A painter witnesses angels moving on the ceiling of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. A girl wearing a boa of dead rabbits leads a gang of dead kids on a series of misadventures across the heavens. Samuel Beckett, Oliver Cromwell, John Clare, and Lucia Joyce live in Northampton during various eras in history. The back cover of the Advanced Reader Copy touts the novel as “Fierce in its imagining and stupefying in its scope, Alan Moore’s epic novel, Jerusalem, is the tale of everything, told from a vanished gutter.” Weaved together in a tapestry spanning time and space, Jerusalem by Alan Moore is a crowning achievement in English literature. Or it would be if it lived up to its own expectations and marketing hype.
At the heart of Jerusalem are the parallel stories of the Vernall family and the Boroughs. The Vernalls have lived in the Boroughs for centuries and some members have had the occasion to go all cornery. “Cornery” being the regional and familial slang for insanity. As their name suggests, the family has been tasked with guarding the boundaries between the mortal and immortal realms. While the Vernall family attends to corners and edges, Northampton (and the Boroughs) represent the geographic center of England. The Boroughs (a singular location with a plural name) were once the political and spiritual center of England.
Through wars and rebellion, the political center moved to London. Northampton’s proletarian spirituality routinely met the blunt end of repression and exploitation. Since Alan Moore’s imagination and national pride resonate from a more British perspective, John Bunyan and the Puritans receive a more positive portrayal as religious levelers. (Unlike more secular-minded individuals, who would see the Puritans as bloodthirsty murderous thugs whose North American New Jerusalem is comparable to Afghanistan under the Taliban.)
Alan Moore is the undisputed champion of the modern comic book. From his runs on Swamp Thing and other DC properties to his own original works (V for Vendetta, From Hell, Watchmen, and Lost Girls), he has pushed the medium into wonderful strange territory. Yet Jerusalem fails in almost every measure as a novel. While Neil Gaiman represents a comic book writer who made the successful transition to novel writing, Alan Moore exemplifies the opposite.
His unparalleled descriptive power makes real the various and sundry fantastic settings peppering Jerusalem. To take two random examples:
“Across the muddy thoroughfare from this, to Peter’s right, there was a goodly mound of stone made up, with built above it out of wood a winding-shaft that had a rope and bucket hanging down.”
That’s a rather convoluted way to describe a well. In the latter part of the novel, the pretentiousness reeks of showing off.
“the geriatric pony snorts and capers in a passageway of aerodrome enormity, undressed and cherub-ridden.” [Italics in original.]
His clever turn of phrase would make any other novelist envious. Yet clever sentence after clever sentence, page after page, has the aggregate effect of making an otherwise epic novel feel claustrophobic and suffocating. Too much of a good thing can turn something unpleasant. Chocolate cake is tasty. Chocolate for every meal is nauseating.
Novels and comic books, while similar, are different mediums with different conventions. Moore either doesn’t know or doesn’t respect these differences. To be fair, Jerusalem would be a spectacular comic book. In its current form, the prose operates in a way akin to reading the descriptions of a comic book. Except these descriptions numb and overwhelm, especially when dragged out for over 1200 pages.
Nor is this the case of critical sour grapes, since Moore’s accolades from his work in comic books makes him critically bulletproof. The aforementioned cleverness and descriptive overload can have their place in novels. This isn’t a condemnation of excessive and expansive novels. The world needs more of them. Nor is this about the promotion of “invisible style,” a creative writing term for writing that doesn’t distract the reader. “Invisible style” can lead to bland beige prose that doesn’t distract, mainly because it is so boring.
No, Moore’s descriptive excess actually gets in the way of his own narrative. It gums up dialogue and wrecks the pacing. (He hedges his bets against this kind of criticism by making Jerusalem about time and predestination.) The glacial pacing and purple prose have the effect of observing the characters observe their surroundings. The entire work comes across as passive and dull. Alan Moore is so convinced of his unique genius, he failed to notice how pretentious and amateurish his prose sounds. Did an editor even look at this before it went to press?
Jerusalem fails to work as radical work in the tradition of Joyce and Beckett, due in part to its turgid, overwritten prose and leaden pretentiousness. The occasional flashes of literary experimentalism fail, mostly because Moore’s attempt to imitate Finnegans Wake seem weak and pedestrian. It is a stodgily traditionalist novel wrapped in superficial stylistic flashes.
While Wednesday Club’s Taliesin Jaffe has compared Moore’s Watchmen to Ulysses, Jerusalem can only be compared to a cinematic failure like The Phantom Menace. This work represents the nadir of Moore’s otherwise stellar career. Unless one is a glutton for punishment, Jerusalem remains a work for Alan Moore’s completists only.