Book Review: Jerusalem by Alan Moore

Jerusalem by Alan Moore
Jerusalem by Alan Moore
Liverlight, 2016
Cover art © Alan Moore

The greatest challenge about reviewing Jerusalem by Alan Moore is summarizing what it’s about. This isn’t a traditional novel and it doesn’t deliver a normal story. The plot is meandering, almost vestigial in some sections. Setting is paramount—language, tone, atmosphere, characters: all of these matter far more than mere plot.

I’ve come to think of this book as being akin to the Bayeux Tapestry—a sprawling and artistically audacious account of a place and its people. It’s a love letter to a neighborhood as only Moore can write it.

In general terms, it’s a quasi-fictional history of the Boroughs—the poverty-stricken Northampton neighborhood in England where Alan Moore was born, raised, and still lives—from ancient times through the near future, not told in chronological order, and actively eschewing the concept of linear narrative. It’s the story of a unique family who lives there through several generations, and various persons associated with them. It’s a story of the afterlife and eternity and the Universe. It’s a story about life and death, art and work, obligation and free will, ghosts and angles and builders and demons. Visions and dreams are as real in this world as reality.

If I had to categorize this book, I’d probably call it fantastical realism. Everyone is going to shelve it in their SF sections. But it’s more than just these—it’s philosophical, historical, political, religious.

It’s holy and profane, poetic and pedestrian, beautiful and gritty. It’s deeply human. It’s hard to explain. You really need to read it.

Alan Moore is famous as one of the most accomplished and lauded comic book writers in history. As much as anyone, he elevated illustrated storytelling formats to the level of robust literature.

Graphic novels and comic books present some severe restrictions for a writer: you’re fundamentally limited in the number of words you can fit in a panel and on the page. Words must leave room for images, and both must work together to reveal the characters and tell the story. A good comic book writer must be economical and disciplined.

Novels, by contrast, present far fewer structural restrictions to a writer. Clearly, the shackles are off in this book and Moore revels in the freedom.

His writing is frequently rather indulgent—he clearly loves words and uses a lot of them. At times, there’s a strong temptation to adjudicate it as undisciplined. But when you consider how carefully he crafted the structure of the work; his facility with changing voice, tone, and style, and how appropriately; and the sheer dedication and effort demanded of creating a work like this—the thought that any aspect of it might be undisciplined becomes laughable. Florid and prolix, yes, but intentional and specifically crafted.

The writing in Jerusalem is breathtaking. I can’t overstate how gorgeous it is. I have to use all the overblown descriptors I can think of: it soars, it wallows, it trudges, it gallops, it sings and shrieks and shouts and cries and grunts and moans and groans and howls and speaks in tongues. It’s astounding.

I had no idea Moore could write like this. Nothing in his graphic works prepared me for the sheer mastery of language on display here. It’s a stunning accomplishment. This may actually be a literary work for the ages.

The scope of the work is boggling: not merely in terms of length and word count, but the timeline and setting, as well. It covers all of history, and explodes a narrow British neighborhood into a diorama of the whole Universe and eternity. Moore’s knowledge of history is deep and he draws connections between things that many of us miss. The concepts at play here are inventive: his vision of the afterlife is unlike any I’ve come across.

It’s well informed and hugely imaginative. This work is best described as visionary.

Moore’s character development, as always, is stellar. All of the people in this book are individual and believable, all possess a tremendous depth of detail, and all ground the world of the novel in the reality of human existence. He has inherent compassion for the characters he writes and that makes it easy for the reader to step into their shoes, to experience the story through their perspectives, and understand what it’s like to live in the world of this book.

Jerusalem is brilliant. It’s powerful. I think it might even be important.

Which is why it’s odd that I really didn’t like it at first.

It’s clear early on that this book is masterfully written but I found it difficult to get into. The first third of it slid past without anything that hooked me. The language is beautiful but none of it stuck, the characters are relatable but I felt no passion for any of them. I kept looking for a story and not finding one. I would read a sentence, a paragraph, a page or two or three, and realize that none of it had registered with me. The ink on the pages hit my eyes but didn’t land in my consciousness, and I’d have to go back and reread passages—sometimes more than once—before they finally stayed put in my head.

The first part of the novel didn’t capture me the way Moore’s comics always did. I didn’t care about it the way I always cared about the characters and stories in his graphic works. That threw me off, as I came to this novel expecting to care.

I wondered if by casting off the restrictions of the graphic format, Moore was over-indulging in the freedom of the novel. At first, it seemed like a lack of discipline and I wondered if this meant that he lost something essential as a storyteller.

It made for quite a frustrating reading experience. Between the density of the text and me not caring all that much, I could only manage a pace of 50 pages every couple of hours, and only a couple of hours reading the book each day. Progress was slow and I frequently questioned whether it was worth this much work. It demands a great deal of effort and I found myself resenting that—I didn’t see that it gave me enough rewards to warrant such demands. I came **this** close to giving up several times.

I’m glad I didn’t give up on it. Because after I slogged through the first half of the novel, a switch flipped in my head and the experience transformed. All at once, reading it became a deeply rewarding experience. All at once, the work became genuinely important to me. It took over 600 pages, but I learned to love this book.

It begins with a Prelude, which… honestly, left me very confused as to what this book was trying to do. It’s dissociative, difficult to navigate, and somewhat frustrating. That being said, it’s also exceptionally well written and compellingly atmospheric. It does the important work of introducing the two central characters, who are unique and fascinating people, and establishing the setting and tone.

Book One presents a series of semi-related vignettes—chapters which function like short stories—focusing on a variety of individuals in the Boroughs and which jump randomly between different time periods. Not all of these vignettes relate to each other in obvious ways, and not all are about members of the family most central to the book as a whole. This section felt unfocused, tossing the reader around too much, and I still couldn’t tell what Moore was trying to accomplish. Again, his stylistic mastery is obvious and impressive, especially the way he changes his voice in each chapter to fit the character, the time period, the setting. He displays a tremendous range and command of language.

The middle section of the novel (Book Two, which occupies most of the book) is a coherent sequential narrative, focusing on a single group of characters as they proceed through a single story thread. It’s the only part of the book which functions more-or-less as you expect a novel to function. It’s in this section that Moore’s larger purpose begins to reveal itself, as all the bits and pieces from Book One’s vignettes come together to form a general body of knowledge necessary to understand the world and events of the middle section. It unfolds much of what the Prelude only hints at.

The fourth section (Book Three) returns to the semi-random, semi-related vignette structure that characterized Book One, only with far more stylistic variation: one chapter has no punctuation, one is written in verse, one is written as a stage play, etc. If Book One is where Moore lays his foundation, and Book Two is where he tells the important story, Book Three is where he indulges his desire to play with language. This time it was easier for me to handle—knowing how Book One related to Book Two, I could see how each chapter in Book Three fit with the rest of the work. It also echoes the structure of Book One and thus bookends the novel nicely. Mostly, though, I was conditioned by this point to believe that any frustrations and challenges would be worth the effort.

The Afterlude… doesn’t really tie things up as one might expect or want. On the other hand, a neat and tidy tying up of all the plot threads would undermine the depth and substance of this work—simply put, that’s not the point and far too pedestrian to suit Moore’s taste. The Afterlude summarizes everything that came before through a unique lens and reveals the result of what was set up in the Prelude. As a summary, it’s a bit on-the-nose and not as profound as the rest of the work. As a bookend with the Prelude, however, it’s entirely appropriate.

The whole book is built on the concept of structural mirroring but it’s done subtly, ultimately generating a sense of balance without calling attention to itself until such attention serves a good purpose. Like every aspect of this work, it testifies to Moore’s mastery and command.

As odd as this structure is, each and every piece of this book contributes something necessary to the tale—whether it’s to establish setting, mood, or tone; to introduce characters and concepts; to propel the momentum of the narrative; or to tie characters, events, and places together—many of the stories presented throughout the novel feature the same characters passing through them, or cover the same events from different characters’ perspectives. There’s nothing extraneous here, although the role of each section isn’t always clear as you read it. It all works together to weave a tapestry of a place and people across time.

There’s a section in the first chapter of Book Three (“Clouds Unfold”, on page 840 in the ARC I read) in which a first-person narrator describes what it’s like for a reader to read a strange and unique book. It’s uncanny in how well this passage describes my experience of reading Jerusalem up to that point. It’s one of a few such self-referential sections which testify to how masterful this novel is. My mind boggles at how much work he put into the structure of this tale. Moore understands exactly how every part functions and it all works exactly as he intends.

It’s not a novel which functions the way a reader expects it to, however. It needs time to work itself into your consciousness, to stew in your subconscious until it’s ready to let you see its true heart. To fully appreciate what it’s doing, you need to change what you expect of it, alter how your mind relates to it. You need to surrender your attempts to control the reading process and let the book take over. It slowly reprograms your understanding, recalibrates your thought patterns—it turns you into the kind of reader it needs you to be, without you even being aware of it. This process takes time and you don’t realize it’s happening until it’s done.

The danger with this kind of work is that, for a good portion of its length, the book feels like too much work for too little reward. The one criticism I would level is that this process takes too long.

But once that switch flips, it’s a grand and glorious experience.

And then, just when everything is smooth sailing, when you’ve been in a comfortable groove with the text for a couple of hundred pages…

Moore decides to frustrate you all over again. You work so hard to get through Books One and Two, to get to the point where you finally understand how to read this book properly, and he rewards you with the third chapter of Book Three, “Round the Bend”, which ranks as one of the single most challenging pieces of writing I’ve read in my entire life. It’s akin to a runner finally hitting their stride on a long and grueling course, only to then come onto a muddy, slippery expanse of steep slopes and tight corners and trip hazards. It makes you want to throw the book across the room and curse his name. I won’t tell you why it’s so frustrating, which might be mean of me, but I think Moore intended for it to hit you this way and I don’t want to spoil that effect.

The “Round the Bend” chapter is 48 pages long in the ARC I read. In total, it took me between four and five hours to read it. It is readable—just very, very challenging. I almost gave up on it no fewer than three separate times, I wanted so badly to skip this chapter entirely.

I forced myself to get through the first ten or so pages of “Round the Bend” and then I had to set the book down and walk away from it. I was too frustrated to keep going. I didn’t come back to it for a month and half. I finally gave myself a full weekend to finish it, and finish it I did.

It’s beautiful. It’s the most transcendent and uplifting section of the entire opus.

The “Round the Bend” chapter of Book Three is an excellent microcosm of Jerusalem as a whole: It’s challenging and frustrating and it demands far too much effort from the reader than it has a right to ask. But if you stick with it, there’s a moment about halfway through when something clicks in your head, when you get the trick of reading it, and the rest flows along almost like normal. Once you get that trick, the language unfolds and blossoms in your understanding, and reveals itself to be lush and immensely rewarding.

Like Jerusalem as a whole, it boggles my mind to consider the sheer amount of work that went into writing “Round the Bend”. It’s masterful to a degree that’s stunning. As much effort as Moore demands of the reader, he clearly demanded far more of himself to craft a chapter like this, a book like this.

Jerusalem isn’t forgiving. It’s not easy and it’s not necessarily fun. Even after the switch flips and you finally figure out how to read it properly, even after you finally find a flow, Moore still trips you up and throws you for a loop. This novel is confounding and frustrating. You have to trust that all the pieces of it will come together in their own time—and that trust is often challenged.

It’s worth it. This book demands a lot of work, but that work is fully rewarded. It just takes an act of faith to get to the point where the rewards begin to reveal themselves.

Put that way, it’s entirely appropriate and yet another example of how deeply masterful this work is. In their review, Library Journal concluded that Jerusalem is “[m]ore of a work of art than a novel”. I think that’s the best summary possible.

(Turns out, I had more to say about this book. For more thoughts on it, see my post “Further Ruminations on Jerusalem by Alan Moore“.)


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