Alan Moore’s ‘Jerusalem’ Review – Hark the Glad Sound!

This book is the first brick of the city of New Jerusalem; as hefty as the slabs of Solomon’s temple, and to many readers it will be nearly as impenetrable.

Although I exaggerate. It was really quite good and did make the effort of explaining itself (in exacting detail). But it took so stupidly long to finish that I cannot reasonably match the praises many others have given it.

Jerusalem is an excellent book, but it does not justify its frankly ridiculous length.

Focusing on the few square miles of Northampton making up the ‘Boroughs’, where people of low social status and wealth aggregate, Alan Moore has rebuilt the Holy City in this not very green or particularly pleasant land. It is an obviously deeply personal and even autobiographical tale – Moore grew up in Northampton, his family are featured. Casting himself as the mad irascible dragon/artist Alma Warren, Moore writes about everything from Lucia Joyce to various bits of local lore to the time his brother choked on a cough drop as a child, all concentrated in what initially seems to be a tiny area, but which lasts centuries. Northampton has a quite interesting history. The book becomes, as Alma explicitly says near the end, a way to preserve a dying culture, by creating art.

This led to one of my major problems with the book, that being the excessively self-referential nature of the thing; it started out bearable (and I enjoy that sort of thing in small doses) but around the final third became unbearably ridiculous, even slightly masturbatory.

Moore’s philosophy of Eternalism, where humans live out their lives repeatedly while remembering nothing, is portrayed, explained, used, and pondered extensively. And I’m fine with that – as long as every single character doesn’t ruminate on that exact same topic, again and again, over hundreds of pages. They almost all think about how awful the Boroughs’ circumstances are as well, and often I found myself recognising what a particular character was about to say before they said it. Perhaps that was the point…but it didn’t hold my interest forever. I’m fine with large sequences of events; to an extent I’m also fine with extended sections of prose. But Moore, explaining the same philosophy repeatedly, was just wasting my time.

What actually happens in Jerusalem? Well, in 2006 a mad artist named Alma Warren opens an exhibition in her home town of Northampton based on the time her brother Michael nearly died, choking on a cough lolly when he was three years old. That’s what ‘happens.’

Apart from that, the story is quite difficult to explain without spoiling at least parts of it. It’s about local legends in Northampton, and about Moore’s own family, which he has partially fictionalised as the ‘Vernalls’. Vernalls are named after their jobs – a verge being a corner or an edge, Vernalls are meant to watch over boundaries and edges of reality. It’s also about the slow death of the Boroughs as a result of economic misfortunes and a history as brutal and interesting as it is damning. And finally, it’s about the New Jerusalem, built in a common slum, for the poor and for the unfortunate. No glistening kingdom is this new city, but just the same as the old, ordinary and grimy. Jerusalem is everywhere, and so it must be in Northampton too.

Moore is clutching the coattails of the western canon hard, particularly William Blake (of course) but also featuring famous names from the get-go: Samuel Beckett and John Clare, Lucia Joyce, and John Bunyan are all characters. So too are we engaged with historical figures, from Cromwell to Thomas Becket. The archangel Michael – Mighty Mike – is a recurring character. There’s quite a bit of admiration for James Joyce, considering Moore attempts a chapter in a style roughly similar to Finnegans Wake which is basically erotic fanfiction about Joyce’s daughter Lucia. Odd, but it’s not too bad.

The version of Jerusalem I own is split into three parts; The Boroughs, Mansoul (as in Bunyan’s The Holy War), and Vernall’s Inquest. They focused, in respective order, on setting, plot, and experimentation.

After a few chapters of ‘The Boroughs’ I found I had lost my incentive to continue reading, making an already gargantuan book even longer in the temporal sense. This was because Moore insisted on giving us a series of chapters with only their location tying them together. While the individual tales of ‘Black Charley’, and the 11th century Frankish monk carrying a cross from Golgotha, for example, are interesting in their own right, the buildup was egregious. I would have appreciated if some of the connections made later in the novel had been made earlier to get the plot going. Instead, the first third of Jerusalem seems to be a series of unrelated events made to show off the setting, set up some plot points not to be resolved until the end of the third book, and show off Moore’s admittedly nice if occasionally overwrought prose.

‘Mansoul’ focuses on the story of Michael Warren choking on a cough drop. It lasts for 400 pages, during which he is technically dead. He spends the book ‘Upstairs’ in Mansoul, a place where time is essentially visible as an extra dimension. This led to what I consider a minor problem.

I have a question about how time works. We’re told (too many times) that time is a separate dimension as tangible as depth or breadth, and characters can move back and forth across it – all moments in time are frozen like film on a  roll and the consciousness merely scans across it, reading the story. We can go back and forth as we wish. By the way, yes, that does entirely erode the concept of free will. Thought you ought to know.

In Mansoul, when looking down at the mortal world, time is represented by a trail of crystalline copies of people trailing behind them…however.

Time in Mansoul itself is not represented like this, it’s represented in a normal fashion, in a ‘chronological’ order. So, the response is ‘okay, so then in Mansoul everything must happen at once, and the only reason the book is 400 pages long is because it was written in novel form by a human being.’

The problem is that not everything in Mansoul happens at once – everyone can jump forwards and backwards in ‘time’ as it applies to Mansoul, most evident in the building of the temple by the angels using the devils as tiles. When Michael Warren and the Dead Dead Gang are heading towards the future they witness a Mansoul where the building the angels are constructing is under siege; the demons making up the bricks have escaped.

Skipping ahead to ‘Vernall’s Inquest,’, in Snowy Vernall’s final chapter, when he and his granddaughter May are journeying to the end of the universe, they come across the Archangel Michael and the demon Asmodeus. Asmodeus says he’s served his time (devilhood being a state of lower dimensionality in the mathematical sense) and is at that point in time an angel. Before Snowy and May reach the end of the universe, they encounter themselves coming back from it. But then, they must have personal timelines, and not everything can be happening at once.

So Moore tells us over and over again that time is just another dimension, which can be inspected from all angles and specific parts of which can be inspected by anyone in Mansoul. Asmodeus can travel through time. Why, then, does he also have a personal timeline? Why must he wait the requisite billions of years before his re-ascension? There is a second layer of time in play here, one I suspect Moore could not circumvent in his attempt to actually make the novel readable.

Apart from this relatively minor quibble, which I could not even properly articulate until I had finished Vernall’s Inquest anyway, I enjoyed Mansoul. It felt like an Enid Blyton story on steroids, following around a group of ghost children called the ‘Dead Dead Gang’, reminiscent of a hideous parody of the famous five.

‘Vernall’s Inquest’ was where things both sped up and slowed down…slowed down considerably. Moore was intent on experimenting with form in this book. I had a brilliant idea of what to write about the chapter where he tries on Finnegans Wake for size, but some clever bastard got to it before I did and he expressed my thoughts exactly here. Slightly disheartening, really, because what he’s said about tying the content with the form and the design is the kind of thing I always talk about on here.

The only difference between what he thought about that chapter and what I thought is that I can beat Bloodborne, to be quite honest.

But the form-swapping continues. One chapter is done as a script, another as poetry. Perspectives begin shifting back and forth in a documentary/stage direction sort of ramble. One chapter is a stream of consciousness ramble lacking full stops, technically making a sentence about 30 pages long. Alma at long last (or so it seems to the reader) shows off her exhibition, and the style settles down into Moore’s normal prose.

In the end, Alma says, Jerusalem is everywhere, and all of time is constant, repeating, observable; the Boroughs are Jerusalem just as much as the ancient city itself is. Moore has written a working-class Bible, a rough-and-ready testament lying in a grim and dirty alleyway.

There’s a lot I haven’t mentioned, and I won’t, because it really is an interesting book. But beware the time investment. If you plan on tackling Jerusalem, just remember that there’s no shining golden city waiting for you at the end.

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