and its denizens across / through / along the centuries, but these chapters don’t hide the fact that the narrative isn’t really pushed forward, despite all the walking. (I’m tempted to see if the different chapters are somehow roughly analogous to the eighteen chapters of Ulysses, but I see myself falling into a rabbit hole.)
Voice. His characters are necessarily alive and human (be patient with me here): they wake up, they fart, they piss, they roll spliffs, they wave hello, they dodge dog turds in the street. But good lord, Moore’s cranky philosophizing voice keeps bursting through. It’s one thing if it’s a grouchy community activist musing about the 2008 financial crisis and the history of money in England (a great chapter, by the way), or a middle-aged artist puttering about in her studio, but another if it’s a 10-year old girl. I suppose they’re all stand-ins for Moore in one way or another, but at times their function as mere vehicles for scholarly arguments, or Moore’s musings on gentrification become a little too obvious.
To boil down Jerusalem to a summary of the narrative would be to spoil the delicious confusion in which the reader finds herself for dozens, if not hundreds, of pages, so I won’t. If I were to provide a single image that serves as a key, it’s the moment in From Hell when Sir William Withey Gull, walking through Victorian London, turns a corner and — well, I’ll just call it a collision with modernity. I can think of no other moment in all my graphic novel reading that knocked me back like that one — and Jerusalem is in essence an exploration of that moment.
It’s an historical treatise, a ghost story, an urban travelogue, a children’s adventure book. It’s science fiction, it’s fantasy, it’s a philosophical disquisition on the nature of time, free will, and the purpose of art. It’s all of the above. It’s also maddening and indulgent and brilliant and possibly insane.