Alan Moore’s New "Jerusalem"

One of my earlier podcasts explored a single dense, complex sentence by George Eliot; and contrasted her style with the modern preference for short, simple sentences with a minimum of modifying adjectives and adverbs, figures of speech, and other verbal filigree.

I’ve just finished reading a massive contemporary novel which upends all the rules of contemporary straight-ahead prose. Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, published in 2016, is a highly experimental work, with each chapter told from a different character’s point of view, jumping around chronologically to visit times as long past as the early Middle Ages and as far distant as the projected end of the universe. In these ways it resembles quite a few modern novels.

But its prose is a marvelous tangle of description, simile, and wordplay.

Let’s begin with a feature that may well be off-putting for many readers—the obsessive specification of the exact streets and landmarks among which the action takes place: the grubby London Northampton area of London which Moore refers to as “The Boroughs.” A map is provided in the endpapers of the book.

Here’s a typical paragraph:

He gestured drunkenly around them as they reached the bottom of the rough trapezium of hunched-up ground called Castle Hill, where it joined what was left of Fitzroy Street. This last was now a broadened driveway leading down into the shoebox stack of ’Sixties housing where the feudal corridors of Moat Street, Fort Street and the rest once stood. It terminated in a claustrophobic dead-end car park, block accommodation closing in on two sides while the black untidy hedges representing a last desperate stand of Boroughs wilderness, spilled over on a third.

You can follow the action along on the map if you wish, but it doesn’t add a great deal to understanding the novel. Moore specifies street names when a character goes for a walk, including each and every turn. No one ever just walks down a generic street. This pattern is the one thing that annoyed me about his prose because it is so repetitious and mostly irrelevant. But it’s all of a piece with his desire to embed his fantastically baroque story in a thickly woven web of specific detail. His style reminds me of those Medieval illuminated manuscripts in which a text is ornamented with scrolls, flowers, and fantastic beasts crowding all the margins and other spaces into which something decorative can be inserted.

Note how it’s not just a driveway, but a “broadened driveway; not a simple parking lot, but “a claustrophobic dead-end car park.” The vast majority of nouns are modified, often multiply: adjectives and adverbs abound.

For the right sort of reader, the densely ornamented prose is not a forbidding dark hedge, but a maze of wonders. His writing flows nicely, even though reading some of his sentences aloud requires two or more breaths.

He scatters metaphors and similes in profusion throughout the text. For instance, consider the next paragraph:

When this meagre estate had first gone up in Mick and Alma’s early teenage years the cul-d-sac had been a bruising mockery of a children’s playground, with a scaled down maze of blue brick in its centre, built apparently for feeble minded leprechauns, and the autistic cubist’s notion of a concrete horse that grazed eternally nearby, too hard-edged and uncomfortable for any child to straddle, with its eyes an empty hole bored through its temples. Even that, more like the abstract statue of a playground than an actual place, had been less awful than this date-rape opportunity and likely dogging hotspot, with its hasty skim of tarmac spread like cheap, stale caviar across the pink pedestrian tiles beneath, the bumpy lanes and flagstone closes under that. Only the gutter margins where the strata peeled back into sunburn tatters gave away the layers of human time compressed below, ring markings on the long-felled tree stump of the Boroughs. From downhill beyond the car park and the no-frills tombstones of its sheltering apartment blocks there came the mournful shunt and grumble of a goods train with its yelp and mutter rolling up the valley’s sides from the criss-cross self-harm scars of the rail tracks at its bottom.

He piles one figure of speech atop another, explores them in detail, indulges in word-play and creates prose that resembles less a walk along a path than a complex ballet with the reader bewildered in its center. Nothing much “happens” for long stretches, but the verbal action is relentless.

In the world of Jerusalem the images of the dead are often accompanied by a string of after-images trailing and fading out behind them. Time after time Moore comes up with a new simile for this effect, clearly delighting in displaying his fertile imagination. The idea never “goes without saying.”

Many readers will find this sort of thing off-putting; but if, like me, you find it delightful, there’s plenty of it: the novel is 1,262 pages long.

At times it seems as if the novel is aspiring to the qualities of film. We are told which way characters turn, what is going on in the background, and we are given vividly detailed descriptions of the settings. Perhaps a better analogy is that this is a graphic novel without pictures.

So exquisitely mundane is most of the early narrative that the moments of fantasy leap out shockingly from the page, and even after these have accumulated for hundreds of pages it is stunning to find ourselves halfway through the novel plunged into an extraordinarily detailed and original afterlife world where most of the characters are “dead.”

Much of the subject matter is grim, threatening, haunting (in both figurative and literal senses); but the prose is exuberant, playful, often amusing. Whereas most modern fiction pares away tedious description to immerse us in the action, Moore immerses us in the funhouse of his prose where we’re sometimes in danger of losing track of the plot altogether. In this book the point is in the telling, more than in the tale.

Moore plays all kinds of linguistic games, writing in varied styles including Victorian gothic, Chandleresque hardboiled detective, and the sort of experimental punning mish-mash that makes up James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake in a chapter that embodies the tale of the author’s mad daughter, Lucia:

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 count at least ten puns or other sorts of wordplay in these two sentences alone which open the chapter allusively titled “Round the Bend.” It goes on like that for 48 dense pages.

One chapter is written entirely in verse, beginning thus:

Den wakes beneath the windswept porch aloneOn bone-hard slab rubbed smooth by Sunday feetWhere afternoon light leans, fatigued and spent,Ground to which he feels no entitlementNor any purchase on the sullen street;Unpeels his chill grey cheek from chill grey stone Then orients himself in time and space.

The desire to be oriented in time and space is constantly challenged. Although the novel is structured something like a mystery, there is no culminating Big Reveal. One major hanging plot thread never gets wrapped up at all. The last chapter brings together many scenes and characters earlier touched on, but not in a way that explains everything.

Moore is best known as a writer for DC superhero comic books and as author of the similarly playful historical fantasy The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the graphic novel, much better than the awful movie). But this is his masterpiece: dazzling, diverting, and utterly delightful.

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