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The Whispering Swarm cover

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The bad news is the good news, I reckon: there is no escape from The Whispering Swarm, which is a memoir and not a memoir, which bites its tail with you inside. Not a single sentence can be safely read as fact or fiction, though some bits seem pretty much like truth in daylight and some is impure fancy; if there is a magic decoder key, only the author knows the combination, and on the record so far he is exceedingly unlikely to give it to us. This is not Michael Moorcock's first attempt to create a cubistic interjaculation of the lives he or his creature-selves led during the 1950s and 1960s; and even more fluidly than its predecessors it provides no exit from the reiterant pasts of its ultimate protagonist, who is the author, and who is of course not, and whose early career as boy author of boy books, as musician and performer, as editor of New Worlds, as creator of Elric and Jerry Cornelius, has been already so irradiated by versions that no new version, it would seem, could do more than stir the cauldron.

Which I guess spurs the first question of all: why care who's who? After all, the high heady beat of the Moorcock song we've known for decades turns every page of this false and true memoir, this true and false fiction, and maybe it is enough here simply to surf another inexorable, flighty, ingeniously ingenuous, intoxicating ninth wave of storyable stew, and forget the folk within. But I don't think this is good enough. I think the pleasure of the book (and at times the bad news) is that far more than any preceding text it is impossible to read the Swarm without constant awareness of one unrelenting problematic, a stymie without egress: in this memoir, this unrelenting bipolar shuttlecocking between fact and faux, who ends up as the who in charge? Even if we know Moorcock knows we know we are not exactly going to be told, we still know we are meant to ask. Who is the author in this book? Who is not? And who's missing? And why are we not told?

1. The main missing person is in fact the actual Michael Moorcock himself sixty years on, the man who, at the age of 75, has written this book about his deep pasts. He's here of course in some significant use of the word here, fathering new versions of old selves almost every page, a bit like a ghost with too many Hamlets to implorate; but in a sense the grown and matured Moorcock of the past several decades hardly appears at all in propria persona. This is unfortunate, because there is clearly more to him now than he allows us to perceive in the antic renderings of young Moorcocks deployed here, these avatars that the 2015 ghostwriter blows like kleenex. Not a manjack Moorcock Minor is a patch on the person we think of as the real Moorcock, and not a single passage spent in the timeslip multiverse-lite enclave of Alsacia in the heart of London [see below] is a patch on the passages of relatively unadulterated and remarkably absorbing memoir that, sadly, become less and less frequent as volume one progresses.

2. The strange unnamable adjacency of the second missing person evokes a question: when is The Sanctuary of the White Friars going to swallow its guff and get down to cases and identify without encryption the one "fictional" character, other than the author, who plays a dominant role in the heartwood of The Whispering Swarm, which is the first of three projected volumes; a fictional/fictionalized character who, being so intensely there, is central to this instalment as story? The name she is given here is Molly Midnight; in the real world, though not entirely, she was its author's second wife. It is true that Volume One of Sanctuary pretty well stops just short of the 1970s, and Moorcock's realtime life with Jill Riches did not begin until then, and their actual marriage came some years further along the timetrack; and the portrait of a rather moiré Molly Midnight clearly combines Riches and at least one other woman important to him earlier on: but no one who knew Mike and Jill at all could fail to recognize the tone and content of his recounting, and indeed maybe even some of the exact phrasings he typically used to describe their relationship: "I wanted her to fulfill herself, become the painter she could be." There is a lot of this kind of monologuing over nearly the nearly 500 pages of the text, and it all evokes a desire for some realer Moorcock to speak to us, maybe the Moorcock of 2015, who might sagely if not wholly forgive the Moorcock of 40 years earlier and his Pygmalion Fail.


The Whispering Swarm is, then, a fictionality-irradiated memoir of the first 30 years of Michael Moorcock's life, though even here, in the very rag-and-bone shop of his absolute beginnings, disjuncts begin to yawn. The Moorcock in this book is born not in 1939 but 1940, and not in Mitcham but in the fictional inner-city ward of Brookgate, which readers of King of the City (2000), an earlier and much less impressive attempt at a much simpler fact/fiction dance, may remember as a central venue. In King of the City this alterity mattered less, as the slightly shifted alternate world the book inhabits remained relatively stable; but this time around we are clearly warned that nothing is fixed. Even Moorcock's teen years editing Tarzan Adventures and so forth, here described in fascinating detail, cannot quite be trusted as exactly factual, though the narrative rings true. But his authorship of the Molly Midnight series of swashbuckler adventures, which did not happen in reality, and the almost total absence from Swarm of any references to the Eternal Champion over-series, which dominated reader perception of him during this period, are both disorienting swerves from our world. And as for unverifiable private moments, one would have to know as much about Moorcock's early life as Moorcock does to distinguish the mundane from the dance of the storyable. And so it goes. The problem here is to work out what scales we should use to weight individual tranches of narrative; how to judge moments of significant storyable concinnity from untruths more convenient to the author than to those he is describing. It is not a problem Volume One solves, and I think a few more cues than I (for one) was able to clock might have been appropriate in a text of this visible ambition; but armature is what Volume One seems deliberately to lack: it ends up as something of a storage locker for further instalments to sort (we hope).

We continue, deeper into quicksand, but with some islands founded seemingly on rock. Much of the 1960s as depicted here are close to the verifiably mundane. They are dominated by Moorcock's first marriage; his first wife Hilary Bailey, and mother of their children, is called Helena here, but she is delineated in unfantasticated verifiable contexts, in a manner and with details that evoke her own strong personality, and without visible malice either prepense or adventitious. The extremely familiar story of New Worlds also proceeds without vertigo; Moorcock's description of a scene at 87a Ladbroke Grove involving Tom Disch, John Sladek and Pamela Zoline under transparent monikers is exceedingly and hilariously lifelike, especially the portrait of Tom (though I thought Moorcock didn't quite capture Pamela's presence; but his rendering of her is very deliberately no more than the slice of a character study, not mentioning her actual work for the magazine, perhaps so that she can be properly cubismed in the next volume). Some real people (as in this example) are given noms de plume, usually decipherable at a glance, some are given in their real names, usually though not always when they are still alive and/or their parts are walk-on. J G Ballard, for instance, is given here as Allard (along with a false past), perhaps because Moorcock has rather a lot to say about him, very interestingly. Aldiss on the other hand is Aldiss, and is mentioned I think only once (as am I, by my name). Fuller disclosures may await the 1970s, which Volume Two will hopefully enter at a gallop; M John Harrison, for instance, the most important writer to begin his career with New Worlds, is not I think mentioned in Swarm under any name; but he only began to pack his weight in the 1970s. (Moorcock says nothing, by the way, to sanction Tor's weird PR assertion that he helped launch the careers of Philip K Dick and Harlan Ellison.)

As far as it sticks to these modestly stately gavottes around the "real", The Whispering Swarm is compelling, and a lot of fun, and the "real" Moorcock remains a figure you can laugh with; but sadly, as suggested earlier, there is not nearly enough of him. Moorcock in his particoloured arrays of presentations of self is never quite as stagefront in this volume as he should be. Much of Swarm is instead given over to a fantasizing self-exculpating insatiably self-referential solipsistic avatar that the 2015 Moorcock so punishingly mimes here but at too great length: Dennis Drover from King of the City redivivus: a figure prone to humblebragging and possessed of a peculiar delusion that every wisp of opinion or cognition confirms him as a Pattern of the Times: a man capable—after admitting with a selfie smile to seemingly innumerable deceptions and flights from reality—of telling us that

The truth was important to me. I was pretty obsessive about it, doing all I could to never lie to my children, to teach them to respect truth, honesty and the other simple virtues. . . . I was never short of love. Later, even my ex-wives came to believe I needed two women to love as well as to spell one another. . . . [my elisions]

This reference to "ex-wives" is I think as close as Whispering Swarm gets to actually mentioning Riches. Moorcock's third and current wife, the formidable eyes-front Linda Moorcock, may not appear until Volume Three, if indeed she need be evoked at all in a narrative that revolves around its title: one guesses that she inhabits a world harder and realer than the London that encompasses Alsacia and the Sanctuary of the White Friars at its heart and the Whispering Swarm itself.

Alsacia is a polder in the heart of London, half delusion, half fantastika: half rant, half romp. The very young "Moorcock" is first taken there by a mysterious Friar, who has recognized his future importance to the history of the world. Time in Alsacia—like the extraordinarily complex orrery "Moorcock" is soon shown—seems to designate intersections of planets and timelines and beings and histories in more than three dimensions; the most frequent version of Alsacia hovers in around 1649, just as King Charles I is about to lose his head, and because of his great height and his ability to navigate the multiverse, "Moorcock" is seconded by the Friars of the Sanctuary at Alsacia's heart to help Prince Rupert save the King. For a while this is fun to read; Moorcock as genuine writer in this world can execute pastiche with smooth but in this case seemingly unstoppable verve; but the last half of Swarm, which is mostly spent in 1649 Alsacia, is hugely overextended. In the mode of "his" Molly Midnight books, Moorcock or "Moorcock" bathes us here in maybe a hundred too many pages of fustian, rhodomontade, posturing, derring-do, hero worship. It is all narrated in a munificent but over-egging voice that only towards the very end allows much light in, though the descriptions of the ice-bound Thames haunt and chime, and though once or twice Molly Midnight can be heard speaking in a sparky clear voice: as if her circumambiant creator had remembered there was someone real in there. But these are passing moments where esemplasy trumps fancy, for in fact Volume One is destined never really to escape Alsacia, never to return to Ladbroke Grove and the grit of the real Moorcock life, and the fun we had in earlier pages with the selves of this book.

The Whispering Swarm itself is a kind of multi-voiced tinnitus, an echolalia of memes from the Cauldron of Story (I guess) which cannot be heard within Alsacia—being inaudible within its engendering medium, as unhearable to its utterands as the story they swim in—but which drives "Moorcock" nearly crazy out in the world, where he must juggle selves to stay afloat, and where the only chance for him to survive is occasionally to get back inside a world which is nothing but his own story. Or maybe not. We are not told what Moorcock 2015 really thinks of all this. Not yet. His verdict is not yet in. My guess or hope though is devout: that Volume One is a land of faerie that this Moorcock or that, much older now, can earn his way out of into Volume Two, and by virtue of this escape from prison free the next 45 years of his life to unroll their carpet.


A Note. Richard McGuire's stunning almost wordless Here is better seen than read about, but a few things can be said as enticements. The book has the shape of a graphic novel, but eschews "natural" lines of narrative sequencing; each page being a kind of tableau vivant. The occasional speech balloon seems caught in amber. Throughout the book one invariant line of perspective governs the eye, a single cattycorner gaze into the corner room of a suburban New Jersey house built in 1907 and demolished or destroyed at some point in the moderately near future. Our sight is therefore always constricted, as though we were gazing through something like a camera obscura at lives caught like bubbles of being, under our glass. What we actually see through this hypnotic embedding of gaze is a long series of page-filling images, usually modulated by superimposed inserts, which give sight of the room and its occupants at different times (or of the landscape from aeons before on up to 1907, and subsequently into the far future), each year precisely dated. Though there is no story as such, a quite extraordinary tension builds in the stillness: things that have happened, things that may, families having come together in this single room, or having fallen apart, children and adults and the designated aged changing (or having changed offscene) their places in the path of things. McGuire's style is far more rectangular and planar than that of Andrew Wyeth, the greatest contemporary American painter to timeslip his canvasses in order to peepshow the silence after thunder; but Wyeth and McGuire do share a capacity to locate the greatest narrative tension just a clap away from the thing itself. Like Chris Marker's La Jetee (1962).

Here is fun to look at. It is also a great silence, an afterwards at the very edge of being. We don't often get this close.




 John Clute (jclute@gmail.com) has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His novel Appleseed (2001) was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. His most recent book is a new collection, Stay, which includes both criticism and short fiction. He is currently working on the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
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