Does Alan Moore, the impressively bearded sage of Northampton, even need an introduction? Regardless, he’s getting one anyway.
He’s the enigmatic writer who revolutionised the comic book industry with such classics as the Batman graphic novel The Killing Joke, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and many, many more. He also notably declined to have his name listed in the credits of any subsequent movie adaptions of his work, and is one of the giants of the comic book medium responsible for its elevation to a respected artform.
+++WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!+++
Jerusalem is a weighty tome, to be sure, clocking in at an impressive 1291 pages of retina-straining small print. It’s an ambitious, sprawling, multi-layered, existentialist story that concerns Moore’s home town of Northampton, specifically a district called The Boroughs, and unfolds over centuries and across many levels of being, featuring dozens of interlinked characters, some fictional and some historic. At its heart are a brother and sister, Mick and Alma Warren, who come from a bloodline – the Vernall family – with a history of madness. But what appears to be madness from the outside is actually an ability to perceive existence in a variety of realities. Yes, the Vernalls are gifted.
This majestic saga unfolds over the course of three ‘books’, two of which are made up of shorter tales that at first appear to be sporadic, but as the narrative coalesces it becomes clear that everything that happens in The Boroughs is connected. It’s an incredible feat of narrative coordination.
Book Two concerns a young Mick choking on a cough sweet and dying, only to be revived a few minutes later after being rushed to a nearby hospital. But those few minutes of oblivion translate as several weeks in the afterlife, where he’s taken under the wing of a bunch of scrappy ghost kids called the Dead Dead Gang. In their company he travels back and forth through time, even managing to squeeze in a visit to a blissfully unaware Oliver Cromwell, who is ruminating in his room on the eve of the Battle of Naseby. Mick also witnesses giant angels (or angles, as they are known here) battling with pool cues. And he even, as a fist-in-the-air-worthy crescendo, takes a ride on a woolly mammoth.
This was a delightful sequence that I found utterly captivating, featuring a range of characters gathered from across time that I would hang out with in a second.
Outside of that particular adventure, the character I found the most fascinating in this colossal volume was Mick’s sister Alma, and this is because I suspect that she might be the closest thing here to an avatar for the author, although I would be more than happy to admit that I’m way off the mark there, if it ever came to it. Anyway, Alma is a giant of a woman who Moore describes as ‘reverse hedge dragged’. She’s an artist of some repute, a living legend to the people of The Boroughs, although not necessarily always for the right reasons, and wears copious amounts of ‘finger armour’, should things ever turn ugly.
A thread that runs throughout Jerusalem is Alma’s preparations for an exhibition of artworks based on her brother’s near death experience, some of which include moments from Mick’s escapades in ‘the Attics of the Breath’ (aka the afterlife) which Alma could not possibly know about.
Another sequence that beguiled me was the journey through the aforementioned ‘Attics’ of two disparate members of the Vernall family, one a deceased infant and the other an old man long since passed on, who embark on a hike to the end of time, with the former riding on the latter’s shoulders. It really is beautifully done.
This novel, encompassing as it does so many elements, strands, characters, tales and events, veers wildly between magnificent, heart breaking, thrilling, horrifying, enchanting and even – there’s no other word for it – educational.
But no matter which time period or reality we are in, it is never less than endlessly creative. Moore is a master when it comes to the wrangling of the English language, painting vivid pictures with his idiosyncratic use of words and phrases, even at one point drawing a link between unspeakably awful 1970s TV sitcom Are You Being Served? and renowned Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.
I learnt a hell of a lot from reading Jerusalem, about Northampton and the vital role it has played in British history. Honestly, I feel like I know it intimately now, and I’ve never even spent so much as a day there, to my eternal shame. I also learnt a great deal about the art and craft of storytelling and feel as though I am a richer person for picking up this novel.
Thank you, Alan.
Jerusalem was published by Knockabout in 2016.