Alan Moore’s typescripts for his comic-book epics – Watchmen, his superhero Gotterdammerung, or From Hell, his dissection of the Ripper murders – are renowned enough for their length and detail to have become the stuff of legends, as well as the butt of jokes. Lean on dialogue and heavy on description, the prolix text that Moore uses to sum up even one single panel can read like a novella, crammed with minutiae outlined so completely that no artist could actually illustrate every particular. The cartoonist Eddie Campbell, Moore’s collaborator on From Hell, once drew himself at the draughting-board, working from a marked-up Moore script: the pertinent snippets that he’ll need to draw have been underlined, while around them hover cloudbanks of disregarded prose.
Reading Jerusalem, Moore’s massive new novel, I often wished someone had underlined pertinent snippets for me, or that an artist had condensed Moore’s words into images. The book is so packed with history it repeats itself endlessly, and so dense with language it turns into bloat. Jerusalem’s aims may be monumental – the book’s timeline stretches from the Big Bang to the Earth’s end, and the middle volume sets out detailed plans of the afterlife – but its individual moments feel falsely inflated.
In each of those moments, Moore makes much ado about Northampton. The mid-sized English city, once solidly blue-collar, has been the author’s home all his life, and its history has long been a preoccupation of Moore’s, notably in his only previous novel, 1996’s sleeker and more mysterious Voice of the Fire. Here, he turns his attention to a bleak and poor neighbourhood known as the Boroughs, the very heart of England both geographically and, in Moore’s cosmology, spiritually, too.
In Jerusalem’s 21st century, the Boroughs has become “a notorious urban soul-trap,” host to low-income housing, substance abuse and frequent rape. Still, Alma Warren, a cantankerous and visionary local painter – Moore’s paper-thin alter ego – recalls the happiness that thrived in the area’s working-class families, a tightly knit community since bulldozed in the name of urban renewal. When her brother fears for his sanity after a near-death experience (it involves a rascally gang of time-travelling ghost kids, and occupies hundreds of wearisome pages), Alma plans to make sense of her sibling’s mad visions in an art exhibit that will preserve and mythologize the Boroughs’ long history. The maze of small streets is a settlement that stretches back thousands of years, she knows, haunted by “fossil seams of ghosts, one stacked upon another.”
As the novel digs back through these layers of history, Moore succeeds at heaping together a thick sense of time and of place. Each chapter narrates a handful of hours in the life of one of the characters who wandered the streets of the Boroughs over the years, from a ninth-century monk, to a young Charlie Chaplin, to an institutionalized Lucia Joyce (her portmanteau lingo mimics Finnegans Wake), as they contemplate what seems like the whole span of their existence. Many episodes, however, take place on a single day in the Boroughs in 2006, as multiple perspectives combine to build up to, on one hand, a murderous sexual assault, and Alma Warren’s exhibit on the other. Jerusalem eventually unites these fragments, so dispersed throughout time, by positing death as a higher dimension, a long attic hallway from which all of history is visible. This higher reality is what Alma Warren’s younger brother glimpses when he’s near death – indeed, for generations, their whole clan has been privy to the same maddening visions, and Alma’s art will serve as a kind of culmination.
Fixated on questions of madness and art, of the working class and the predations of power, of time and history and death and free will, Jerusalem is a novel of wide-ranging scope. But those capacious parameters – so much history, such lofty themes, so many damn words – feel like padding, disguising an introverted and single-minded streak at the core of the book. Take the cast of characters. Dozens of different voices are heard in Jerusalem – each chapter is narrated in free indirect style, as though eavesdropping on a character’s consciousness – but all these people seem to think the same thoughts, know the same history, and come to the same conclusions. Among all these supposedly different minds, there is very little diversity of opinion (an ancestor of Alma’s is generally agreed to be the most beautiful human who ever existed, for instance). Every thought, in short, seems to be Moore’s alone, with the characters merely mouthing his musings.
This attempt at polyphony – a medley of voices, joined in debate – was perhaps bound to fail. Moore’s writing has always favoured the monologue, but his signature treatises – the tour of London’s occult landmarks in From Hell, the disquisitions on tarot and Kabbalah in Promethea – have benefited from collaborators who illustrate the proceedings, supplementing the writer’s dry lectures with visual aids and digressions, surrounding the text with marginalia more lively than the lesson itself. Here, Moore must rely only on his own prose in order to communicate his vision, with no artist intervening to distill his purple passages or ground his ungainly metaphors in reality. (Rather than writing that someone takes a small step to the right, say, Moore has him “progressing westward in excruciating increments, a wagon-train with palomino snails in harness…”)
Jerusalem could have used an artist – or an editor – to help pare away that palaver, and introduce more distance between Moore and his characters (the chapters that channel a drug-addled teen prostitute, Chaplin, or a craven town councillor, rather than Moore’s friends and family members, are actually convincing works of ventriloquism). The author does provide his own art to cover the novel, just as William Blake illustrated his own Jerusalem, one of Moore’s models. But the fact remains that Moore prefers to explain and describe that kind of dazzling imagery, at maundering length, rendering it too prosaic and expository to belong to the same visionary tradition as the likes of Blake or Joyce.
As oversized fantasies go, the book actually hews closer to the small-town grand-guignol of Stephen King’s Maine, and Moore’s real affection for the Boroughs becomes clearer when Jerusalem adopts this more modest scale. As an outpouring of empathy, or as a benediction – for Moore’s family, his friends, his old neighbourhood and for all the world’s poor who’ve been shaken to the margins – Jerusalem can certainly count as a success. As fiction, or as vision, however, it’s something much less.
Sean Rogers is the Globe’s comics reviewer.Report Typo/Error
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