Knockabout, out 13 September
It’s hard to sum up Alan Moore’s second novel in a sentence, or at least in a sentence that makes the book sound even slightly appetising. It’s a novel told from dozens of different viewpoints and literary styles, ranging across time and space, between life and death, and into other dimensions, all the time anchored in Moore’s home town of Northampton. It’s not a book that’s at all suited to a tweeted response or the ‘hot take’ style of book review – Jerusalem is immensely long, but also dense and allusive, and rewards intensive concentration. It’s no joke that as I read it this summer, I would occasionally need to take breaks and so picked up The Luminaries or Les Miserables because I needed something lighter. I don’t want to in any way besmirch members of the book reviewing community, but just as a matter of practical logistics, not everyone reviewing the book will have finished it yet. The novel lays down clues and patterns that demand that it’s re-read, and it’s pretty much physically impossible for anyone to have managed that since review copies started going out earlier in the summer. There is an audiobook. It has a running time of nearly sixty-one hours.
Alan Moore remains best known for a five year blip in his career when – while rarely budging from his terraced house in Northampton – he hit the American comics industry so hard that its ears are still ringing thirty years later. While he was not the only comics creator in the mid Eighties writing ‘dark, realistic’ superhero stories, it’s fair to say that all the current crop of superhero comics, television shows and movies contain echoes – if not outright lifts – from specific works of Moore’s, like Swamp Thing, Watchmen, The Killing Joke and V for Vendetta. By the end of the Eighties he had moved on, and was creating graphic novels like Big Numbers and A Small Killing, stories that were far more grounded and personal. Comics fans, on the whole, preferred to keep reading Jive Bunny style remixes of Moore and Frank Miller’s troubled superheroes. In the Nineties Moore regrouped, laid down some of his best work: series like From Hell, Supreme, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Promethea.
He also wrote a novel Voice of the Fire, a story made up of chapters all set in Northampton, ranging from the Neolithic to the modern day. Jerusalem starts in a very similar way, although there’s more room for what we might call ‘fantasy’ elements, or ‘magic realism’, uncanny elements that intrude, extrude and intercede with the story in ways that can be simultaneously clever, breath-taking and funny. Everything is connected, characters and places from earlier chapters recur, the same questions are asked.
Although Alan Moore has always been prolific, and the last decade we’ve seen the publication of Lost Girls, Unearthing, Show Pieces and Providence, Jerusalem is where his recent creative energies have been concentrated. There’s a real sense that this is what it’s all been leading up to, that Moore’s previous work was a series of sketches for this. There are echoes of everything in here – the Increased Leisure Citizens of Halo Jones, the time-jumping memory of Dr Manhattan, the darkened alleys of From Hell, the bright, vast Olympians of Marvelman toying with us. There are times where Moore is running a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen mash-up of his own work. Jerusalem also serves as Moore’s autobiography, or at least a codification of his family stories. An avatar of Moore appears as Alma Warren, a female conceptual artist who, like Moore, has a brother called Mick who was nearly killed in a freak accident. As fiction and fact warily slink around each other, elide, then drift apart, it’s all held together by Moore’s hypnotic prose, the ability he has to portray a farcical scene that’s somehow also soaked in cosmic horror.
Jerusalem is Alan Moore’s masterpiece, and it ought to be what he’s best remembered for.
Verdict: This is a book as complex and poetic as the sort of novels that win the big literary awards. It’s hefty not because of the page count, but because it’s tackling a huge issue: figuring out how a whole community has found itself in the state it’s in. Northampton, as Moore tells it, is a mosaic of buildings haunted by what stood there before, people who were barely noticed in life transformed into urban legends in death. And it sounds daunting, but it’s utterly immersive. Don’t think of it as long, think of it as an opportunity for a booky binge watch, like downing all the episodes of The Wire in one go, only not in broadcast order, and with no promises that the next episode will still be The Wire, it might be Enid Blyton, The Sixth Sense or the snooker. 10/10