What a long, strange trip it’s been.
Jerusalem by Alan Moore is one of the longest novels in the English language. It is also one of the strangest and hardest to describe, so full is it of philosophy, humour, memory, the nature of the universe, even time itself. Indeed, Life, The Universe and Everything. And all this set within the confines of a few square miles of Northampton’s poorest neighbourhood, The Boroughs, where Moore’s family lived and breathed for generations.
So, where to start? The novel is divided into three parts with a prologue and an epilogue, both of which feature the brother and sister Alma and Michael Warren. Alma is clearly a gender swapped rendition of Moore himself, as an artist rather than writer, but still the imposing Gothic figure we know and love. The first part, “The Boroughs”, leaps about all over the place, backwards and forwards in time and it reads more like a series of short stories with, at first, no obvious link. You really have to stick with it before the narrative threads begin to reveal themselves and it becomes apparent that this is not just the history of the Warren family (an analog for Moore’s own family history) but also of a specific part of Northampton. A place so steeped in radical history that it’s no wonder it caught fire at one point. Cromwell fought a decisive battle of the Civil War nearby; political and religious dissenters were rife. This first part gradually coalesces around the Warrens and in particular Michael Warren and what happened when he chokes to death on a cough sweet at the age of three. Yes, you read that right….
Part two, “Mansoul” reads like a cross between Enid Blyton and Stephen King as we revel in Moore’s vision of the Afterlife, complete with Master Builders (Angles), Devils and all manner of ghosts, spectres and apparitions. It is here, in what is the most straightforward, linear part of the book, that we follow the adventures of the recently deceased Michael and the Dead Dead Gang, an unruly bunch of ghost kids roaming the endless galleries of Mansoul, causing mischief and generally having a bloody good time.
They are entrusted with returning Michael to his body, for he has died too soon, which has caused ructions amongst the Master Builders and their game of Trilliards (sort of a form of billiards but played with balls representing the inhabitants of The Boroughs). So ensues a long journey through Mansoul and it’s attendant wonders (architecture built with dreams, great windows onto moments in time like stained glass floor panels, all under a great, curved glass and iron arcade), as well as excursions into the “ghost seam”, the strip between our world and Mansoul, where ghosts walk amongst us. This part of the book is literally bursting with fun (once you get the hang of the so-called “Lucy Lips” dialect of Mansoul, where words are mangled to within an inch of their lives). It is indeed a rip roaring read. So when Michael’s predicament is finally sorted out, after we have encountered such figures as Cromwell, the Reverend Doddridge and a particularly nasty Devil called Asmodeus, we are delivered into the arms of part three…
“Vernall’s Inquest” reverts to the structure of the first part of the novel, in that this is more like a series of interconnected short stories, but you get the distinct impression that Moore is showing off (or is he?). One chapter apes Joyce, another is written as a stage play (featuring Joyce, John Bunyan, Samuel Beckett and Thomas Becket and a couple of Warrens recognisable from an earlier chapter), another is done as a lyric poem. We even get two chapters devoted to characters who haven’t featured in the story before! This could all be seen as post-modern showing off, but then Moore drops in some information about a Northampton clergyman called James Hervey and a book he wrote called Theron and Aspasio, which it turns out Moore is paying a kind of tribute to in the style and structure of this third part.
That’s the thing about Jerusalem. It folds back in upon itself so many times that you almost need a notebook to keep track of events and characters, which pop up in one chapter and then are seen from a different point of view in another.
The book culminates in an art exhibition by Alma with works based on the story told in the book. Indeed, the chapters are the names of the paintings. It’s all about the unmaking of the world, of how visionaries have fashioned the world in their image, from William Blake to Adam Smith. There is also a fair sprinkling of political polemic, a railing against the injustices heaped upon the “working classes”. But it’s also about Moore’s adherence to a view of time wherein every event exists forever, that free will is an illusion and we relive our lives over and over again. We just don’t know it.
It is a vast, sprawling book that shoots off in so many directions at once that it barely hold itself together. It is not entirely successful. It will certainly repay re-readings. It took Moore years to write, but you sometimes wish an Editor had been brave enough to whisper to Alan that maybe, just maybe, he was over-egging the pudding.
Length of Read:Epic
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Ulysses. Anything long, complicated and a bit overblown….
One thing you’ve learned
Confirms that Alan Moore is a great, if undisciplined, writer.