After writing the single longest and most exhaustive review I’ve ever written for Jerusalem by Alan Moore, I find I still have more to say.
I’ve had conversations now with a few other people about this book and discovered that I’m in a minority in my opinion. Most people I know couldn’t stand it. Most didn’t finish it. Mostly, they found it too long, too wordy, too self-indulgent. The general reaction is that Moore desperately needed an editor to reel him in.
I get that. On some level, I feel this way, too. I spent quite a lot of the book convinced that he was over-indulgent and lacking writerly discipline.
However, as others have stated (and I quote Library Journal here), Jerusalem is “[m]ore a work of art than a novel.”
It took time for me to see this book as a work of art and not as a novel (*). It took time for me to appreciate that its grand scale, the torrent of language, the dizzying depth of detail, aren’t over-indulgence but a carefully crafted, highly complex edifice. It attains a similar level of complexity as any baroque church, the same fractal structure filled with specific, tiny details.
You don’t have to like baroque complexity but you can’t dismiss it as undisciplined, or lacking a good editor. I also would never characterize this book as “baroque,” as that implies an entirely different aesthetic. I merely compare them as an example of how an overwhelming sea of detail and ostentation can function as an intentional and controlled artistic statement.
This, then, gets to the heart of these different reactions:
People see a novel by Alan Moore and they expect it to be Alan Moore, the comic book geek (imagine Neil Gaiman’s scary, crusty uncle).
But Jerusalem wasn’t written by Alan Moore, the comic book geek. It was written by a man whose primary literary influences are James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. It was written by a man who has delved deeply into the greatest works of Western literature (**) and who seeks to contribute his own. A man of tremendous learning, steeped in history and philosophy (***).
This is a novel written to match Joyce and Beckett.
Jerusalem should be judged by the criteria we bring to bear on the works of Joyce and Beckett, and not by the criteria we most often use to judge popular fiction.
By the usual standards of popular SF, Jerusalem is a mess, a brick of overwrought verbosity with very little to offer in the way of story.
By the standards of Joyce and Beckett, it’s an entirely different beast and an impressive specimen.
The challenge of this book isn’t just the complexity and density of the text, its sheer length, or the scope of its ideas. The challenge is also whether readers can let go of Alan Moore, the comic book geek, and set aside the expectations that arise from that. It’s whether readers are willing to embrace Moore as a writer who belongs in the ranks of Joyce and Beckett.
* I have no desire to get into a debate here about whether or not novels are art. They are, they can be, they don’t have to be. To call a novel “more a work of art than a novel” is in no way intended to diminish the artistic accomplishments of novelists. It’s a convenient rhetorical device to make a point.
** “The greatest works of Western literature” is a loaded phrase, deeply embedded in patriarchy and colonialism. Again, it’s not my intention to debate that here (there is no debate: what we traditionally teach in the Western world as “literature” is deeply sexist and exclusionary of other cultures and identities). However, I also have no desire to imply that the works of Joyce and Beckett (or any other Western Canon author) are anything less than astounding artistic accomplishments, worthy of praise through the ages.
*** This is not to imply that many popular comic book writers aren’t also individuals of tremendous learning, steeped in history and philosophy, because many are. It’s just… the whole erudite and concise vs. erudite and verbose thing. You know what I mean.