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All novels are exercises in empathy for their readers; all of a novel’s readers are performers of its possible meanings. Each novel gives hints of the kind of person it wants its reader to temporarily become in order to enjoy it to the fullest. We don’t read eighteenth-century fiction with the same ear as we do fiction from the twenty-first, or science fiction with the same ear as literary fiction about the daily lives of New Yorkers. If we are skilled readers, we quickly pick up on the hints the text throws out and we shift our expectations. If not, or if the conventions of the work are unfamiliar to us, then perhaps we find ourselves left out in the cold, or saying, “I really wanted to like this book. But.”

This is certainly not to say that all novels are inherently good, and that a displeased reader is always one who has failed the text, but to say that when a reader bounces off a novel, we should ask if the problem lies with the author’s failure of craft, or with the reader’s inattention, improper expectations, or inexperience, or whether it’s caused by some other reason altogether. With a work whose critical reputation is well established over decades or centuries, this is easy: one-star Amazon reviews of Moby-Dick are mocked for a reason. But with a work of expansive scope and ambition that’s still only months old, the question is harder. Here is the opening of the New York Times’ review of James Joyce’s Ulysses, dated May 28, 1922:

“A few intuitive, sensitive visionaries may comprehend ‘Ulysses,’ James Joyce’s new and mammoth volume, without a course of training or instruction, but the average intelligent reader will gain little or nothing from it—even from careful perusal, one might properly say study, of it—save bewilderment and a sense of disgust. It should be companioned with a key and a glossary like the Berlitz books. Then the attentive and diligent reader would eventually get some comprehension of Mr. Joyce’s message.”[1]

That sounds like the beginning of a hatchet job, the sort of review we’d smugly laugh at now that ninety-odd years have passed, but two paragraphs later Collins calls Ulysses “the most important contribution that has been made to fictional literature in the twentieth century.” Collins isn’t hedging his bets here: he knows, even in these early days, that he is in the presence of genius. And yet he freely expresses an ambivalence about the nature of that genius.

This brings us to Alan Moore’s new and mammoth volume Jerusalem, strongly influenced by the work of Joyce. The work of textual exegesis is barely begun. The question that’s more interesting than whether the book is any good or not, and more answerable in these early days, is what the nature of its ideal reader is, and how the text gives its hints of what it expects from us.

Jerusalem is quite a long book, and many initial reviews of the work dutifully note its page count: 1,266 tightly typeset pages, which would be closer to 2,000 if each page had the word count of an average hardcover’s. But it’s divided into three self-contained sections that are roughly 200,000-250,000 words each—some readers of science fiction or fantasy who see it described as a trilogy instead of a single work might find it less intimidating (and indeed the paperback edition, published simultaneously with the hardcover in the US, consists of three volumes in a slipcase: perhaps this was a manufacturing necessity, but it is also a means of presenting the text that more clearly reflects its structure). A thumbnail plot summary is as follows: on Friday, May 26th, 2006, in Northampton, England, artist and local celebrity Alma Warren is in the last stages of preparing an art exhibit whose works are largely based on what may be visions, or perhaps memories, related to her by her brother Michael. On Saturday, at the end of the novel, the exhibit opens. The narrative has some digressions.

Plot is very much not the point of this novel. It’s less concerned with the telling of a story than it is with the mapping of a space, the district of Northampton called The Boroughs. Over the course of May 26, with frequent flashbacks to other times, dozens of characters, both natural and supernatural, cross paths as they travel on foot through the city, viewing it from different perspectives informed by their own experiences (a conceit borrowed from chapter ten of Ulysses, “Wandering Rocks”).

Each of the three major sections of the novel is written in a different stylistic mode; the first is composed largely (but not entirely) of straight-ahead social realism. Here Jerusalem establishes a tie not just to Ulysses, but to the lineage of novels such as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables or Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris, works whose primary intent is the survey of a city. The novel of the city is always a novel of class, and Moore’s focus here is on the working class, trapped in a slum that seems to be irreversibly decaying. Drug use of all kinds is endemic, ranging in potency from alcohol to crack cocaine; upward mobility for many of the Boroughs’ citizens is not even an aspiration. The moneyed city officials who raze century-old domiciles and throw up shoddy apartment complexes in their place are so distant here that they may as well be creatures of legend.

The journeys of the characters through the city—a washed-up poet; a crack-addicted prostitute; an African-American emigrant; Charlie Chaplin; a ghost—are fastidiously documented, perhaps excessively so for some tastes: every left and right turn down every street is noted, and can be corroborated by the carefully rendered map on the hardcover edition’s endpapers. (“She went up Castle Street and round the top by the no-entry, how she’d gone out to Horsemarket earlier, but this time though she went the other way, up to the Mayorhold past the subway entrances and then along there by the Kingdom Life Church placed, round to the flats behind the Twin Towers where Fat Kenny lived.”) (85) The characters view the same buildings and landmarks from different angles—a car park; a pair of monolithic high-rises that mar the skyline; chapels and schools and insane asylums. It can seem at first that these characters are only valuable as pairs of eyes that document the city’s changing shape, but over the very long course of the novel most of them do acquire some dimension, as the nature of the city gives them the chance to reflect on their own past histories. (One twentieth-century resident of the Boroughs, Henry George, initially skirts racist caricature—his local nickname is “Black Charley”—but over time enough detail is doled out to blunt the accusation: his emigration from the United States in the 1890s; his marriage to a white woman once he reaches England; the lives of his descendants, as they migrate to London or become entangled in the political chaos of Sierra Leone.)

Much of the length of this novel is due to Moore’s meticulous style. Here, for example, is a passage in which Michael Warren, wandering the city, is approached by a young man who’s had a disturbing experience which he’s failing to articulate, and which we later find is supernatural: the only sentences that Michael can get out of him are variations of “Yes. No. Fuck me. Oh fuck me, I was up the pub.” (32) Michael tries to calm him down, and offers him a cigarette:

Mick nodded, fumbling in his jacket for the brand new pack of fags he’d picked up half an hour back on the way down Barrack Road. He peeled the cuticle of cellophane that held the packet’s plastic wrap in place down to its quick, shucked off the wrapper’s top and tugged the foil away that hid the tight-pressed and cork-Busbied ranks beneath, the crinkled see-through wrapping and unwanted silver paper crushed to an amalgam and shoved carelessly into Mick’s trouser pocket. Taking one himself he aimed the flip-top package at the grateful teenager in offer and lit up for both of them using his punch-drunk Zippo with the stutter in its flame. (33)

Moore has a beautifully baroque style, and rarely writes an unmusical phrase. (Note his lovely deployment of consonance in the excerpt above, the intricately constructed series of c’s, p’s, and k’s that carries the reader through the first half of the second sentence.) But readers who have seen packs of cigarettes before may feel as if they’re being told something they already know. This is a strange passage for a novelist to have taken the time to write, and it’s stranger still that it survived editing (several editors are credited in the acknowledgments). The passage resembles nothing so much as it does Moore’s own comic scripts. Look at this excerpt from Moore’s instructions to Dave Gibbons for drawing the first panel of the first issue of Watchmen:


In the context of a novel rather than a comic script, this degree of detail can come off not as necessary instructions for depiction of an image, but as unnecessary instructions for imagining, as if the reader has to reconstitute the idea of a package of cigarettes from scratch instead of drawing on his or her own memories. One can’t help but feel a sense of distrust of the reader’s capabilities on Moore’s part, or a desire to exercise control over the reader’s mind as he does the illustrator’s pen.

Whether Moore’s attention to detail is an asset or a liability in the first part of the novel, it clearly becomes an asset in the second part, when the dominant mode changes from realism to a mix of young-adult fantasy mixed with metaphysical speculation. In this section we get an extended journey into the afterlife world of Mansoul, occasioned by a near-death experience brought on when Michael Warren chokes on a cough drop at the age of three. There is a strong influence in these chapters from Edwin Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, as well as the children’s adventure stories of Enid Blyton, and it’s here that the cosmogony of this novel is revealed: essentially, though humans perceive themselves as moving dynamically through three dimensions as they age, they are in fact static four-dimensional objects, and their belief in their own free will is a necessary illusion. If one might think that many parts of the first section of the novel would be better rendered as a comic rather than as a text, here Moore breaks free of the two-dimensional limits of the page, using prose to describe extra-dimensional objects that would be impossible to visualize otherwise, and that benefit from extended detail, being wholly imaginary. (One might also say that the problem here is that Moore writes realist fiction in the same style as he writes genre fiction, as if Northampton’s sights and sounds will be as unfamiliar to the reader as those of Mansoul.)

Here the narrative settles down into a picaresque linearity, as the toddler Michael goes on a grand adventure in Mansoul, in the company of a group of ghost children who call themselves the Dead Dead Gang. Michael and the gang tangle with the demon Asmodeus, tour the Attics of the Breath (an infinitely long arcade with panels in the floor through which one can access certain parts of Northampton at certain points in time), wander a monochrome world of ghosts that functions as a sort of purgatorial way station between Northampton and Mansoul, and, in one of a number of spectacular set-pieces, witness a fight between two of the Builders (analogs of Biblical archangels) who play an eternal game of billiards whose outcome dictates the fate of the universe. The amount of imagination on offer here seems endless, and with the linearity of this section comes a slow, exquisitely rendered accretion of melancholy, as the ghost children that serve as Michael’s companions turn out to be more than what they seem, and wiser than they let on. Dramatic irony accumulates as the Dead Dead Gang try to shield Michael from the true nature of the world through which he travels, doing their best not to clue him in to the knowledge that events that might be best suited for a children’s story in fact have implications that are richer, deeper, and darker.

In the third section, once Michael’s near-death experience ends, we return to Northampton, as more characters continue the work of mapping the city and Alma Warren prepares her series of paintings for exhibition, based in part on Michael’s recall of images from the time he spent in Mansoul. (Alma Warren bears some similarities to the novel’s author: her name, Alma, seems like a truncation of "Alan Moore"; she is a local celebrity in Northampton, due to her illustrations of genre book covers; she is close friends with Melinda Gebbie, Alan Moore’s wife and occasional collaborator.) The style in this third section changes once more: in the place of the realism of the first part and the fantasy of the second, here we have a series of homages in various experimental styles.

Results vary. An epic poem about a homeless dropout from graduate school, written in stanzas of an uncommon abccba rhyme scheme, has an unexpected emotional intensity as its narrative recapitulates earlier events of the novel in different contexts (and here, the moment of the loaned cigarette described in the first part of the novel is repeated with economy: “Seeming to understand the man takes out/Some cigarettes and offers one to Den/With calm acceptance bordering on Zen/Then lights both”). (1167) A one-act play in which the ghost of Samuel Beckett appears captures something of Beckett’s gift for comedy, even as a horrific personal tragedy is recounted within it; a sparsely punctuated chapter written in a Joycean stream of consciousness recounts the thoughts of the one non-working-class character in the novel who gets a chapter to himself, and represents the most effective characterization in the novel. A chapter that uses a convoluted narrative device to justify its adaptation of the lingo of hard-boiled detective fiction (an out-of-work actor is pretending to himself that he is a detective) seems as if it’s mainly an excuse to read some not-entirely digested research into the record for metafictional reasons (a biography of 18th-century clergyman James Hervey, whose work Theron and Aspasio is described as “massively long by modern standards ... shift[ing its] style and its delivery with each new chapter, hopping from one mode or genre to another ...”). (1136)

The most difficult of these experimental chapters depicts the life of Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter, in an insane asylum, and is written in a language packed with portmanteaus, puns, and allusions, a homage to Finnegans Wake. Though it’s not as tough a read as Finnegans Wake, each sentence is densely layered and requires unpacking. For example, the opening:

Awake, Lucia gets up wi’ the wry sing of de light. She is a puzzle, shore enearth, as all the Nurzis and the D’actors would afform, but nibber a cross word these days, deepindig on her mendication and on every workin’ grimpill’s progress. (884)

Read aloud, the sentences have a perfectly comprehensible ostensible meaning; with some additional attention, the wordplay begins to untangle itself. (“Cross word” hearkens back to “puzzle”; “mendication” combines the words “medication” and “mendicant,” suggesting Lucia’s perception of her own status with respect to her doctors; “workin’ grimpill’s progress” refers both to Finnegans Wake, whose early chapters were first published in literary journals as “fragments from Work in Progress”, and Pilgrim’s Progress, foreshadowing the appearance of the ghost of John Bunyan in a later chapter.) But forty-eight pages of this prose is a huge ask for anyone (and I must admit that here I was not the ideal reader and began to fail the text as I progressed through the chapter, settling for extracting the surface meaning when I could).

In the final chapter of the novel, Alma Warren’s exhibit opens, and it’s here that the text directly engages the question of its ideal reader. It turns out that the exhibit, in a single cramped gallery, is a retelling of the events of the novel: each of the paintings in it is named after one of the novel’s chapters, and when Michael arrives, Alma instructs him to look at the paintings in a particular order, moving along the gallery walls from left to right. Before Michael begins, Alma, in an out-of-character moment, expresses some doubt about the work into which she’s clearly invested a lot of effort: “You don’t think there’s some element missing? As if I was using all the obvious effort as a camouflage to hide the fact that I’m not saying very much […]? You’d tell me, wouldn’t you, if the whole exercise had nothing to it but ridiculously grandiose nostalgia?” (1209) It’s a remarkable piece of dialogue for those readers to come across who have stuck it out for 1,200 pages.

And so Michael begins to look at the paintings, one at a time, and what is even more surprising than Alma’s admission of doubt, this close to the end, is Michael’s mixed verdict, as reflected in his interior monologue. He does find one of the first few paintings “oddly poignant” (1216), and is often awed by the work that draws from the imagery of the novel’s second section (one piece in particular is “near infantilizing in its wondrousness”) (1224), but he also sees the works as a “copious vomit of ideas and colours trickling down the walls” (1216), suspects that one of Alma’s portraits of an African-American “might well be construed as racist” (1217), and judges Alma’s style at one point as “oppressively meticulous.” (1209) Near the end of the series of paintings he becomes increasingly impatient (“he returned his commandeered attentions to the task of getting through the five remaining pictures in his sister’s gauntlet of enigmas”). (1247) It doesn’t help that Michael finds himself shadowed by Alma, interrupting him every few paintings to solicit his opinion: “Head cocked to one side, Alma eyed her brother both forensically and quizzically [ ... ] ‘It couldn’t be that...well, that you don’t like these pictures that I’ve taken great pains to create especially for you?’” (1218)

Every writer with even a modicum of success knows that every book will not be loved, or even liked, by every reader who comes across it, but it’s unusual to see the sentiment so nakedly laid out as it is here, to see displeasure with parts of the text embraced by its author as a likely outcome. There’s even some sympathy expressed by the text for the reader who becomes frustrated with it (and the reader who does not feel at least a little sympathy for Michael as he struggles with making sense of Alma’s exhibit will be quite rare). What are we to make of this?

The pessimistic reading is that it’s a copout at the last minute, an admission of failure. But an optimistic reading, the one I tend toward, is that it’s a suggestion that the scope of Jerusalem is such that its ideal reader of this text may not and may never exist, and creating a work with such a scope was Moore’s ultimate aim. Nearly every reader who encounters this work and sticks with it will find his or her empathy for art tested, in one way or another: this is the achievement of a work that’s so remarkably versatile and all-encompassing in its genres and styles. Whether the book constantly tickles one’s pleasure centers (and I freely confess that it did not for me) is, in the instance of this book, almost irrelevant. The novel is aiming for greater things than pleasure, not least of which is the illusion of fully preserving a place, in all its detail, in four dimensions. (Alma, talking of her work, just a few pages from the novel’s end: “I’ve saved the Boroughs [ ... ] the way that you save ships in bottles. It’s the only plan that works. Sooner or later all the people and the places that we loved are finished, and the only way to keep them safe is art. That’s what art’s for. It rescues everything from time.”) (1259)

Here is Collins again, in 1922, speaking on Ulysses:

Finally, I venture a prophecy: Not ten men or women out of a hundred can read Ulysses through, and of the ten who succeed in doing so, five will do it as a tour de force. […] I have learned more psychology and psychiatry from it than I did from ten years at the Neurological Institute. There are other angles from which Ulysses can be viewed profitably, but they are not many.[3]

It would be an overstatement to say that Jerusalem is on par with the work that leaves its marks all over it, if only because, for all of Moore’s facility with language, it’s ultimately stylistically derivative where Joyce’s work was innovative. But, to quote the pseudonymous critic Jack Green in “Fire the Bastards!,” his analysis of another ambitious, encyclopedic work, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, “mulish i thought a book could fall short of ulysses & still be pretty good.”[4] Most people who start Jerusalem won’t finish it, and the person doesn’t exist who can honestly say he’ll find all its content to his taste. But to call Jerusalem “pretty good” would be even more egregious an understatement.


[2] Moore, Alan, with Dave Gibbons. Absolute Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 2005.

[3] Collins, Joseph. “James Joyce’s Amazing Chronicle.” The New York Times, May 28, 1922.

[4]Green, Jack. “Fire the Bastards!” 1962.

Dexter Palmer’s novel Version Control was selected as one of the best books of 2016 by GQ, The San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Buzzfeed, and Vox, and as one of the best science fiction and fantasy books of 2016 by The Washington Post.
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