Sometime in December, I think, I was ploughing through endless video interviews and radio interviews with either Stewart Lee or Alan Moore on their writing process, as I attempted to work out what had happened to mine in the aftermath of a significant failure and an ongoing dissatisfaction with what I was doing artistically. Mentioned in the glut of 2016 interviews (and the relative absence of interviews since) was the then-recent release of Jerusalem, which I’d heard about vaguely at the time but not really been interested in reading at that point, possibly due to either the imminence of top surgery, the recent hell of the Brexit vote, the upcoming hell of the US adopting an actual literal fascist president, or the fact that one of my friends had just committed suicide. 2016 was not a good year.
2020 is not a good year either, but one of the high points has been treating an odyssey through Alan Moore’s 1,000,000-word novel about a half-square mile of Northampton, the structure of the universe, the function of art, how time works, what death actually is, and what he’d be like if he had been born a woman–as a kind of safety rail for the brain which prevents one from toppling into the hell of rolling news and instead beckons adventures in an equally-fraught but more sensical chaos.
At the end of this book, I feel rather like I’m looking back down over some sort of Midlands Nazca Lines at some literary structures which are difficult to view without a very good memory.
There is the structural element that the entire book does and does not take place in a single day–May 26th, 2006–mostly in a single city (there are some excursions to Lambeth, which I appreciate), mostly in a single area of that single city, and features characters passing through a specific moment in time, rather than time moving over the characters; congruent with Moore’s theories.
It acknowledges the debt to Joyce by, quite literally, plonking his daughter into the narrative and allowing her her own voice, all written in a very Joycean fashion (this slowed me down somewhat: having to physically sound out not-quite-phonetic renderings and mixed-up sentences to get through Lucia’s chapter was gruelling, but subvocalisation encourages not only a working phonological memory, leading to greater comprehension further into the chapter, but also elicits more in-depth appreciation of a text–meaning that this already hallucinogenic-in-content chapter became hallucinogenic-in-detail, too).
There is the echoing of incidents, the way in which interactions between characters have their consequences (or presequences) in much, much later chapters; one builds up a highly-detailed picture of the landscape of the moment through repetition from a hundred angles–which is alluded to if not outright claimed in the after-chapter which contains the entire tale in symbolic miniature… already described but not “shown” elsewhere in the book. In many, many senses, a fractal work.
And then there is the element of “ascension”. Movement through time in one section of the book as experienced during life is replaced by movement through spacetime in another, before returning the reader to apparent mundanity expressed in less conventional prose and more noticeably artistic format (for example, poetry, or unchecked run-on prose, or a script of a play; an inner viewpoint which paints itself exclusively in the language of the hardboiled noir detective), an obvious mirror to the the “enlightenment/madness-leads-to-art” path.
Narratively, then, this very much rewards a patient reading and a good memory. Which, considering the work is in some aspect about memory–about memorialising a murdered district or, as the gender-swapped, discipline-shifted avatar of Moore himself within the text puts it, preserving it like a ship in a bottle–is an appropriate feature.
It also rewards digestion and, I suspect, discussion.
Features I especially enjoyed of this work are not solely what it is in itself, but the effect that it has had while reading it. Moore’s prose within in is unchecked, luscious, excessive–unrealistic, out-of-control, then blunt and considered. His depiction of characters is both fond and savage, sympathetic and cutting; even the discourses with angels and devils reek of an egalitarian familiarity. There is a fearlessness in the choices he makes.
As I said, I turned to this book when I was disillusioned with my own work, burnt out, tired, and annoyed with the demands that I felt were being made of writers in general. In part I addressed my dissatisfaction by returning to the craft rather than the content of art, trying to reignite a passion that had been drained.
In tandem with that work, I found that having Alan Moore’s book around as a companion proved to be several types of inspiration at once: first, it reminded me what can be done with literature, what Moore himself in one of his radio interviews described as “destroying the novel”. Second, it showed me someone absolutely, incontrovertibly enjoying himself writing exactly what he wanted to write without any thought to anyone else. And thirdly, it showed me someone writing how he wanted to write, too.
The fact that it was published at all is almost certainly 100% down to that “someone” writing the way he wanted to and what he wanted to being Alan Moore; but writing only with an eye to whether or not someone would be prepared to publish my work has been a choke collar on creativity every time it’s been applied.
Ordinarily I’d say something critical here, but frankly I’m impressed anyone’s managed to typeset this much text, never mind write something with this kind of scope. Yes, there are failings. Yes, there moments of thinness; moments that could be edited. Yes, it repeats itself. Yes, some parts will make people wince. That all seems to be caught up in the point of the work: existence is far more morally, socially, chronologically, and emotionally complex than we will ever give it credit for, and we look for meaning in it to excavate a path through that complexity. Throwing other people’s meanings into the incinerator and destroying their connections is a particularly brutal form of destruction.
It feels self-indulgent because it is self-indulgent, and I feel there should be space for this kind of self-indulgence in the literary world. Morally–and for the sake of variety, and for the sake of justice, and preventing cultural stagnation–I think the kind of self-indulgence and art-for-arts-sake that this represents should be something that is equally available to the writers who don’t have the benefit of being Alan Moore (in particular BAME authors in the UK) and I get the impression from the views expressed both in the text and in the interviews that he feels that too.
I won’t recommend or condemn the book: that would be missing the point.