JERUSALEM by Alan Moore
Jerusalem, by Alan Moore, is the reasons I haven’t posted much on this blog over the past two years. I purchased the book when it came out toward the end of 2016 and started to read it right away. Now, two years later, I’ve managed to finish the novel. The problem was that I decided not to spend much time on book reviews until I finished it. When I started to write full-time three years ago, my personal time became precious and I found it hard to devote much of it to side projects.
In some ways, it’s impossible to review Jerusalem. The book is a masterpiece! It’s a million words in length and one of the longest books ever written in the English language. Take that, Samuel Richardson! As I said to one friend, how do you review the Mona Lisa or the Churches of Lalibela? You can’t. All a person can do is stand and look at them in awe. Alan Moore didn’t even end up on the short list for the 2016 Noble Prize? This is a cultural crime!
So, you ask, what is this book about? It’s about Moore’s old Northampton neighborhood, which he terms “the boroughs” throughout the book. However, we don’t just see the outer, physical Northampton; we see it as a collection of ectoplasm layers. It’s all part of a multiverse created by the “builders”. These are angelic creatures who work to construct the “mansoul” or continuous reality of the boroughs.
The book jumps all over the place, time-wise, but it does have a point and direction. The end game is to get us to an opening at a local gallery by an artist named Alma Warren. I won’t say any more about the opening, other than Alama is a stand-in, in some ways, for Moore himself. There’s also her brother Mick, whom is headed toward the same direction. However, you’ll have to wade through this massive book yourself to learn how Moore wraps it up. Much of the second section is told from the viewpoint of Michael “Mick” Warren while he undergoes a near-death experience. As a toddler, he swallows a gumdrop and chokes. This incident forces his mother to run for the doctor. However, in the meantime, little Michael has a vision of the ghostly inhabitants of the boroughs. He accompanies a group of spectral children, known as the “Dead Dead Gang”, while they make their rounds. Along the way, we learn about the ghost-steam and how a game of billiards at the top level between is affected by Michael’s existence.
The reader must prepare themselves for Moore’s mastery of dialect:
‘“The ghost-seam’s what it saynds like. It’s a ragged seam what joins the Upstairs to the Dayn-below, and it’s where all the real ghosts ’ang ayt, all the ones what don’t feel comfortable up ’ere. It’s like the Second Borough’s on the top with the First Borough underneath, and in between them there’s the ghost-seam, like when yer go in a pub and all the fag-smoke’s ’anging in the air like a grey blanket, wobblin’ abayt when people move and cause a draught. That’s what the ghost-seam’s like. ’Ere, look ’ere on the right. It’s Spring Lane Terrace, what I said abayt, one of the streets what got pulled dayn to make the playing field.”’
One of the reasons I won’t give away much of the plot is that a certain West Coast reviewer, whom I will not dignify to mention, already has done so. He also turned up his nose at Moore, who wasn’t pure enough for the reviewer’s postmodern brain. I will say no more.
One thing you have to learn while reading this book is that it’s broken up into different writing styles. For instance, there is a whole section that’s inspired by James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, so if you have issues with idiosyncratic words, grit your teeth and prepare for a long, tough read.
“Hi lufts caerphrilly scurthem towar belley, seewish tissuewife hairglossnin’ per se. Eashe clambs patwina prisperation-beauded nays, elucs apter wedjoy unserrow manguilt ennis inklindecent whyes.”
The novel is filled with hordes of memorable characters. I can’t even begin to list them in this review. The major thread is of the Vernall family. Ern Vernall has a bad encounter with an angel in the opening and goes mad as a result. It’s a constant them I the book, as to how one man’s touch of the divine effects his family.
Get used to inmate descriptions of how people lived a hundred years ago in this part of England. I could’ve done with less detail on toilets and how people took care of body waste, but I appreciate Moore’s attention to detail.
Moore soars in the descriptive parts:
“Whatever the real reason, Tommy had been out of sorts with things that night in the Blue Anchor. Him and Frank had run into some chaps Frank knew from work but who Tom weren’t so chummy with, so he’d begun to feel a bit left out and thought perhaps he’d try another pub. Tom had made his apologies to Frank then left him chatting with his mates while he’d put on his coat and stepped out through the pub’s front door into Chalk Lane. It had been very like tonight, with all the fog and everything, but being down there in the Boroughs as opposed to up here on the prosperous Wellingborough Road, it had been a lot eerier. Even St. Edmund’s Church with all its looming tombstones just across the street didn’t give you the shivers, at the stroke of midnight, how some places in the Boroughs could do even by the light of day.”
When Moore writes about his love for his neighborhood, the book shines. He manages to illuminate every small detail where he came of age. It’s no small surprise that he’s one of the best comic book writers in history. I’ve read a number of his essays and they’re all brilliant.
Another one of the main themes in the book is how the people at the top manage to lord it over at those at the bottom. He writes with sadness about how much of the borough was destroyed and torn down after WW1. He talks about how Northampton was always a center of the commoners’ rage. This is tied to a monk from the middle ages, who brings a holy relic home from the Mideast.
I give this novel all the stars I can just so people will take the time to read it. Jerusalem is a masterpiece of English literature. It should be taught at every college.