Here it is, the big-swingiest of literary big swings: A Very Long Book About Very Nearly Everything. In Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, witness the span of a human life, the lifespan of humanity, and the four-dimensional space-time architecture of life after life. And, in Jerusalem, witness all that cosmic scope, filtered through the dust-mite microcosm of a single neighborhood in a single city.
James Joyce, much? Yes, yes, very much. Many of Jerusalem‘s chapters follow the life-in-a-day structure of Ulysses, with characters thoughtfully perambulating around a few square blocks in Northampton, England. Then you get to the part when Joyce’s daughter Lucia has a sexual encounter with pop idol Dusty Springfield– said encounter witnessed by actor Patrick McGoohan and the balloon-monster from McGoohan’s TV show The Prisoner. Did I mention that happens around page 950? Did I mention that’s only three-quarters of the way through the book? Did I mention that whole chapter is written in the style of Joyce’s infamously post-coherent masterpiece Finnegans goddamn Wake??? Sample line, pulled from the middle of a random sentence:
…Lucia askplains dashy’s expictured beckett d’main how’s o’ the massylum in spacetime for tea an’ dusks her newd frond four dimections to delaytr roaches of the ninespleen severties…
It makes sense in context, I swear!
In Alan Moore’s own masterpieces – Watchmen, From Hell, Promethea, Miracleman, I could go on all day – there is frequently a character who transcends time, staring down across the whole sweep of existence like a map of the world. Think Dr. Manhattan, or the ascended madman William Gull. In that sense, Jerusalem is Moore’s apotheosis, a fourth-dimensional symphony of his own beloved city. Drawing on his own history as a lifelong resident of Northampton, Moore mixes together macro-historical figures with local personalities and characters based on Moore’s own family. In the first millennium, a monk travels from the Holy City. In 2006, a local artist plans a new exhibition. As Moore’s narrative shifts through time, it also shifts upwards, into an eternal life-beyond-life, where four angels decide the fate of the universe in a never-ending game of snooker. (No, even Moore can’t really explain snooker.)
There are demons, escaped slaves, a gang of dead kids, enough drunken poets to fill a freshman English course. Philosophical fights are picked with Margaret Thatcher, Oliver Cromwell, Tony Blair, Isaac Newton, quantum physicists, and the modern comic book industry. The biography of an aging socialist runs alongside a complete pocket history of the British financial system. The rape of a young woman intercuts with the final days of Princess Diana. Moore’s characters rail against New Labor, and they explore the far reaches of time, and they walk down the streets of Moore’s beloved neighborhood wondering where that neighborhood went. Are you the kind of Moore fan who just wants to know what he thinks about superhero movies? One of his characters has a thought to share with you:
At age thirteen, David’s idea of heaven was somewhere that comics were acclaimed and readily available, perhaps with dozens of big budget movies featuring his favorite obscure costumed characters. Now that he’s in his fifties and his paradise is all around him he finds it depressing…When all this extraordinary stuff is happening everywhere, are Stan Lee’s post-war fantasies of white neurotic middle-class American empowerment really the most adequate response?
Don’t expect subtlety; Moore is an angry old man who writes like an angry young man. Jerusalem is a love song for a vanished neighborhood, and a battle cry for an embattled class left behind by centuries of powermongers and tyrants and corporations and New Labour. It took a decade to write this book, but it feels uncannily well-timed for this Brexit year: In his native city, Moore discovers untold generations of working-class people quite literally incinerated by history. But he also takes a great, goofy joy in experimenting, writing one chapter as a play, one as a mock-noir. Jerusalem is split into three Books, and the second one is by far the most coherent, a Little Nemo in Wonderland riff about a recently-deceased little boy on a fairy-tale adventure across time and space. Even this book is less a “story” than a guided tour through Moore’s vision of the cosmos.
At well over a thousand pages, Jerusalem is repetitive; every character ponders every building in Northampton. Moore’s best works have been collaborations with artists; left to his own devices, his rough edges show. There’s that young-writer tendency to show his own work. Lucia Joyce realizes the symbolic meaning of sex with Dusty Springfield whilst in flagrante with Dusty Springfield. Characters think in thesis statements:
…Henry has come to understand how being in a district and getting to see how everybody’s lives work out, in many ways it’s like the reading of some huge and stupefying book of stories where you stick with it for long enough you find out what becomes of all the characters and circumstances and so forth.
“Henry” is a freed American slave, long-since immigrated to Northampton, and the chapter with that quote cuts from Pedro da Cintra to modern-day Sierra Leone, from the black experience in 19th-century Wales to the black experience in 20th-century London, from Milton Margai to Starro the Conqueror. Moore’s micro-macro vision isn’t just the story of Jerusalem; it is the book’s whole central idea, an attempt to portray the whole grand sweep of history in a city block.
Truthfully, it’s hard to tell who this book is for. Lit-nerds desperate to see Samuel Beckett talk to John Clare in a Samuel Beckett play? Econ 101 fanboys yearning for a Russian epic about Reagonomics? Socialist goths struggling to rationalize modern physics with Christian doctrine? Who will read this thing?
Well, I did. And although Jerusalem is a very strange text – maybe unfinished by its very nature, frequently weighed down with self-importance – Jerusalem soars high on the wings of the author’s psychedelic imagination. His bighearted passion for his people, his city, and the whole monstrous endeavor of the human condition is infectious. I’m not sure there’s a God, but I thank Her for Alan Moore.