Magazine February 6, 2017, Issue

Epic of the Midlands

(Portrait of Alan Moore via Wikimedia)
Jerusalem, by Alan Moore (Liveright, 1,280 pp., $35)

An office move not long ago necessitated one of those painful purges I’ve had to face almost from the moment I could read. Still smarting from the sacrifice of books I hadn’t even remembered I owned, I took no consolation from the sight of gleaming wood exposed now that every shelf wasn’t double stacked. A colleague, however, astutely recognized a bright side almost immediately. It’s easier to spot your gems, he remarked, fingering an out-of-print copy of The Letters of Kingsley Amis, after all that culling.

This insight came back to me as I was reading Jerusalem. Of course, a lot of thoughts came to mind while I read Alan Moore’s latest work. This mammoth of a novel is about, it seems, all of the big questions: life and death, sex and love, freedom and fate, time and space, heaven and earth. It’s also, quite simply, well, big. At just under 1,300 pages, Jerusalem takes up a lot of time and space. And even the most devoted of readers will find his mind wandering now and then, and not always in the direction Moore is trying to take it. There just might be a great novel in Jerusalem. But it can be hard to discern amidst the muddle.

Moore is best known as a trailblazing writer of comic books set in a present spun from an alternative history (Watchmen) and in a dystopian near future (V for Vendetta), but in Jerusalem, his second novel, he mines the very real past of a very real place: Northampton, the English Midlands city in which he’s lived since his birth in 1953. Actually, this weighty novel with huge themes centers on just half a square mile of the town. The Boroughs, a working-class area with a “multitude of pubs — what was it, eighty-something?” and more than its fair share of prostitutes, tramps, and ASBOs (rowdy youths hit with “anti-social behaviour orders”), might not be much to look at now. But, sitting almost in the center of England, it has seen the likes of Thomas Becket, Samuel Beckett, Oliver Cromwell, John Clare, Malcolm Arnold, and James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia (the last three having spent time in the local insane asylum). Decisive battles in the English Civil War and the War of the Roses took place nearby. One character “couldn’t help but think if England was America, and if you had a place where both the War of Independence and the Civil War had finished up, then there’d have been a bigger thing made out of it.”

One resident does try to make a bigger thing out of it. Jerusalem is bookended by the story (such as it is) of Alma Warren, a rebellious artist born and raised in the Boroughs, who, on May 26, 2006, is preparing for the opening the next day of an exhibition of paintings, each of which echoes a chapter of the novel. Alma, a tough but tender-hearted enfant terrible, is clearly a stand-in for Alan; those who have seen pictures of the famously hirsute writer will recognize him here: “Think of those surprisingly large clots of hair you sometimes haul from a blocked bathtub trap, and then imagine one with eyes and a superior demeanour: right there’s a description that a police sketch artist could work from.”

Alma is inspired partly by the near-death, near-insanity-inducing visions of her younger brother, a far less glamorous tenant of the tenements, and partly by the completely insanity-inducing visions of various of her ancestors. “The turn, the bend, the twist, the corner: there were quite a few in Alma’s family who’d gone round it,” as Moore says with his characteristically dark humor. We’ll meet many of these strange and wonderful beings, who are taken from Moore’s own family tree, as well as more illustrious ones, including the aforementioned Joyce daughter.

Most of the chapters of the novel move, Ulysses-like, through the course of particular days. On May 26, while Alma prepares her pageant, teenaged, mixed-race Marla tries to turn a trick so she can score some crack, and middle-aged Benedict will “take up once more the burden of his daily challenge, which was trying to get hammered for a tenner.” On a day in 1909, Charlie Chaplin flirts with an ancestor of Warren’s on a street corner and a former slave from America learns the awful (in every sense) story behind his favorite hymn, “Amazing Grace.” And on a day sometime later in the century, Lucia Joyce bewails her long-simmering flame Samuel Beckett and has a sexual experience with Dusty Springfield in the nuthouse.

At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what happened: That section is written in Joycean prose that James himself might have had trouble decoding. One chapter of the book is a play, another a poem. Each attempts to sound like the character on which it centers. There are more voices here than Dickens or Eliot could imagine anyone doing the police in. It’s as though Moore, who made his name in a genre that calls especially for terseness, wanted to prove he could write anything and everything. Talented as he is, however, he can’t. The young Chaplin’s musings on his own ambition are obvious and overwritten. Moore is a bit better with the voice of a monk in the year 810, but such a man would not have used the term “Holy Roman Empire.” Moore’s metaphors can be painfully mixed, as when this morsel goes off the rails: “His complexion florid to the point of looking lately cooked, Bill Mabbutt was a heartening sight with his remaining sandy hair a half-mast curtain draped behind his ears around the rear of that bald cherry pate, the braces of his trousers stretched across a button-collared shirt with sleeves rolled boldly back to show his ham-hock forearms. These were pumping energetically beside him like the pistons of a locomotive as he barrelled towards Ern.”

But sift through the sand and you’ll find gold. “Grey” may be his favorite adjective — and he does love adjectives, this man who hasn’t gotten to use them much before — to describe a human being, but his creations are, metaphorically, anything but. Northampton, with all its history, is a city haunted, a place where ghosts run into other ghosts without realizing their kinship. Moore draws them lovingly, these colorful commoners who made his city — who make every city — the uncommon place it is, and he makes us love them too, in all their flawed humanity.

He endeavors to comfort these poor creatures. The last section of the book opens with an epigraph from Einstein declaring that “the distinction between past, present, and future is only stubbornly persistent illusion.” The idea that time is eternal is as much a consolation as is the older notion of heaven — and perhaps no more likely. We can’t bear the thought that our loved ones will someday be lost to us forever. But neither can we accept that we’re ensnared in an endless loop of predestination. Moore’s attitude might be summed up as simply as one of his characters puts it: “She knew that most people had a reason for the way they were, and when it came to it she didn’t judge.” But this earthy and empyreal novel is so affecting — despite itself — because it portrays with such empathy our struggle — despite ourselves — for redemption. In the coal of even the blackest heart, there’s the possibility of a diamond. And it’s often after a chance encounter with another soul that we finally think to mine it.

– Kelly Jane Torrance is the deputy managing editor of The Weekly Standard.

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