Jerusalem by Alan Moore
Liveright, 2016; 1,279 pp
Reviewed by Bobby Fischer
Let’s start here: Alan Moore is a genius and his new book, Jerusalem, feels like the culmination of a life’s work. Moore is best known for brilliant comics—From Hell, Watchmen, Batman: The Killing Joke, V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentleman—and the lousy movies that have been made from those books. So in a lot of ways, this novel feels like Moore committing himself to something that other people can’t take away from him. It feels personal. It feels intimate. It feels like a masterpiece. It feels epic. It’s 1,279 pages long.
One of the difficulties in committing yourself to reading a 1,279-page novel is that a narrative so dense with information demands that it be read twice. Nonetheless, Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, which takes its title from William Blake’s And did those feet in ancient time, is a novel worth rereading. Like the poem of its namesake, Jerusalem takes England as its subject, and its breadth is dedicated to the economic, artistic, and religious biography of Northampton, a town located in the dead center of the country.
This portrait of Northampton comes via an intricately structured and formally inventive narrative filled to spilling with digressions, genre-bending, and historical cameos, every bit of it lensed with a meta filter. Moore posits a world ruled by the idea of space and time being a singular concept that has been divided by humans incapable of recognizing reality for what it is. This allows characters from all time periods to intersect with one another, and each chapter catapults us through time to witness different characters walking the same streets as—and in certain cases interacting with—Northampton residents from the distant past and the as yet unrealized future. The main plot concerns Michael Warren, a man who choked on a cough drop when he was a baby . . .
(Side note here: A lot of the chatter about this book focuses on the fact that there are 11 chapters that take place while an infant Michael Warren is choking on a cough drop. While this is true, it is not nearly as grotesque as it sounds. This 11-chapter stretch is the book’s most inventive, effortlessly melting into the style of a boy’s adventure novel as Michael Warren enters the afterlife and joins a gang of street tough kids called The Dead Dead Gang. It’s indicative of Moore’s talent to juxtapose the “fun” aspects of genre fiction with the more dangerous and violent aspects of life. This stretch also features incredible worldbuilding and fantastic scenarios concerning devils, ghosts, and the book’s main theological ideas about determinism and what that means to a society that is predicated on the belief in free will. So it’s not, like, some morbid 500-page depiction of a toddler getting blue in the face while his mom rushes him to the hospital. Quite the opposite.)
. . . and Michael Warren’s sister’s attempt to capture the visions he had as he entered the afterlife when he was a toddler. Michael’s sister Alma believes that if she can capture his vision of The Boroughs (the novel’s name for the working class area of Northampton), she can save it. The plot then stretches in all directions introducing characters that it means for you to forget before it gets back to them and weaving in between worlds without regard for your ability to follow. Moore has a puzzle builder’s imagination and a contortionist’s ability for plot. He has a marathoner’s patience for pacing. He pulls us through fiction of the following types: noir detective, boy’s adventure, poetry, drama, horror, historical, and social realist. In an almost unreadable passage about Lucia Joyce, for 50 pages he imitates Finnegans Wake. The book is concerned with theological, sociological, and economic questions that are all written on the back of thousands of postcards from Northampton itself, using snapshots from its broad history to illustrate a sort of tourism for us. The novel offers: Oliver Cromwell, Charlie Chaplin, Adam Smith, John Newton, John Clare, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Becket, Lucia Joyce, and more.
Alma Warren’s attempt to save the Boroughs with art is reflective of what have to be Moore’s own intentions with regards to Northampton. She says, “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 you save ships in bottles. It’s the only plan that works. Sooner or later all the people and the places that we’ve loved are finished, and the only way to keep them safe is art. That’s what art’s for. It rescues everything from time.”