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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