Jerusalem by Alan Moore review — Midlands metaphysics

A homage to working-class Northampton infuses the English town with mysticism

Alan Moore has written some of the most influential graphic novels of our time, from the magisterial superhero deconstruction of Watchmen to V for Vendetta’s dystopian anarchistic howl for freedom. His imagination is wide-ranging, multi-faceted and diverse. Yet his two prose novels — Voice of the Fire (1996) and this, his latest — show a considerable narrowing of focus, both being set wholly in Moore’s native Northampton.

Clocking in at almost 1,200 pages, and a decade in the writing, Jerusalem conjures up the East Midlands town in fascinating, one might almost say obsessive, detail, in particular the working-class neighbourhood of Spring Boroughs, where he was born and raised. “The Boroughs” is portrayed as a sort of red-brick-tenement Atlantis: “that half-a-square-mile continent [that] had sunk under a deluge of bad social policy”.

Its decline and possible redemption forms the backbone of Jerusalem, which is made up of three sections. The first is a kaleidoscopic survey of Northampton that ranges back and forth through time, presenting a succession of viewpoints from different characters. Just about any remotely famous person who ever lived in or visited Northampton makes an appearance here, be it Charlie Chaplin, John Bunyan, the composer Malcolm Arnold, or James Joyce’s daughter Lucia. Less well-known but no less interesting local figures also feature, such as former Tennessee slave Henry George, affectionately dubbed “Black Charley” by the townsfolk, and eccentric Newton Pratt, who owned a zebra that he would take to the pub for a pint. But it is the common man whom Moore celebrates most. He hoists the underclass on his shoulders and elevates them to heroes, in all their swearing, spitting, bantering, fornicating glory.

Central to the storyline are the Warrens, a sprawling, brawling fictional family that appears to be inspired by Moore’s own. There seems to be an innate predisposition to madness among the Warrens, usually manifesting as searing visionary episodes followed by mental collapse. Latest in the line are Alma and Mick, sister and brother. Alma serves as Moore’s fictional alter ego; she is a prosperous and feted artist and, like him, tall, hulking, and blind in one eye. Mick, however, becomes the focus of the book’s middle section, which soars to fantastical, metaphysical heights.

As a boy, Moore’s own brother Michael nearly choked to death on a cough sweet — the young Mick experiences the same narrow escape here. While he struggles to breathe, Mick’s spirit enters the astral realm that exists above the Boroughs. There he joins the Dead Dead Gang, a rambunctious band of ghost-children, and learns of a grand cosmology — an intricate, earthy mythos with its roots in Blakean mysticism and the Kabbalah. This portion of Jerusalem reads like Enid Blyton on hallucinogens and is beautiful and breathtaking.

The last section fragments into a series of literary pastiches: a chapter of Joycean neologism; a private-investigator interlude told in terse Chandleresque prose; a play script in the style of Beckett; a poem imitating late Eliot. It all culminates in an art exhibition put on by Alma, her paintings providing a sweetly underplayed denouement of apocalypse and revelation. Everything that has gone before circles around to this one day, embodying the novel’s core thesis of “simultaneous eternity” — the notion that time is an artificial, human-generated construct and that every moment that has ever happened is always happening.

Unquestionably Jerusalem is Moore’s most ambitious statement yet — his War and Peace, his Ulysses. The prose scintillates throughout, a traffic jam of hooting dialect and vernacular trundling nose-to-tail with pantechnicons of pop culture allusion. Exploring a single town’s psychogeography with a passionate forensic intensity, Moore makes the parochial universal, the mundane sublime and the temporal never-ending.

Jerusalem, by Alan Moore, Knockabout, RRP£25/ Liveright, RRP$35, 1,184 pages

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