The first, and most important, thing to say about Alan Moore’s Jerusalem is that it’s not, for the most part, a difficult book to read.

This is an important point, because the nature of the book means that there will be two types of reviews of it. The first type will come from comics and geek-culture websites, whose reviewers have rarely read anything more taxing than X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills. A 1200+-page literary novel is, pretty much by definition, going to overwhelm them, and they’ll say so.

The other type of reviewer is the writer for the arts pages of the broadsheets, and they will compare it to books like Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, Lanark. They’ll mention the chapter written in the style of Finnegans Wake. They won’t say “this is a big, hard, book” explicitly, but they’ll only refer to it in the context of famously-difficult works.

The fact is that Jerusalem does merit comparison with all those other books — like them it is a monstrously clever, awe-inspiring book, an omnium gatherum that uses different literary styles and genres, that ties together all the author’s thoughts in one massive explanatory, exploratory, novel.

But for the most part, it’s an easy read, on the level of Moore’s earlier Voice of the Fire. For huge chunks of the first book — a series of connected vignettes, many of which would work as standalone short stories — the most obvious comparison to me was Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, especially the Cap’n Crunch section — a meandering, but riveting, discursive story, told in plain language. The second book, meanwhile, which mostly tells the story of a temporarily-dead young boy and his adventures “upstairs” with a gang of other dead children (or people who appear to be children), the Dead Dead Gang, reads like the book that Neil Gaiman wants to write, or like some of Stephen King’s more metaphysical work.

Only in the third and final book, which includes the Finnegans Wake-esque chapter, and one written in the style of Samuel Beckett, is there any truly difficult writing — but the hard stuff makes up maybe five percent of the book, and even the Joycean material is no more difficult than the first chapter of Voice of the Fire.

So, now that we’ve established that you shouldn’t be scared off by the book, and what it isn’t, what *is* it?

It’s a mammoth book about toruses and commodius vicuses of recirculation, about fire, Charlie Chaplin, Lucia Joyce, holy wars, Oliver Cromwell, the fourth dimension, grace, justice, Northampton, Malcolm Arnold, death, life, childhood, things that look like people with their heads stuck together, billiard-playing Freemasonic angels, blindness and sight, sexual violence, class, schizophrenic musicians, puns, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Beckett, Princess Diana, religious nonconformism, John Bunyan, William Blake, multiple vision and John Newton’s awakening.

The plot is a simple one when boiled down — Michael Warren chokes to death aged three, in 1959, but is miraculously revived. In 2005 he has another near-death experience, in which he remembers all that happened in his earlier death, and his experiences of higher levels of reality. Worried he’s going mad, he tells his sister Alma, a famous artist (a stand-in for Alan Moore himself), who creates a series of paintings based on his memories. Those paintings themselves have a huge symbolic value to an…event in the upper levels of reality (in which Angles play trilliards with the destinies of people).

Into this framework, though, Moore fits an almost fractally-complex story, part history of Northampton’s slum area The Boroughs (though contrary to Moore’s early statements not *all* of the book takes place there — a tiny portion takes place in Lambeth, which Moore claims in the book is psychically and symbolically connected to the Boroughs, as both are to Jerusalem), part history of Moore’s own families, the Moores and the Vernons (renamed the Warrens and the Vernalls), part meditation on the nature of time.

Possibly the most fascinating portions are those set in the 1930s-50s, the time of Moore’s own parents’ young-adulthood and his own childhood. These parts, unsurprisingly, have the feel of lived experience or oral history, and give a flavour of a working-class culture that has been erased in the subsequent decades to such an extent that it at times almost feels more alien than Ancient Rome. It’s very similar to the stories my parents — of Moore’s generation, though a handful of years younger — grandparents, and great-grandparents have told me of their own experiences growing up in similarly-poor areas of Liverpool, in material conditions which by the time I was born in the late 70s had already all but disappeared.

That erasure is one of the main topics of the novel, and also one of its most problematic areas. Moore is right — entirely, utterly, right — to say, as the novel does, that a lot of things were deliberately destroyed in successive waves of social engineering over the last fifty years, and that part of the effect of that has been to destroy class consciousness and awareness of history and traditions. But this at times seems (and I use the word “seems” here carefully — this is my reading of subtext, *not* an explicit statement) to shade into pure anti-modernity. There’s something in there that’s similar to the Boomer romanticising of the past and fear of their own aging that has brought us both Brexit and “new sitcom commissioning” that includes the return of Russ Abbott and a Morecambe & Wise tribute act. A sense that with these losses we’ve gained absolutely nothing.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that many of the characters in the middle section are ghosts of adults who imagine themselves children again, and that one of the main themes of the book is people going back to moments in their lives, over and over.

Moore has disowned Watchmen, but his thesis here is essentially that we’re all Doctor Manhattan — that time is an artefact of human perception (which is probably true) and that our consciousness can and does move through it at will, experiencing the same moments over and again (almost certainly false). The fourth-dimensional obsessions of From Hell are here again, as is the class-consciousness and the psychogeography of that novel.

If I were to attempt to summarise this utterly unsummarisable novel, the best way to put it would be that it’s plot is a history of Moore’s ancestry, both physical and literary, that its themes are those of From Hell (with a little of Promethea thrown in), and that its style is that of Voice of the Fire. It is, in short, a culmination of everything Moore has been working on throughout the last thirty years, and possibly his greatest work (though writing less than a week after the book’s release, it’s impossible to say for sure). It’s a book that not only resists criticism, it contains the obvious criticisms of itself in its last chapter, as Mick Warren examines his sister’s artworks, each of which represents something in the book.

“And what’s all this fantastic nonsense going to accomplish, Warry? Have you somehow saved the Boroughs, like you said that you were going to do?
Will they rebuild it how it was when we were children and not put up any more Destructors?”
Still smiling, albeit now more ruefully, she shook her trailing willow-canopy of hair.
“I’m not the fairies, Warry. I imagine that the Boroughs will go on being ignored until somebody comes up with a half-baked plan they think might turn a profit, then they’ll plough it under, pave it over, get rid of the streets and only leave the names. As for incinerators and destructors, my guess is they’ll roll them out across the country. It’s the cheapest, dirtiest way of doing things, it doesn’t inconvenience anyone who votes or matters, and why interfere with getting on a hundred years of cross-Westminster policy? They started pulling this place down after the First World War, most probably because the Russian revolution had made keeping all of your disgruntled workers in one place look like a bad idea. They won’t stop now.”
As frequently occurred when she was off on one, Alma’s neglected reefer had gone out. Anticipating her requirements, Mick retrieved the lighter from his pocket and allowed her to suck the extinguished end of her hashish Havana back to angry ruby life, whereafter she resumed her diatribe.
“And even if they did rebuild it, down to the last doorstep, that would just be horrible. That would just do for buildings what Invasion of the Body Snatchers did for people. It would be some sort of deprivation theme-park. Unless you restore it how it was, with all its life and atmospheres intact, it’s not worth bothering. I’ve saved the Boroughs, Warry, but not how you save the whale or save the National Health Service. I’ve saved it the way that you save ships in bottles. It’s the only plan that works. Sooner or later all the people and the places that we loved are finished, and the only way to keep them safe is art. That’s what art’s for. It rescues everything from time.”

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14 Responses to “An embress of textistence and embiddyment aflight”

  1. Mike Taylor Says:

    What a TOTAL shock to find that the themes include sexual violence.

    I really want to like Alan Moore — whatever he may have said about it subsequently, it’s a plain fact that Watchmen is completely brilliant.

    But is it really too much to ask that just once he might write something that doesn’t involve rape?

  2. Anton B Says:

    From your first paragraph I could see you totally ‘got’ the book and Moore’s motivation for writing it. However as I’m only a few chapters in and your review seems a bit ‘spoilery’ I reluctantly decided not to read on. I will return to it and comment when I’ve finished the hefty tome. Probably around Ocober 2023.

  3. plok Says:

    OH MY GOD IT’S HERE I DIDN’T KNOW

  4. Illogical Volume Says:

    I think I owe you a late birthday present now Plok!

    Payday is on Friday, if you can wait? I need to!

    Good review Andrew, certainly the first to make me want to read the damned thing, though the silliness about Corbyn and Ulysses in the mediasphere this week may yet prompt me to wade back into that ocean of paper first.

  5. Andrew Hickey Says:

    A good chunk of the book actually really does stand as a response to that media silliness…
    As for “spoilers”, it’s not really a book that can be spoiled in that sense — there are tons of good lines and individual jokes that could be spoiled, but it’s not a plot-driven book at all.
    As for the sexual violence… I agree that it’s something that Moore overuses, but it’s a very small part of this book, and totally justified — it’s a book that attempts to encompass the whole of human experience, and that is, sadly, a part of human experience. It’s not overemphasised, it makes up barely 1% of the book’s content, if that, it’s portrayed as something horrible, the emphasis is entirely on the effects on those hurt by it, and sadly given the nature of the book I think that the people portrayed as being affected are almost all real people who it really happened to. It would be dishonest for it *not* to be included, in this instance.

  6. Bob Doublebob Says:

    Please tell me there’s no songs in it.

  7. Andrew Hickey Says:

    I could tell you that, but it would be a lie. The Dead Dead Gang’s theme song is, at least, quite short, and from what I’ve seen most people so far have skipped or skimmed the Lucia Joyce chapter with its much longer song, so there aren’t *many* songs. (At least not of Moore’s own writing — bits of Whispering Grass, Jerusalem, Amazing Grace, Oliver’s Army, and half a dozen others are sprinkled in the mix…)

  8. Bob Doublebob Says:

    Goddammit Alan…

  9. plok Says:

    IllVol, you can’t ship that thing! It’s got to weigh twenty pounds!

    Send it in chapters.

  10. Illogical Volume Says:

    I’ll fax it over, or maybe even send it over a page at a time in a series of really expensive taxis, Watchmen style!

  11. Illogical Volume Says:

    A stranger contacted me the other day and asked me to scan Lovely Biscuits for them. Reader, that’s a short book, but even there I was too dazed to reply!

  12. Anton B Says:

    Oh I’m not bothered by ‘spoilers’ usually. Actually I find the concept ludicrous – Everyone dies at the end of Hamlet. Get over it. But in this case, with a book that seems to be examining the diversity of human experience against the chaotic nature of the universe (as seen from a small corner of the Author’s copious ideaspace) I believe the delight in surprise, the chance encounter, the unlooked for synchronicity, might be a major part of the enjoyment of discovery in the novel. Otherwise it’s just a travelogue about Northampton.

  13. Anton B Says:

    Not looking forward to stumbling on one of Alan’s songs though.

    BTW I’m reading it on Kindle so I think I might be missing out on the bicep fle ing weight training aspect of it’s heft.

  14. Andrew Hickey Says:

    “the delight in surprise, the chance encounter, the unlooked for synchronicity, might be a major part of the enjoyment of discovery in the novel.”
    Oh, it is. But I’ve deliberately not written anything here that might affect that — this isn’t like one of those comedy reviews where they quote every good line in the show as if they’d thought it up themselves.

    And I read it as an ebook, too. It’s apparently very small type in the print version, and given that my own eyes aren’t great and my wife (who might want to read it too) is legally blind, a version where we can control the font size seemed the way to go…

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