Alan Moore is a celebrated comic book writer. He’s the creator of V for Vendetta and Watchmen, he’s worked on Batman, Superman, and the Swamp Thing. Some believe him to be the greatest writer that’s ever lived. But since he announced that he is officially retiring from comics, his novels may be all we have to look forward to anymore. Now he has written, over the course of the last ten years, Jerusalem, a story about his hometown of Northampton, UK. The story spans hundreds of years, dozens of genres, and over 1,000 pages. It is also a great reminder that bigger is not always better.
Liveright Publishing Company
September 13, 2016
As Jerusalem is longer than Don Quixote, I hope you’ll allow me a moment’s meandering. In the Emma Thompson adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, there is a moment that has stayed with me for years. Ms. Dashwood (Emma Thompson) believes that Mr. Ferrars (Hugh Grant) is about to propose to her in the stables. However, Mr. Ferrars instead says, “There is something of great importance I need–to tell you–about–my education.” Here we are, you believed I was here to review this mammoth of a text, but first I must tell you of my schooling.
It was conducted in the Midwest, oddly enough. I spent four years there at a Great Books college. There I read and discussed what are commonly referred to as the greatest texts of western civilization, as well as some from outside the western canon. During my education, I was employed at a well-known gaming boutique, and visited my local comic book store weekly. What I’m saying here is that my education, formal and self-sought, prepared me for exactly the kind of text Moore seems to think he was writing. Yet, I stand tall, the burden of this book lifted from my shoulders, and I’m unable to truly explain the ordeal I’ve put my brain through.
Knowing nothing about the text before I began to read, except that it’s named after the William Blake poem, I pulled my love of Watchmen around myself as I settled in to tackle this behemoth. Gizmodo offers a few paragraphs of excerpt from the novel after claiming that if you “stick with it, you’re in for something special–an experience no other author could provide.” After spending many, many hours “sticking with it,” I’m going to agree. It is something no other author could provide and possibly something no other mind can understand.
In the early 1990s, Moore declared that he was a ceremonial magician. The text’s mixture of the mundane and magical, the divine and corporeal definitely hint at the same kind of symbolic undercurrents present in his work on From Hell. Then again, nothing gold can stay. Never one to pass up lewdness when subtlety would do, Moore’s “angles” (what the author calls angels in this book) say such things like “Uriel, you cunt.” Delightful.
As time passed, Jerusalem became an obsession of mine. I fought to find a redeeming thread, a narrative I could care for, or about, or explain to anyone who’d not yet read the text. At the end of my rope, I came across this passage, “Awake, Lucia gets up wi’ the wry sing of de light. She is a puzzle, shore enearth, as all the Nurzis and the D’actors would afform, but nibber a cross word these days, deepindig on her mendication and on every workin’ grimpill’s progress.” I could continue to quote this chapter to you, all of it typed out in this overly affected manner. Other chapters had required me to read them aloud so that I could understand what the characters were saying, but this chapter, seemingly about James Joyce’s daughter Lucia, required actual decoding. Eventually, I stopped.
This was after chapters that inhabited the minds of rapist ghosts*: “A doctor’s girl called Julia that Freddy had developed quite a thing for, never talking to her, only watching her from a distance. He’d known that she’d never talk to him, not in a million years. That’s why he’d thought of raping her.” *It’s not clear that this character is a ghost, maybe he’s a man outside of time. It’s confusing, all of it is confusing.
It’s also after a chapter led by the first character of color, who has deeply internalized racist thoughts, and uses the n-word more times than I care to count. In fact, it’s after the first chapter, during which there is a transmisogynistic “joke.”
When the story is not offending my sensibilities, or my eyes, it drags on trying to get to a point that never happens. Opening a cigarette package becomes a novel in itself, “He peeled the cuticle of cellophane that held the packet’s plastic wrap in place down to its quick, shucked off the wrapper’s top and tugged the foil away that hid the tight-pressed and cork-Busbied ranks beneath, the crinkled see-through wrapping and unwanted silver paper crushed to an amalgam and shoved carelessly into Mick’s trouser pocket.” It goes on. Every small action is treated with such anxious attention, and suddenly it makes sense why this book is so long.
You’ll notice that I still haven’t explained the plot of the novel to you. Well, that’s because I can’t. It’s a book about a place, the Burroughs, Northampton, that Saxton place before all the other names. It’s about grotesque divinity, and horrifyingly tedious realities. It is reminiscent of James Michener’s Texas, if Texas had filtered out all narrative. Moore’s story treats the place it is about, the place the author himself grew up in, as the lovable oaf of the tale, all while making the characters and the audience hate the place they’re stuck in.
Turning to Blake, I’ll ask, “And was Jerusalem builded here, Among these dark Satanic Mills?” No, I say, “I will not cease from Mental Fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand: Till we have built Jerusalem, In Englands green & pleasant Land.” My Jerusalem, holy land of great reads, shall be built far, far from the demonic hills of Moore’s Borroughs.