‘A Lengthy History of Time: a review of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem’, by Andrew Harper


Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you are about to embark on an odyssey.

— Jeffrey Dahmer’s attorney Gerard Boyle in his opening statement to the court.

Who’s Alan Moore again? Well, he writes comics. He was probably most famous in the eighties, when he was part of a wave of writers—along with right-wing ranter Frank Miller, who turned Batman into a vigilante psychopath, and The Hernandez Brothers, who gave the world Love and Rockets—who re-invented the form and made it okay to read comics that didn’t have people wearing capes in them. Moore had a moment: his series Watchmen became the only comic listed in Time’s ‘All-Time One Hundred Greatest Novels’ and a number of movies were made of his work: V for Vendetta, which gave the world the masks Anonymous use as a logo, From Hell, a botched take on Jack the Ripper that featured Johnny Depp at his most confused, and Watchmen, which was nearly good but proved that Zack Schnyder is best used as a fight scene choreographer rather than a film director. Moore himself moved on and became weirder, declaring himself to be an actual magician.

In 1996 he produced his first novel, Voice of the Fire, a book that may be seen as a precursor to the new work in its experiments with language and multiple characters. Now we have Jerusalem: a massive, 1200-plus page work of psychogeography that maps and explores a single suburb of Moore’s home city of Northampton.

The word ‘Jerusalem’ implies much in western culture: it is an idea, a contested religious space, a geographical location, a hymn by William Blake, and a vision of the end times. In Moore’s book, Jerusalem is a concept rather than a place. Geographically, much of what happens in this monstrously long work is set in the very old city of Northampton, the settlement of which is said to date back to the Bronze Age. Moore has lived there his whole life and the novel may be seen in part as an expression of his love of the city, and in particular The Boroughs, the now-vanished area where Moore was born and grew up.

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The first book of three in Jerusalem maps the geography of The Boroughs, the teeming, busy home of Northampton’s working class, by following the meanderings of people who drift not just through a physical region but through that region’s history. Time is malleable as characters from the past and the future interact, if sometimes very briefly. The epic begins with Alma Warren, an artist, who is possibly Moore in literary drag (there are a number of clues that point to this: their first names are similar, they both have brothers with the same name, they dress similarly, they both smoke) and who is planning a new exhibition. From there the narrative expands outwards introducing a wide array of characters, each vividly explored in their own chapter. There’s Marla, a heroin-addicted sex worker with a fascination for Princess Diana who has a vision of ghosts having sex. Those ghosts are Freddy Allen and Patsy Clarke who lived in The Boroughs and in death repeat moments of their lives over and over. Then there’s Peter, a pilgrim, in the year 810 AD, and Benedict, a lauded but penniless poet, in 2006. Their stories and many others fold together to invoke The Boroughs as a place: for Moore, humanity is what makes a location.

Complex as it is, the first book simply sets the stage by invoking The Boroughs and introducing the Warren family and the various lives within that family’s orbit. The second book is where things get going: we are thrown into the strange tale of Michael Warren, who chokes on a sweet and dies for a little while, and has a most marvellous adventure outside and above time while he is dead, which might be the most fun part of the book, and is certainly the most linear section. Young Michael is rescued from a monstrous demon by a gang of juvenile ghosts, The Dead Dead Gang, who are Fagin’s pickpockets mixed with The Goonies. These cheeky orphan ghosts and their adventures in a plane above life as we know it are a glorious high point of Jerusalem and show Moore at his most inventive.

The third book, almost amazingly, is odder still. Each new chapter takes a radically different form. One chapter is a play where visionary pastoral poet John Clare converses with Samuel Beckett on the steps of an insane asylum; another is written in an invented language that is barely readable yet held in place by rhythm and an internal logic; another is written as a strictly metered verse poem; and yet another in Joycean stream of consciousness.

The variation is jarring at times, but also welcome as the behemoth lumbers towards its denouement, in which all is explained, nothing ends, and we arrive, exhausted, at Alma Warren’s art exhibition. Her show is a celebration of The Boroughs, and it contains an excellent, unexpected device that pulls everything together, providing the reader with a classic Moore finale: a satisfying conclusion that is left entirely open.

Class is critical to Jerusalem. As a celebration of a vanished working class it could be read as a call to arms. Moore sees how over hundreds of years the poor have been diminished, assaulted, and disenfranchised, developing into a problematic underclass, and into dehumanised and ridiculed figures, ‘chavs’, who are the British equivalent to Australia’s ‘bogan’.

Beyond this polemical concern, Moore spends a lot of Jerusalem playing with the concept of time, seeming to suggest that the conventional view of time is not the full picture: that time has dimension, or is a dimension. Well, it’s complicated. Moore explores this notion with great elegance but it’s one of the many things that makes Jerusalem challenging: you need to take notes, or draw a small map. The cast of characters is vast, their stories intertwine in complex ways, and while the prose is filled with supple metaphors and glowing witticisms, there is a lot of it. There is a reason for this. Due to bad experiences working with publishers in the past, which resulted in the loss of control of much of his early work, Moore wouldn’t allow anyone to edit Jerusalem. While I take the point, the novel’s sheer size is going to feel prohibitive to some.

That aside, there are points where it coalesces and it all feels necessary. His characters are filled with pumping blood and the constantly changing perspective works surprisingly well – largely because of the way Moore links disparate characters across time and space. Everyone has something to do with everyone else, no matter how far apart in time and space they are.

Jerusalem is many things: a supernatural sit-com, a magic realist narrative, a shaggy dog story, and something that might be a religious text if found it in jar halfway up a cliff in four hundred years. It is too long, but it is as long as its author needed it to be, and while I got tired and fell asleep and dropped it on the cat at one point, and reading it has eaten into my life and delayed everything, including writing this, Jerusalem is like nothing else I’ve ever read. It might not be for everyone, but anyone could enjoy it, and in an era of tl;dr and a creeping new age dedication to minimalism, this is a prog-rock box set retrospective of the magical music of a long-haired warlock who really does care about the meek and sees even the smallest detail in life as filled with significance and wonder.

Andrew Harper is based in Hobart. He does occasional stand up, tells ghost stories to children, makes art about money and housing, writes about art for The Mercury and other publications, sometimes makes noise music in an act called Evil Goat and spends more time than he would like doing laundry.