Review of: A Beggar’s Epic: Jerusalem, by Alan Moore

Bear with me: I know that Occasional Planet is a journal of current events, but Jerusalem is timeless. It is a Big Novel, in length and thematically, and enough of a cultural event and political commentary to justify a column in a progressive online magazine. It is also recent: Published late 2016, it is the product of a decade’s worth of writing on the part of one Alan Moore. You might not know his name, but you probably know of his work: Moore is the author of graphic novels like Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and V for Vendetta, all three of which have been adapted into films far inferior to their source material. Since 2006 he has been working on Jerusalem, which now ranks among the longest novels ever. I hope the reader will forgive me for taking almost a year to finish it. I’ve read little else.

The title refers not to the Middle Eastern city but to Northampton, England, a broken city with a rough and inspired history. The novel hardly ever in its 1266 pages leaves the less-than-two-square-mile Northampton, known colloquially as the Borroughs. If this seems tedious or boring, fear not: Jerusalem jumps around in time and space, traversing centuries, dimensions, visions, and multiple afterlives. Characters include a monk in the 800s; Historical figures ranging from Oliver Cromwell to Lucia Joyce; A naked old man and his granddaughter, who race towards the literal end of time; a gang of ghostly kids, and more and more.

Into this weird multiverse are cast the Vernalls, a family of madmen and creative types, whose cosmic role–assigned by the angels and their enigmatic boss, the Third Borough–is to chart the edges, corners, and borders of time and space. In the modern era (2006), the Vernalls are represented by siblings Alma and Mick Warren. Mick is a good-hearted, intelligent construction worker; Alma is an artist with a confidence and humor so unstoppable that it breaks through the urban decay of the Boroughs. Alma compares Mick to Charlie Chaplin, as they are “both much-loved symbols of a betrayed proletariat, and you both walk like people with explosive diarrhoea”. Alma, on the other hand, has an ego so outsized that it breaks physical laws and has a BEST AT EVERYTHING mug. They are the best two characters in the novel.

The framing device is as follows: The 49-year-old Mick suffers a horrific accident in which his eyes are sprayed with chemicals. When he comes to, he begins to remember visions of things he saw as a child, when he almost died from choking on a cough drop. Mick has an existential crisis, and turns to his sister for solace. After a long night going over Mick’s surreal memories, Alma decides to do a series of paintings based on her brother’s vivid hallucinations. Each chapter of Jerusalem corresponds to a painting of Alma’s, and the novel predictably concludes with the opening of Alma’s exhibit.

Jerusalem is broken up into three great sections. The first, “The Boroughs” contains mostly sketches of various characters from Northampton history, and though it is a bit slow at times, generally introduces the reader to the world of the Boroughs. Magic is hinted at here and there; ghosts are seen, angels give the Vernalls instructions that drive them insane. And then things get weird.

The second book, “Mansoul”, is a single through-written, lighthearted narrative detailing the exploits of a group of kids, the Dead Dead Gang, in the Northampton afterlife. The Guardian‘s review compared these child explorers to the Chums of Chance in Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day. But where Pynchon’s novel (of similar length) spirals into absurdity and incoherence, Jerusalem takes the genre of children’s fantasy and flies with it. It is the most cohesive, fun, and interesting of the three sections. And then things get even weirder.

The third section, “Vernall’s Inquest”, returns to the disjointed sketches of “The Boroughs”, but fluctuates even more in genre: Chapters imitate epic poems, stage dramas, James Joyce-like stream of consciousness, time traveling science fiction, and more. It’s a surprise around every messy, ruinous corner.

What’s really amazing about Jerusalem is that throughout its mammoth length, there’s never really any bad content. Some sections drag, others may not appeal to the reader’s taste in genre fiction, but it’s always damn good. The whole epic is colossally overwritten, but in an endearing way: You get the sense that Moore is having fun with this thing.

But despite its rather optimistic tone, Jerusalem still takes place in a dilapidated world: The Boroughs suffered through deindustrialization and privatization just like the rest of England and the West. It is across this desperate but noble backdrop that Jerusalem‘s political message emerges. “Message” is perhaps a bit generous. Rather, there’s the straightforward identification of who is to blame for this mess: Capitalism and its prophets. “That’s why the Boroughs exists, Adam Smith’s idea,” Alma rants bitterly to her brother. She continues:

That’s why the last fuck knows how many generations of this family are a toilet queue without a pot to piss in, and that’s why everyone we know is broke. It’s all there in the current underneath            that bridge down Tanner Street. That was the first one, the first dark, satanic mill.

It’s no shock then that depression and loss of meaning is symbolized throughout the novel by a gigantic industrial smokestack that sucks reality and memory into its miasma. The Destructor, as it is referred to, is the apotheosis of industrial and postindustrial angst.

There’s no real hope of a better future within Jerusalem‘s lore, because everything is constantly happening in a singularity, meaning humanity has no free will, meaning the future is predetermined. I won’t spoil what the future entails here, but it’s not leftist utopia. There’s no glorious future to look forward to, and when humanity is deprived of free will, the whole thing has the feel of a cosmic joke. But somehow this doesn’t dampen the ultimately sunny outlook of the novel. The universe here is four-dimensional, its events are inevitable, but it is a beautiful tapestry. “Every clearance area is the eternal golden city,” Alma says, recalling Blake. The lives and stories of working class people fundamentally matter, even in a universe that thwarts their ambitions and dreams. Their ruined neighborhoods, shitty jobs, mundane lives are here given such beautiful odes that they become magical. They are important in a way their socioeconomic status pretends they are not.

 But the main tragedy of the novel is not the harsh fates that befall many of its characters. Rather, working people, who Moore makes into angelic, timeless entities within the novel, will probably never read Jerusalem. This is not, I stress, because Jerusalem is “too intellectual for the proles” or some such anti-populist sentiment.  Rather, there are two major reasons for this. One is the novel’s structure, i.e. its length, depth, and the myriad of cultural references needed to comprehend 100% of the details. Example: Mick sees a young man in the park who appears to be high. He gives the kid a cigarette and tells him of a nearby park where he can rest and calm his nerves. What ails the boy isn’t revealed for literally one thousand pages. Moore does himself no favors with this kind of thing.

But more importantly, Jerusalem will likely reach few working-class households because of time investment. One of the harshest side effects of the urban degradation that plagues Northampton and the rest of the post-industrial West is the loss of leisure time. The anemic safety net no longer affords us extensive vacations or time off. It is therefore difficult to imagine hordes of the poor picking up Jerusalem, even with Moore’s counterculture reputation, if only because they are overworked and exhausted. In fact, the average Jerusalem reader probably looks a lot like me: An educated, left-leaning person from an affluent background who has a masochistic love for “difficult books”. Moore’s intricately sketched proletarians are wondrous, but I fear its readers will more resemble champagne socialists than the laborers he puts on a pedestal.

Dave Eggers said of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest that the famously long novel

is like a spaceship with no recognizable components, no rivets or bolts, no entry points, no ways                 to take it apart. It is very shiny, and it has no discernible flaws. If you could somehow smash it into pieces, there would certainly be no way to put it back together again. It simply is…this is a work of complete obsession, of a stretching of the mind of a young writer to the point of, we assume, near madness.

Eggers probably gives David Foster Wallace a bit too much credit. Though Infinite Jest remains one of my favorite works of fiction, it is a mess. Alan Moore’s Jerusalem inevitably brings Wallace’s mega-novel to mind, both in its almost absurd length and its many quick-snaps between drama and comedy. And like Infinite Jest, Jerusalem delivers, in its own flawed way. I’ve read a handful of 1000-plus page novels in my life, and I’m now proud to put Jerusalem on that shelf. Epically long story short, if you have the time and inclination to read something as long and complex as Jerusalem, you’ll be well-rewarded with a beggar’s epic of cosmic proportions.