Jerusalem by Alan Moore

Einstein once claimed that God does not play dice with the universe.  According to Alan Moore, that’s true.  It turns out the game of choice for God’s Master Builders is snookers.  Moore’s magnum opus, Jerusalem, is his proverbial 8-ball in the corner pocket.  Knowing I’d want to review this properly when I finally finished it (working under the assumption that it wouldn’t beat me into submission first), I’ve been chewing on the idea for how to properly explain this book.  Perhaps the best way I know to describe it is to explore the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and decide how you would view such an encounter.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the quality of those visuals should give you a rough estimation of what’s in this rodent-killer of a tome.  But that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of this barely-contained existential crisis in novel form.  What Moore has to say is in equal proportion to how he chooses to say it.  The same may not necessarily hold true the other way around, depending on how you approach it.

The closest thing to a plot or central characters are outlined in the prologue of the book, where we are introduced to Michael and Alma Warren.  The siblings hail from a family history of madness, and their story would seem to fit right in line, from the view of an outsider.  As a toddler, Michael died, choked on a cough drop.  But — miracle of miracles — he came back to life.  As he grew up, an accident releases a torrent of memories of his afterlife experience, which he relates to Alma, who summarily “elevates” her career from comic book artist to fine artist by translating Michael’s visions into art.  I found that parallels between Alma and Moore himself to be amusing.  The story that unfolds is told non-linearly, bouncing around from the Middle Ages to the far flung distant future where humanity has long been extinct and galaxies have begun scraping together, and all points in between.  If you make it through the entirety of the book, the “afterlude” will reinforce the story and ideas for you in a way that makes you feel like you’ve been through quite the odyssey.  I won’t dare spoil how that works out, except to say that it was masterfully executed.

The thing is, upon reading the book, one learns that the real character of the book is not a person.  It’s a place that is not a place, in a time that is not a time, by any other name called Northampton, and by that Alan Moore means the Burroughs.  It is perhaps no spoiler to say that Northampton the physical location is less important than Moore’s message: Northampton is a condition, a state of existing, one that’s becoming alarmingly universal.  It does not matter where you are, where you’ve been, or where you’re going.  All that is, ever was, and ever will be is Northampton.  The entirety of the story is here in four dimensions, in about a half-mile radius, and even closer to you than you’d likely imagine or admit.

The tome is divided into three books.  Book I is the mortal realm, introducing us to and moving us through the story of the Warrens and their lineage.  It is at the end of Book I that Michael dies.  Book II is Michael’s journey through the afterlife, which looks disturbingly like the mortal realm, save for it being largely rendered in shades of gray.  Further history, philosophy, and metaphysics are explored, both of Northampton and of the larger creation of the Master Builders, through Michael’s association with the Dead Dead Gang (that’s really their name, not a stutter), a group of underage afterlife ragamuffins who come across to my mind as a weird blend of The Little Rascals and a mirror-universe version of The Animaniacs.  Book III begins with a look at the Master Builders themselves, allowing us an insight into the how the universe is put together.  Once Michael returns his body, all bets are off, and Moore plays around with his creation in ways that make all of the previous chapters look sane by comparison to someone who is unaccustomed to Moore’s work and influences.

This is going to sound off-topic, but bear with me.  There’s an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles where Indy spends some time in the Bohemian Paris art scene, crossing paths with Pablo Picasso and Edgar Degas.  In the course of the episode, Picasso issues a challenge to prove himself to be the superior artist, claiming that he can make a painting that the world would believe to be Degas, but that Degas cannot paint a Picasso.  That idea is the best comparison I can make to where Book III unfolds.  There’s no question that Alan Moore is both well-read and widely-read, the two concepts being mutually exclusive and equally necessary to appreciate what Moore is attempting here.

In what at first and nearly consistently through seems like an incoherent and haphazard mix of literary writing styles, Moore ties a great many character and plot threads together in ways that most authors and readers would never attempt.  There’s a chapter where he writes in the style of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which to my mind is far more effective than the original novel and no less incoherent at the same time.  One is offered as an even more incoherent and linguistically-challenged poem in the style of Joyce’s daughter Lucia, who spent her later years in an asylum.  The further you go, the more that chapter actually makes sense, begging the question of whether or not the reader has become insane in the quest for understanding.  One is written as a screenplay featuring the ghosts of Thomas Becket and Samuel Beckett offering meta-commentary on the rest of the novel.  And there’s my personal favorite, one as a bad detective noir pulp novel.  There is critique and meta-critique at every conceivable level of this book.  Topics range from politics and history, economics and poverty, sex and sexual assault, racism and class, and the nature of angels and demons, to the very nature of life and death, and beyond, including board games (read: “bored” games) being the meaningless derivations of sorcery props and a rather scathing, and spot-on commentary on the state of the comic book industry.  Come now, you knew that last bit was in there somewhere, lurking.  It wouldn’t be Moore without a proper commentary on that.  It’s as inevitable as the handful of references to Daleks and Cybermen that pop up here and there.  Between the style changes, topic changes, and perspective changes, it’s enough to give an unprepared reader psychic whiplash, which is, I think, part of the objective.  In recovering from that, the experience of healing from it allows the reader to knit ideas together in a way that couldn’t have happened without tearing the mind apart here and there first.

Ironically, I discovered this book existed completely by accident when I decided I was nostalgic for how comics used to be and wanted to revisit some of Moore’s classics, Promethea and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  I realize now both of those stories are training wheels for what’s in Jerusalem.  I have a great amount of respect for Moore and his way of thinking, even if I don’t always agree with his ideas or approaches.  I would likely be lumped in with the diehard fanboys who revere everything about the man and his work, and maybe that’s even partially true to some extent.  I think it’s more accurate to say that my respect is founded upon the notion that Moore makes me think, a commodity that’s seemingly becoming more rare with every passing day.  He makes me take a stance on my beliefs, challenges them, and somehow observes whether or not I can defend them in light of his own perspectives.  Upon reading interviews with Moore surrounding this book, it became apparent that I needed to read Jerusalem for all the reasons I’ve just outlined.  It didn’t prepare me for the experience, but it did offer some perspective after the fact.

I knew going in it wouldn’t be a “fun” read.  I also knew going in that, given Moore’s metaphysical leanings, my own dabbles into the occult over the years would be of tremendous help in deciphering the madness.  Turns out I was right about that part.  I know just enough about certain aspects so as to catch the meanings or importance being symbolized, and likewise I know just enough about quantum physics and string theory to bring all of this together without having to be anything close to expert in any of it.  As a result, for the largest part of this experience, I’ve decided that I was mostly successful in my attempt at comprehension.  Likewise, Moore was successful in his purpose in that I had to continually stretch myself beyond my personal limits to fully understand and appreciate what he put forth here.  For most, I suspect that people will largely see this book as C. S. Lewis once described Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, as “long-winded balderdash” without ever having known about The Silmarillion.  I think dumbing it down with a statement like that is far too easy and dismissive a judgment in this matter, though it’s probably also true to some extent since perception defines reality, and this book proves it.  Did I like the book?  I honestly can’t say whether I did or not.  I think it’s fair to say I enjoyed parts of it, that there were parts I struggled with, and there were parts that I was very glad I invested in both the hardcover and in the audiobook in order to see this through to any modicum of understanding on my part.  Most readers will likely feel the experience of this novel is too much like actual work, and those who read only for fun or escape will have no need whatsoever to attempt this one.  I think those people are missing out on a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I don’t know that such an experience would be readily appreciated those types anyway.  To each their own.  As such, this is going to be one of those classics that everyone praises and no one reads.  Of those who try, most will not finish, opt to throw the book across the room, and dismiss it as abject nonsense.  I hope I’m wrong about that, because otherwise that means the beating heart of this book becomes the proverbial bit of Zen about the falling tree making a sound in the forest if no one is there to hear.

For my part, I regret only that my cognitive engine isn’t nearly as sharp or efficient enough to keep up with Moore.  He works on a completely different level than the rest of us, and I’m not entirely certain that’s by choice.  While this work isn’t going to go down in the same catalog alongside Shakespeare or Tolkien for a variety of reasons, it is to my mind one of the most important books written in modern times.  Moore has created a work that has one foot in genius, the other in madness.  The line between those concepts seems to be around 1,280 pages, or 60 hours and 41 minutes in audio.

Jerusalem is a difficult book by design.  It’s mind-bending, it’s soul-shattering, it’s sarcastic, it’s brutally violent, it’s unapologetically pornographic, it’s most certainly intelligent, and perhaps even ego-centric.  Above all, it’s heartfelt in ways that people might not immediately (if ever) fathom.  It’s also completely bonkers and tortured in a way that H. P. Lovecraft could never have anticipated… and yet, not entirely without hope, from a certain point of view.  In many ways, it’s not unlike The Bible in many regards (yes, I said it!), and with similar and sometimes opposing themes, though it’s certainly of decidedly different styles and objectives.  I suspect that it’ll even have an audience much like that holy book, where there are the devout who will brook no detractors, and there are the detractors who will brook no trespasses from the devout.  My own inclination is to give this a full 5 stars, but I offer 4 because Moore was way too successful in out-Ulysses-ing Ulysses.  (Side note: I truly despise Ulysses.  It’s about as unfathomable and unlikable as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, though slightly more approachable and less pretentious.)  I know Moore had his reasons, but I can’t for the life of me figure why that’s even remotely something someone would want to consider doing to himself, let alone to those whose only crime is to dare to read this book.  Hardly seems a befitting punishment.

Maybe that’s the entire point.  Just because I don’t understand it, that doesn’t mean the reason isn’t valid, to the author if to no one else.  It’s probably the literati equivalent of a good joke.  All I know is that despite that bit of struggle, it was well worth my time and effort to explore the fullness of this Frankenstein’s creature of a book in both audio and hardcopy formats.  Each format supported the other in ways to give me a step or two up to something closer to Moore’s level.  This is one that I will haunt me from here on in some regards, and I’ll likely revisit in whole or in part at various points in my life from here, walking away with something new every single time.  The one thing I’m sure that’ll be reinforced time and again by Jerusalem is that I’m simply not that smart, and I’m fine with that.  Let Alan Moore carry the burden.

4 stars.

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