Jerusalem is Alan Moore’s crazed love letter to his life-long hometown of Northampton, England. The massive novel spans much of the town’s history and colorful characters, framed within a particular family across many centuries, an extended vision of the afterlife, and an art show.
It is useful to compare the novel to Moore’s earlier novel, Voice of the Fire. Both novels focus heavily on vignettes (many chapters and characters are episodic, like individual comic book issues). Both novels focus on Northampton and its ancient and modern history, larger than life characters, the importance of language, characters walking a geographic space and ruminating deep thoughts, and the odd inter-connectedness of things in time and space. Jerusalem goes further in many ways, as it experiments with poetry and drama, and there is a larger plotline connecting Jerusalem that Voice of the Fire does not attempt.
Jerusalem is apocalyptic; it reveals a hidden reality and a hidden truth, that forces are at work to make Northampton (and, presumably, every place) into something redemptive and empowering, despite the realities of poverty, poor civic leadership, ignorance, drugs, and violence. Moore is a long observer of his hometown, and painfully traces its decay and desperation in modern times. As a hippie, he yearns for the creativity of the 1970s and even earlier centuries, for visionaries such as William Blake. He raises thoughtful critiques of modern economies based on this neutral concept of money, the way the poor are consistently downtrodden and without a voice, and the struggle of being artistically creative in such a world. (Moore bravely digs into identity politics, pointing out that it’s always done from a place of privilege, and the poor do not have the luxury of such identities and politics.) All things are deeply connected and never truly lost, which is part of the theme of the book (and an idea he explored in Unearthing, as well as with Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen). This idea of eternalism is significant given the novel’s repeated concern is urban blight and renewal, which destroyed Moore’s own childhood home.
Jerusalem is rooted in a visionary dream, like Dante and Blake. For Moore, there is a higher, Einsteinian plane of existence, outside of our four-dimensional space-time, which enables his larger plot of angels, invisible connections and structures, and the afterlife. But was it all just a dream? There is a feeling of being cheated, that one has spent so long in this upper world that may not exist at all. With all the time the novel spends in the afterlife called Mansoul and the work of the angels in constructing Northampton’s connections to Blake’s heavenly city of Jerusalem, I did expect the novel to climax with some sort of apocalyptic battle, or a final building of Jerusalem that would manifest its hidden realities and bridges. But Moore oddly abandons that ultimate cosmic vision and angelic builders, leaving the novel’s climax with the art show and more current characters. It feels a bit limp after the grandeur of the middle part of the novel; while dabbling for so long in the supernatural and the cosmic, it turns sharply prosaic.
The opening chapters are really lovely prose, evocative and meditative. The larger middle section of the novel dealing with Mansoul and the terrific, mischievous childhood gang (the Dead Dead Gang) are gripping, as is the pun-ridden, linguistic insanity of Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s mentally ill daughter (“Etes clare tlu ci dottthe-haws missintentified her”: It’s clear to see that he has mis-identified her, p. 893). There are great chapters in different voices, such as a sad, lonely political villain, a deranged actor, and a homeless ghost. There are great elements of forgotten history, including Northampton’s first resident of color, the deathmongers who delivered babies and prepared corpses for burial, the Destructor incinerator, the Northampton castle, council flats, and the linguistic nuances of the Northampton. The glimpses into Moore’s mind are engaging, with lots of presumably autobiographical material. Moore has been a writer for some 40 years, with periods of commercial success with DC Comics and then quieter years as an independent writer, and characters such as Alma Warren and the struggling poet Benedict Perrit trace his struggles to be creative despite resistance, Hollywood, and urban decay. These are fascinating glimpses into his own mind and thoughts on his art.
One of Moore’s consistent interests throughout his career is in words and language, in his understanding of magic as creative linguistic possibility. He has experimented with language before, as in the Voice of the Fire where he writes as a neolothic settler, and he returns to some of these themes here. Language, like magic, imagines reality, constructs reality, and it is language that is the true magic and the true magical power. This shines forth in Mansoul, with its odd turn of phrases (where once must learn to talk anew), and with Lucia Joyce. Moore is a gifted writer, with a tremendous capability for beautiful prose.
The novel has its frustrations. Physically, it’s an unwieldy book to manage, with small print and thin paper that does not make for the best experience (the 3-volume paperback edition may be better in this regard). The cover is fantastic, considering Moore drew it himself and it reflects people and stories from the book, but it’s small and difficult to see; I think it would’ve worked better as the frontispiece across two pages. At times there is a lot of over-explanation, as the mechanics of the afterlife are established (one can travel through time in the afterlife, which enables Moore to explore the history of Northampton through his characters). At times, it does feel like many of the characters are simply mouthpieces for Moore’s own political and economic thoughts. There are similar conclusions spoken by various protagonists about the failures of the modern world, and it all ends up sounding like Moore. There is also a strange moral laxity amid the pages, as Moore wants everyone to be forgiven everything. Yet then where is the basis for Moore’s moral outrage against grasping politicians, the destruction of the Northampton castle, and the constant oppression of the poor Northamptonians who live in the Boroughs?
Jerusalem is a terrific, long read, and one that is fun for new and old Moore fans. It’s not his best work, which is to be found in From Hell, Providence, Watchmen, and The Voice of the Fire. But it is Moore being a mature Alan Moore, thinking deeply about our world, its complexities, its violence, and its losses.