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Thursday, March 23, 2017

“Jerusalem”, by Alan Moore


1250 pages, Knockabout Comics, ISBN-13: 978-0861662524

Jerusalem is a novel by Alan Moore, wholly set in and around the author’s home town of Northampton, England (and which, incidentally he never left). Combining elements of historical and supernatural fiction and drawing on a range of writing styles, the author describes it as a work of “genetic mythology” that includes themes such as “poverty, wealth, history, the evolution of English as a visionary language, as well as madness, ghosts, and the confusion of dreams, visions, memories, and premonitions”. Oh, is that all.

It is (please sit down) almost 1300 pages long and is divided into three Books: The Boroughs, Mansoul and Vernall’s Inquest. The title comes from the short poem written by William Blake around 1808, And did those feet in ancient time, which was set to music and given the title Jerusalem by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry in 1916. The story develops over centuries and is set in the Boroughs, the most ancient neighborhood in Northampton. The colophon states that the book is based on a “true story” that concerns a large collection of characters, some mythical, some fictional, and some historical. Eh, okay, then.

Along with his family’s oral traditions, life experience, and ideas that he had explored in other writings, Moore’s research sources included a collection of interviews entitled In Living Memory – Life in “The Boroughs”, published by the Northampton Arts Development in 1987, as well as old volumes of Kelly’s Directory (or more formally, The Kelly’s, Post Office and Harrod & Co Directory, which was a trade directory in the United Kingdom that listed all businesses and tradespeople in a particular city or town, as well as a general directory of postal addresses of local gentry, landowners, charities, and other facilities; in effect, a Victorian Yellow Pages).

That’s a whole lot to take in, but perhaps the most important of the many philosophies touched on in in Jerusalem would be Eternalism, a philosophical approach to the ontological nature of time which takes the view that all points in time are equally real, as opposed to the Presentist idea that only the present is real and the growing block universe theory of time in which past and present are real while the future is not. Whew! Thus, Jerusalem is not for the faint of heart or the weak attention span. PAY ATTENTION while reading this book, as there is detail in every damn sentence.

For Jerusalem is an epic of epic proportions, a multi-generational saga of ordinary, working class folk who just happen to have a high preponderance of ghosts, angels and devils among their number. It is also based on a true story: Moore’s own family history, from his great-great grandfather’s visions of apocalypse to his brother Michael nearly choking to death on a cough sweet as a child. A cosmic exploration of the nature of time, existence, the afterlife and the multi-faceted universe we live in, it’s also a conscious piece of visionary myth-making, an attempt to record the Boroughs characters and legends, its places, its past, present and disassembled future, and to somehow save and redeem it all through art.

It’s a long book, for sure, but then again it has to be, for Moore has taken a maximalist approach; he wants to include…EVERYTHING. There are, perhaps, moments when it feels like every scrap of unlikely history and notable figure relating to Northampton has been shoehorned in, but these are never less than interesting and intriguing. All of the digressions are relevant (I swear), as are all of the scenes repeated from different characters’ points of view, because this is one of the book’s central messages: everything is relevant; everyone’s point of view is relevant; everyone’s history is relevant. It’s all connected, man. With this in mind, one could argue that, for all its size, Jerusalem could easily have been even longer; several major plot points are resolved only by implication, and what eventually happens is clearly suggested but never spelt out. It’s up to the reader to fill in the gaps.

Moore has created a fully-realized working-class mythology that is utterly contemporary and (*sigh*) rather left-wing. In an era when the working classes are portrayed in Britain as hopeless victims (by many on the Left) or demonized as thugs and idiots (by some on the Right), Jerusalem rejects the portrayal of limited horizons and the glamorization of poverty that Moore sees in popular culture in favor of a work that grants dignity and profundity to life at the bottom of the economic ladder while also urging them to raise their sights above their immediate circumstances. We are our own final judges, our own imparters of meaning, and in amongst the dark satanic mills of our ordinary oppressed existences, we are all already living in the shining, eternal city of Jerusalem.

Nothing ever ends. Eternalism implies predestination and, so, denies the existence of free will, but as an archangel says to one of the recently dead characters in Jerusalem, “did you miss it?” Free will, like time, appears to be just a necessary illusion, apparent on a personal level but growing less so the more you look at the fate of whole communities, countries or planets. Jerusalem, then, is both a highly moral work and deeply non-judgmental: we largely have no choice in our actions, we are not being continually judged from above, there is no such thing as sin and no such thing as virtue…but at the same time, we should be mindful of trying to live each moment in a way that we can live with forever, because if Moore is right, we may have to.

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