More Moore contains less Moore, proves less Moore is more Moore, more or less: Jerusalem, so far
(apologies to Gene Shalit and every tabloid headline, no real spoilers unless you want the structure and general topic to be a surprise)
I’m somewhere around a fourth of the way through Jerusalem, Alan Moore’s 1400 or so page, 600K+ or so word literary novel set in and mostly about Northampton England. If you tend upper middle brow and know anything about funny books, then you’ve heard the good news that Moore is the best writer in comics, whether or not you’ve actually read Watchmen, From Hell, V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or any of his other properties that Hollywood has famously dragged behind the soundstage and non-consensually defiled. If you’ve read any of his interviews, you’ve known this book, his second prose novel about 4.5x the size of his first,was coming for the roughly 10 years he’s been working on it, always mentioned somewhere between the bitterly funny swearing off of comics and bitterly funny ad hominem attacks against those who he perceives have wronged him. In fact, bitterly funny interviews are another genius area of his. The doorstop is finally here, and I started reading (and alternately listening to — the Audio performance by Simon Vance is in the running for best ever) immediately and at a pacing of about 5 chapters a week, that puts me at about 8 ½ out of 35 chapters done.
The verdict so far is a kind of hyper-engaged ambivalence it has been a while since I’ve encountered, maybe since Tree of Smoke. The best positive similarity to the reading experience is something like Infinite Jest where, except for individual difficult chapters (of which IJ has two and that I’ve heard are coming in Jerusalem’s last third), the book is not hard to read, but hard to… cling to? Wrap hour head around? Like, it takes endurance more that skill to get to where the book can work on you. So maybe my judgment is a bit hasty, but I need to unpack my thoughts a little and by this point in every other great big ass book I’ve read, I have engaged with it on a personal level. Here, I have not. Intellectual, yeah. Spiritual, kinda. Language anesthetic, absolutely. But, despite being a magnum opus of his hometown that he never left, there is little of Moore here.
I feel like I should begin with structure. The book is one of those books (we need a name for this) that falls between the “tightly connected short story collection” and “multiple POV novels” — things like Visit from the Goon Squad and Lovecraft Country… things that are clearly about telling some kind of aggregate story, but are presented as story pieces that function internally on their own. These are different than multi-POV novels like Game of Thrones largely in that they tend to skip around in time, don’t have explicitly “continued” threads, and don’t split/connect in a sequenced way, but network in a non-linear fashion. They differ from tight short story collections, All that Rises Must Converge, say, by having enough concrete cohesion — character continuity, chains of events impacting multiple substories, in story common anchors of any kind — to give the shape of some sort of bigger actual story, not just evoking a set of common elements (theme, symbols, etc.). These types of novels are especially good at exploring things in a fractal way, each part recapitulating aspects of other parts and the whole.
I caught but did not participate in a recent social media discussion of “lit fic” which went from opinions on how the genre was “serious” and “boring” to an argument as to what the term meant. The two ends of the definitional spectrum were broad (lit fic is just a derogatory term for people writing what they hope will be considered literature one day) and specific (the microgenre of people who write like Jonathan Franzen), and I guess I had always leaned towards the broader one. But it got me thinking that the middle there is a commonality of approach that has tone and style and fancy tools sure, but is mostly about focus on the subjective (the important word) struggle to come to grips with a more universal set of concerns. Like any “genre,” this doesn’t imply that it is good in any way, but does have a set of implicit features/clichés that any good art has to work within and around. Just as sci fi has tech BS and fantasy has civilization structural blah blah and horror has oh no I’m gonna die for the 5 millionth time, lit fic has people howling into the void from the prison of their own head, which often reduces to first world problem rigmarole. Oh, and write what you know often results in boring middle class overeducated white guy story number 5.34 x 10^23.
The more interesting of lit work, to me at least, turns out to be stuff that has genre fingerprints and gets weird. In order to keep the genre ghettos well marked, we invented the term “magical realism” to excuse any supernatural behavior in our would be literature, but also kind of agreed to ignore the more “grounded” genre taint. Most lit that really makes the effort to dig at at existential questions has elements of detective/thriller fiction, conspiracy theory, horror/ghost stories, alternate history, and/or the weird end of sci fi. IJ is a sci fi ghost story, All Pynchon is some kind of genre (often detective/thriller, sometimes adventure) exploration of conspiracy as a way to stab at “systems of the world,” as is all Eco. It seems that there is a Venn diagram of sorts here — genre that reaches above its station coinciding with the legacy of the modernists via the “new literature” “serious” lit that grapples with something bigger that requires stepping away from the everyday “canny” world.
This puts us an interesting area that has some congruity to the “Gray tradition” idea: long books that push past irony into grappling with existential questions, obsessed with their own structure as a microcosm of a world which, like ours, is a broken system that can’t be fixed but also can’t be transcended fully, only glimpsed beyond, filled with completely weird horse-shit that often devolves into juvenillia, weakness, and obsession with the crude and bodily fixation… just like life! These are big, lopsided heaps whose inherent crap bits that noone likes are necessary for the greater conjuring that the work is trying to do. This is why Blake comes up so much with this — these books are like an occult ritual trying to summon the ineffable that require unpleasant reagents. Without a doubt this is exactly my wheelhouse. I blame being bitten by a radioactive Moby Dick as a Junior in High School.
Jerusalem couldn’t be more in this mode if it were a parody of my taste. The structural conceit is that local Northampton painter and author surrogate Alma, present centrally in the 2 bookend chapters, has painted 3 sets of 11 paintings of Northampton-ites through the history of the place, capturing moments in their lives and post-lives which are presented in the chapters. I’m still in the first set (the first volume of the paperback), which I hear is the most street level, so to speak. In these early moments we get glimpses of this city, specifically the slum, that connect the characters, moments, and world in an inside-the-cover-of-1000-Years-of-Solitude-genealogy kind of way, incident and aftermath, repetition of place and theme, scattered across time. We also get the idea of haunting as an aspect of hashish-cosmology, seeing spacetime from outside the 4th dimension. There, we see cycles, through the eyes of the mad wot can see too (sorry), as something eternal, not just repeating but being always there. But there is a level above the street life seen in small passages, an astral plane where those “in touch” can go where the ghosts hang out being forever what thought forms they echo and mysteriorus entities play capriciously with the lives of the mundane.
Those familiar with Moore’s life and works have a leg up on with his fixation on this town. He is from Northampton, from a poor/working class background, is an old school hippie and hardcore socialist who decided long ago to barely leave Northampron because the whole universe is there, and worships the sock puppet Glycon. You can put this all together with his interview persona and other facts — Moore seems like the smartest person that Moore has ever met, developing a huge but untested ego evidenced by cleverly savage but smugly superior takedowns of his lessers, a man still hot from being bested by a money interested system of morons (his history with comics). Wanting to stay protected in his “safe” world makes sense as an alternative to learning humility which might (and I mean this) be bad for his work. But also at play an occult focused magical understanding of the way the universe works owing in part to hippie and “explorational” drug culture, making connection to the greater “thing” locale independent. Oh, and he clearly no shit loves his town so much that he can’t really imagine living anyplace else. He has talked a lot over the years about Northampton as the center, the throbbing heart of England, both backwater and the place that all the things of real importance to the soul of the country happen. This book is an attempt to capture this thing, that he is always on about, at the level of the actual people that Moore would have known from the place.
A word of caution — Moore’s work is very lush throughout. There is a saying that sailors curse so much that the word fuckin’ isn’t a real word but just a warning that a noun is coming. Well, there is a lot of fuckin’ here but note that it’s 3 adverbs and 2 adjectives are serve as the actual warning that a noun is coming, on average. There isn’t an Elmore Leonard approved sentence in the bunch. Why would there be an “He saw the car parked by the church” when you could have “It was a BMW because of course it was, what do you expect from those River street twats, painted all black like what the monks of Saint Albans used to lacquer pianos for cash to grow rosemary or whatever the fuck. For’teen layers deep, they say, you could see yourself like in Saint Paul’s glass from that verse with the hope and charity and whatever the Christ…” I’ll stop there. You get the idea. It’s like Robert Jordan ghost written by east end Cormac McCarthy. No relying on a word like “eaves” without modifiers like “phlem-yellow, critically injured” before it. HOWEVER, and this is key, the prologue is way worse than anything else in this regard, so don’t let the sheer amplitude throw you off. It stays florid, but gets better, and becomes just less unnecessarily rich, enough to keep down anyway. The first chapter is like being force fed really good cheesecake.
One reason for this is that Moore could possibly be thus best living writer, not just comic writer but writer period, at finding voices. He really inhabits these characters, and the third person prose is firmly POV fixed. It is an astonishing exercise in virtuosity of writing. He begins to hit really sublime moments, the first one being in the proper chapter one when Alma’s grandpa has his psychotic break/religious epiphany atop the scaffolding in the dome at St. Paul’s. The ability of the prose to conjure a higher plane of thought is breathtaking. And if you don’t like the feel any given chapter just wait… the next will be different. The engagement and level of sublimity varies for me chapter to chapter, but they are stunningly well observed and realized, and always achieve something sublime at some point. The prologue is the least of these, but that could be that I read it first and will need to reread at the end with the scope of the thing fully fleshed out.
The themes, as I alluded to above, really play into my preoccupations. Examples include models and systems of civilization and the mind as broken and tainted by the nature of the human, madness as truth, quantum cosmology/deep end physics as related the unknowable/spiritual/religious, psycho-chrono-geography (negotiation of a physical space leading to exploration of the mind and history), the present being “haunted,” repeating cycles of human nature, the interplay between progress in civilization and the legacy of oppression and violence, and objective truth as elusive, beautiful, and inane. These are exactly the things that make me consider Inland Empire the best movie ever. Much of the work done here is with the aforementioned fractal repetition. And, as much as it seems obvious to say, like all systems novels it has a meta level of being a novel with a complex internal structure illuminating the problems with the system of our apprehension of the world and the failure of structures. Also meta: using repetition to evoke temporal recurrence and the always of existence, and the feeling that the novel is trying to use a story of ghosts of history to haunt the reader or make the reader realize they are a ghost themselves. Again with the novel as a spell, but also as a system and as a fractal organism.
Everything here is good enough to put this up there technically with novels to be remembered and taught for a century in University programs. The reason I think that this will happen, though, is just not the skill and writing (that helps clear the preliminary round) but because of the other thing this is about that I have barely touched on — its class concerns. I’m not a fan of Chuck Klosterman’s book What if We’re Wrong not because I don’t like his writing (I often appreciate it) but because I had the problem of having to listen to someone new to a subject area I have thought about ad nauseum take a stab at it. It’s like when podcasters can’t quite place a fact you know and you wind up yelling at your phone.
But he does get interesting when talking about predicting books (and other media) that will be remembered and that it isn’t usually the best books, but the ones that speak of their time in a way that people in a later time can point to and say “look how both like us and unlike us they were.” This is curated by the critical establishment, of course, which is why Moby Dick got into my hands instead of being forgotten. Popularity gives you a leg up (see Shakespeare, Dickens) because the widely read will always have some countersignal defenders and necessarily speak to their time in a broad way, but is not sine qua non for immortally. But the secret ingredient is a window into another time in which we can project our concerns, both comparingly and contrastingly with a kind of temporal parallax. The Jungle is really not that great a book, but watch the way people engage with it. So Moore does an end around on all the lit crit daddy was cold whining and makes his novel about the sorts of people that most literary writers won’t touch (short of Denis Johnson and more outsider-arty people like Vollman), the white underclass, but pulls the lens back and places the reality of this, which seems super-duper authentic, in a high minded intellectual and spiritual context. There is a special trick, here, of being, like Faulkner say, from and synchronized with the outcaste but no entirely one of them. Like Moses and the Israelites, or Neo from the Matrix, the writer who has exiled themselves to make deliverance possible.
Just as Infinite Jest keeps getting called the best novel about 9–11 even though it was published 5 years prior to it and is set in the future as brought to you by the 80s, this feels like the Novel of class of our time, set as glimpsed tori of the past, that will be a touchstone of the class crisis aware future. The only thing preventing this from being 1984 or Lord of the Flies is that it is aimed too high and will wind up an upper academic pillar like Gravity’s Rainbow instead (which is about WWII but is about the 50s-60s-70s transition, giving us a glimpse today of the flavor of its driving paranoia and unrest and surrender). It seems to be aligned perfectly to live on, not despite but partially because of mixed reviews (its important to the future that the current critics didn’t get it). I’m probably wrong, but I think it has the base to not be forgotten but to not be fully discovered for 20 years.
So this is a long time to get to the other side of the ambivalent part. First there is the overly descriptive language. This is a bit of a style preference issue, but not just preferance. It leaves little room for variation for emphasis, though I like McCarthy whose prose is just as consistently drippy. Maybe its the fact of its variation in prosody (which is a good feature in and of itself) isn’t coupled with any variation in lushness, so the poetic or more “stream of consciousness of an unusual thinker” passages work better florid than the grounded stuff which is just as overwrought. The added problem is that this does serve an additional purpose, which is to reinforce the unity of theme and symbolism to the extent that every word is so elaborately connected that a crazy person may one day draw a map or chart of the links between every single word and every other. In practice, as just someone reading, there are so many echoes you can’t hear yourself think. This is maybe one reason I disliked the first chapter most — I had to learn to turn the gain down on my interpretive apparatus so all I would hear wouldn’t be feedback.
But apart from the syntax thing, the actual sub stories are working far too hard to connect with one another. It’s like Moore blended in 50 shredded copies of “Jerusalem for Dummies” into the mix, when slightly less than one copy would be best. Moore said he liked the Wire, and one of the reasons that was my favorite show ever at the time it was on (don’t know if it would hold up, now that all its lessons have been picked up by even network shows) is that it told a story that had faith that each scene was strong enough to work on its own while the connections slowly accrued. This shows no such restraint. This would be an impossible book to edit well, but (I know, common big book beef) it seems like he needed an editor to point out too much repetition gives you mid-late period Stephen King. Both these initial problems stem from erring on the side of saying everything you are thinking, getting it all out and cutting nothing that is quality prose… if its connected well to the narrative concerns, it stays, reinforcement always considered good. That’s a mistake, I think.
These lead us to the bigger concern. All of the above works of narrative art referenced as points of comparison (all of which I love) have frustrating parts, and eye-rolling bits, and boring passages. But they seem, in some brave way, willing to risk this not as a trick but as a thing that belongs there. Moby Dick gives a chapter on whale taxonomy, some of which is made up. IJ doesn’t give you its most crucial scene, but gives you an exhaustive history of a terrorist organization, a complete filmography 98% of which doesn’t pay off, and tells dad jokes that take 3 pages. It’s not fair for me to say this at this juncture, but I believe Moore lacks the effacement of ego necessary to pull the unbalanced part off. To do so, you need to be willing to be tarred and feathered with the material, to know what a piece of shit you are admitting to being by exposing yourself, and to write it anyway. He needs to take the risk, not with high wire acts that could fail elegantly (the Finnegan’s Wake inspired section) but with the mundane grind, bad brains, the shit yourself stuff. This compounds with the other problems of loaded prose and over-repetition, in that there is no slog that isn’t turned into fine wine by prose quality and evocative notes, trying to convince that all is gold. There is no sense that Moore is laying himself bare and risking negative opinion at any point, which is odd given some of his comics work (see Promethea’s 13 issue exegesis of the Kabbalah), but there doesn’t seem to be anything that steers into potential “tosses across room” territory (unless it’s the whole work, which some will surely feel) and I think that kind of base personality excreta is necessary to hit in the All Star Game of serious fiction. The whole thing isn’t destabilizing enough. It’s too remote. It’s too safe.
Which is also to say that there’s a lack of the text feeling ripped from the personal. No part of Moore is in the slum, like Wallace is still in the halfway house or Melville is still on a ship facing a faceless god or Faulkner still prey to all the weaknesses of the Snopes… he’s not entangled int his place, but past it in the nether. He writes with great empathy and amazing possession (by the spirit of the place and people) but seems to inhabit from this other place, not exiled with pieces missing, but moved on to “originally from there” status despite the fact that he physically never left. This is a paradox. He says he never needs to leave Norhampton because the model of the worlds soul is there, but he inhabits that world not the actual place. I can’t help but think the disconnect I feel originates from the fact that he didn’t ever leave so there is no Northampton shaped hole in him to access. There’s a reason “you can’t go home again” is so profound and never leaving messes that creative battery the fuck up. So risk, loss, and destabilization are missing, leaving this catalog of lower class squalor, in all its incredible depiction, strangely sterile. I.E., this is a novel that (so far) seeks compassion but doesn’t admit abetment or brave nakedness.
One problem the work has for short term success, but that is a big plus for me as a reader and for potential future success, is that Moore doesn’t, as a mind from the present, judge the people and attitudes in the prose itself, preferring to stay in voice (which he as most often been generous with — finding humanity in those with diverging viewpoints) and pas sentence only more abstractly as a dispassionate God, thinking in terms of “isn’t it a shame” not “they are to blame.” It doesn’t help that Moore has a rep for outdated, not university educated/postmodern leftism, possesses a real writers preoccupations and tics, and has a big mouth. In his case the most often cited landmine is dated sexual revolutionary gender politics and, specifically, an obsession with rape and sexual assault from the point of view that this terrible thing is a fact of life that women deal with it in different ways. The reaction to this varies from “it is weird that his stuff is so rapey and I wish he would it cut down a bit” to “screw him and the patriarchy he rode in on #yesallmen” with few actual actual defenders. I mean, the constancy is a bit weird. But that’s the tip of the new left turn-off iceberg here, with hours of reading time spent within the super-subjectively rendered brains of troglodyte morons (mostly white) with only Moore’s former interview admissions as a guide to what is him channeling real folk warts and all and what is Moore: 60‘s hippy reactionary. The only black person so far is a magical American cowboy who teaches the white folk with his nobility (really). I think tolerance among people who, like me, have read all of Cerberus, will be a bit higher than current English departments and students, until enough time as passed that we can read it like we read Lovecraft. There is a lot more real estate though, and maybe the social/capital critique middle and crazy ending will give it a pass, tho. Still, unlikely to be a darling book for those who don’t remember 9–11 in the short term, at least till they get some mileage.
So how’s that for the quarter-point analysis. I’ve already praised and damned the whole thing. I’m pretty sure we haven’t gotten to the meat of money and power is human nature and the cause of the blight and the paradox of the cradle of degradation being the last bastion of actual life yet, but the middle third is supposed to be about that plane where forces effect the patterns so, here’s lookin’. I want more of the lens of a crazy person (its coming) and if he makes that feel more personal I might come around on some of this. But this is the most substantial book I’ve read in years, with stunning technical writing in character work and semiotics, a brilliant layout, and really great well explored and high level theme set. The structure is fascinating but also a problem as it seems to abet the clean balance that I think is wrong for this kind of thing (DFW calling IJ a “lopsided Sierpinski gasket’ sticks with me as really important big book advice). It just seems like the glue for the really transcendent needs to be the asymmetry born of self interrogation and struggle with mental unbalance — maybe Moore’s just too smart and composed in his prose work (and values his superiority) at this point to allow for that. It certainly bears resemblance of the later League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as a synecdoche for his current career journey away from the anger-at-himself-and-then-others that animated his earlier work. Finding inner peace doesn’t preclude good art (see David Lynch’s post Eraserhead career) but you have to pull something vile from yourself that you own fully to make the capital A art work. And it’s still there, in him. You know its still there (see any recent interview). He’s just too chickenshit to implicate enough himself to do the job properly.