8 Thoughts about Alan Moore’s Jerusalem – Part 1

Alan Moore’s second novel, Jerusalem, was published in September 2016. It was ten years in the writing and weighs in at 1100 pages (allegedly making it the 10th longest English-language novel). Like his debut, The Voice of the Fire (highly recommended, by the way), Jerusalem again focuses on Moore’s hometown of Northampton, although this time the focus is tightened even further to the area in which he grew up, known as The Boroughs. The historical detail is all factual, and it would seem that many of the characters are drawn from Moore’s own family.

There is so much in this to talk about that I am going to follow the book’s tripartite structure, and write a post for each of Jerusalem’s three sections (it is actually available as a three-volume slipcase edition). This post is on Book 1, titled The Boroughs, and so probably won’t spoil much, as I haven’t read further yet myself.

1. Short Story Structure

As with Voice of the Fire, the first section of Jerusalem is essentially a collection of short stories. These are apparently self-contained – at least at first. The historical sweep is not so grand; Voice of the Fire starts in 10,000 BCE whereas Jerusalem only goes back to the early Medieval period, with a pilgrim arriving at the centre of England carrying a cross from Jerusalem. Here, the characters are more recent: we meet an 18th-century painter restoring the roof of St. Paul’s; a drug-addicted teenage prostitute; a black American immigrant with a bicycle with rope for tyres; and hinting at things to come, a ghost. As it progresses, it becomes clear that many of the characters are members of two families, the Warrens and the Vernalls.

2. Stylistic Experimentation

This first section is relatively free of the kind of stylistic experimentation which was a part of Voice of the FireThe Black Dossier and the latter parts of Promethea. There are clearly different voices, but on the whole, the prose is very accessible. If anything, the progression is from a very plain, contemporary mode towards more stylised chapters like Snowy Vernall’s rooftop soliloquy, but nowhere do we have the dense ‘adventures in style’ that punctuated The Black Dossier.

3. Alan is Alma

It seems that much of the historical material in Jerusalem are drawn from Moore’s family, and indeed the central events of the overall narrative – four-year-old Michael Warren’s several minutes of lifelessness after choking on a cough sweet – happened to Moore’s brother Michael. But in Jerusalem, Michael’s elder sibling is a girl named Alma. Nevertheless, Alma is clearly Alan (and the caption on the photograph on the dust jacket tells you so), and he paints quite a coruscating portrait of himself, downplaying his success, and frequently mocking his physical appearance.

Ironically, gender-swapping characters has become a feature of the mainstream comics and superhero movies of which Moore is famously ‘less than keen’.

4. Leitmotif

There are the usual vocal tics (think of Rorschach’s “hurm” or William Gull’s “I just made a little sound”), the most obvious being the drunk’s “Ah ha ha ha ha!” There is also a sort of meta-language mentioned several places, described as “unfolding” in the brain once heard (ironically, something which Grant Morrison also played with in The Invisibles). But here the most obvious use of leitmotif is visual. The image of the arms being raised, the various uses of “corner”, the repeating circular pattern of the Bedlam Jennies, and so on. This reminds us that Moore was an artist first – and drew the book’s cover – and despite the lack of illustration here, Jerusalem is still a very visual piece.

5. Leave it to the Prose

Moore’s comics of the 1980s were famed for their long captions of purple prose, and while this feature disappeared from his comics in the 1990s, his descriptive skill is very much in evidence here. As with the previous point, these are often visual, but there is also a playful and sometimes course sense of humour at play. A couple of random examples… “She’d loitered, liminal, in libraries, skulked spectrally in sitting rooms and crept, crepuscular, through classes”; “the grat majority of men found Alma to be ‘generally alarming’ in the words of one aquaintance, or ‘a fucking menopausal nightmare’ in the blunter phrasing of another, although even this was said in what seemed almost an admiring tone”; “all the world with its shining marble hours, its lichen centuries and fanny-sucking moments all at once, his every waking second constantly exploded to a thousand years of incident and fanfare, an eternal conflagration of the senses where stood Snowy Vernall, wide-eyed and unflinching at the bright carnival heart of his own endless fire”.

6. Time is a Dimension

As suggested by that last quote, Moore is again playing with the idea of time as a dimension. Characters like Snowy Vernall and the Deathmonger seem aware of past and future, and the chronological sprawl of the chapters seems to link all times together with hints of some grander narrative. As with Watchmen‘s wonderful Dr Manhattan sequence, Moore suggests that all of time is as set as space, completely demolishing the idea of Free Will. This will become even more apparent in the second book, however.

7. When Narratives Collide

Despite the numerous narrators across several centuries, there are nevertheless hints that those set in the present day will come together in some event. Indeed, it seems that they all take place on the evening of Alma’s exhibition, anticipated in the prologue, and which is also mentioned by other characters. For example, Marla, a teenage prostitute and addict is mentioned at least three times in later chapters, being seen by other characters and being mentioned in a conversation between four angels. It seems likely that these characters will come back into play in the third and final book.

8. A Plot!

Only in the final chapter of this part does the de facto plot begin, although it was discussed in the prologue – Michael Warren’s choking on a cough sweet, aged four, his subsequent several minutes of apparent death, and the memories of where he went during those minutes, newly recovered following a bump on the head in his 50s. And so we move into Book 2…