What We’re Reading: Jerusalem, Part 2
We’re back with another discussion of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, this time dealing with “Rough Sleepers” up to “Atlantic.” Roughly, that’s pages 98-207.
Josh: We open this section with Freddy, a character who, in many ways, exemplifies the class struggles that seem to exist for everyone in this novel. He moves about this worn-down city in his own worn-down way, finding meals and comfort wherever he can. He’s an interesting character to thread into our expanding cast, and one that echoes with the others already presented. There’s the plot element that recurs—the builders, but there’s also the way Freddy’s relationships with other people (I’m thinking of his entirely unsexy sex scene with Patsy) swirl around use and abuse of one another, the way people become handholds for one another to stay just above the crumbling foundations of their own lives.
Aaron: But he’s not above those foundations, right? Because Freddy and most of the people he interacts with are ghosts. With this chapter, Moore piles another genre into the book. And with it, he does to time what he’s been doing to space. For Freddy and his ghost friends, time exists all at once, piled together like muck; and interacting with it is, once again, a matter of perspective. And ghost drugs, I guess? Does it mean anything that, to interact with all of time, one has to be dead? Regardless, he’s the one whose feet we saw briefly in the previous chapter, sticking out from under a church gate in the “modern” world. But because he’s unstuck in time, he also meets the 9th century Brother Peter.
J: Yeah! Moore is doing some cool stuff, I think, with introducing or typifying different characters via different genres. It reminds me of China Mieville’s attempts to write a book in every genre, except Moore is doing it all inside his one gargantuan book! It’s cool, and speaking of genres, what about Brother Peter? There’s something here about Moore’s ability to tell about a place through vast stretches of history, but there’s also something here about the great power of Moore’s mythologizing. Here’s a character who has been through much, who’s looking for the mythical “centre,” and who moves through our narrative like a shaping, purposeful force. Yes, we know that something bigger is at stake in the narrative because of Alma’s art show, because of the Builders—but this brings home the point in a cool, unique way.
A: Between the Freddy and Peter chapters, we’re pretty sure that the Builders are archangels, right? Michael and Uriel, the boss angel and the angel of death, are named indirectly by Freddy. They’re the Builders represented by the cross and the skull. Any guesses on who the tower and dick angels are? There are traditionally seven archangels, but the only other two named (I think) are Raphael and Gabriel. Raphael is a healer, and Gabriel has a trumpet, right? And he spoke the Qur’an to Mohammed? Neither of those seems particularly dickish (unless we’re talking about Raphael the Ninja Turtle).
Or maybe they’re not angels. Maybe they’re something else, and we only think they’re angels because of the wing-like afterimages they leave as they move their arms through time.
Or does all this even matter?
J: Oh, definitely angels. They’ve gotta be angels: beings who have been working on the foundations of this place—apparently the center of space and time—since, well, forever apparently? Maybe it doesn’t matter, but I’m putting my money on angels.
How are you feeling about the nigh-encyclopedic style/approach now that we’re 200 pages in? Is it grating on you at all yet? For my part, I’m liking the book a lot, though each time we start a new chapter/character, I feel just the slightest bit of irritation. I want to trust Moore, and I do, but there’s a part of me that remembers the very opening of the book, the art exhibit that’s meant to frame this whole thing—and I wonder whether or not the continuous addition of characters and narrative lines and psychogeographical perspectives isn’t, in some ways, onanistic. In other words, stories are shaped things, right? The difference between a narrative and a dictionary is one is shaped by a beginning, a middle, and an end and the other attempts to tell everything about everything; one is curated and the other isn’t. Jerusalem was seriously hyped before publication, and Moore has done enough great stuff that he could publish his holiday card ideas as best sellers. And yet part of me wonders if I’m reading this very unshaped (at least thus far) thing and thinking, “wow, so good,” *because* it’s Alan Moore and I know he’s done great things so I must be not thinking hard enough/reading closely enough if I’m thinking some of this is unfiltered indulgence. I don’t know. What do you think?
A: For real thank you for defining “onanistic.” That’s one of the words (along with epistemological, logos, and many others) that just sit in a compost brain in my head, getting their juices all mixed together.
I actually really like the idea of a dictionary being a story, and I think a lot of decolonizing movements would say that some sense of story—some subjective life narrative—is implicit in the dictionary. Or in a textbook. But I don’t think that’s what you meant, so sorry for saying all that in bad faith.
But I’m all for stories that don’t have shapes or have weird shapes. Don Quixote is a rambling mess with no sense of building action, but I love it. Pale Fire is basically an annotated poem with an index, and it’s riveting. But I also come from a background of reading RPG sourcebooks for fun. They’re hundreds of pages of gazetteer entries, monster stats, maps, and fictional histories, and I used to eat them up as a teen. It’s sort of an emergent storytelling approach? Maybe? Like, Jerusalem is to fiction what Legos are to toys. It’s a box of parts, and it’s up to us to make it “about” something. The chapters jump around, and in doing so, they set bounds for us to talk about perspective or religion or art.
I’m feeling really hipster after writing all that, so I’m gonna go have a drink and play some video games.
J: I agree with everything you say here, and I’ve spent plenty of time enjoying strategy guides and reading through either dictionary-esque texts or just plain old dictionaries. And I like that sort of thing, but a novel still seems different to me. A dictionary is governed by the alphabet, right? And that’s it? It doesn’t privilege one letter over another, it doesn’t build toward anything, and entries are arbitrarily connected. Now sure, maybe you could come along and curate some cool story out of dictionary entries, but there’s no authorial will or effort behind arranging words/entries/etc in any sort of way: the alphabet decides it and that’s it. Pale Fire is incredible, I think, because it seems to be just an annotated poem but it reveals this dark, weird story behind it, the relationship between Shade and Kinbote, how it went wrong, what really happened, etc. That’s a narrative curated by Nabokov, and I’m not sure you get something like that from a dictionary (though I would love it if that existed!).
Anyway, I guess I’m just not yet sold (so it’s good we’re not done with the readthrough!) on everything Moore is giving us. If anything, it feels like he’s thrown out a whole bunch of raw material to the audience with a command of “build whatever you want with that,” which fits into your Legos idea. It’s weird and interesting and I don’t know if I like it yet!
I don’t have any video games to play, but I’ll take after you and have a drink.
Next month, we’re reading to “Hark! The Glad Sound!” Please join us!
Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes
Pale Fire (1962) by Vladimir Nabokov
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Planescape Campaign Setting (1994) by Zeb Cook, et al
China Mieville’s assorted works