Brilliant and sometimes maddening, “Jerusalem” is Alan Moore’s monumentally ambitious attempt to save his hometown, Northampton, England — not to rescue it from the slow economic catastrophe that’s been gnawing at it for centuries, but to save it “the way that you save ships in bottles,” by preserving its contours and details in art. The book is, itself, roughly the size of a schooner: a 1,266-page behemoth composed in several dozen shades of the deepest, richest purple prose, fusing social realism, high fantasy and sparkling literary showoffishness. And it’s a vehicle for nothing less than Moore’s personal cosmology of space, time and life after death.
The comics that Moore is best known for writing (“Watchmen,” “From Hell,” “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” etc.) generally make no secret of their sources of inspiration, and his second prose novel takes its initial cues from James Joyce. Like Joyce’s “Ulysses,” “Jerusalem” largely hinges on the events of a single day (in this case May 26, 2006) and a particular place: the Boroughs, the depressed neighborhood in Northampton where Moore grew up. (The Jerusalem of the title is the metaphorical one William Blake imagined building “in England’s green and pleasant land.”) As with “Ulysses,” Moore shifts his narrative technique and point of view from chapter to chapter. And, as with “Ulysses,” no detail, however minute, is purely decorative; it’s all part of the mammoth Rube Goldberg machinery, including an actual mammoth (or, rather, its ghost) that sets the story’s denouement into motion.
The equivalent of Stephen Dedalus here — Moore’s stand-in — is a painter in her 50s named Alma Warren (her name is a clear play on the author’s), who comes from a long line of artists, lunatics and “deathmongers,” that being a Northampton tradition of midwife/morticians. The moment during which the characters and their actions converge is the eve of Alma’s opening reception for a series of paintings inspired by her brother’s recollections of a near-death experience from when he choked on a cough drop at the age of 3. But then there’s also a chapter concerning the then-unknown Charlie Chaplin’s experiences in Northampton in 1909, and one in which a Christian pilgrim brings a relic to “Hamtun” (as it was then called) in 810, and one about how Alma’s great-great-grandfather lost his mind in 1865 when the fresco he was repairing in St. Paul’s Cathedral started talking to him, and so forth.
That’s all to prime the reader for the central third of “Jerusalem,” which takes place above time itself, in “Mansoul” (as in John Bunyan’s allegory “The Holy War”), where “The Dead Dead Gang,” a crew of ghostly children led by a girl in a cape made of decomposing rabbits, are having adventures and investigating mysteries. (Their Northampton accents are augmented by “wiz” and “wizzle,” the afterlife’s conflation of “was,” “is” and “will be.”) One advantage of being dead, it turns out, is that you can perceive space-time from the outside, as when the gang encounters the Platonic form of a Northampton landmark:
“The Guildhall, the Gilhalda of Mansoul, was an immense and skyscraping confection of warm-colored stone, completely overgrown with statues, carven tableaux and heraldic crests. It was as if an architecture-bomb had gone off in slow motion, with countless historic forms exploding out of nothingness and into solid granite. Saints and Lionhearts and poets and dead queens looked down on them through the blind pebbles of their emery-smoothed eyes and up above it all, tall as a lighthouse, were the sculpted contours of the Master Builder, Mighty Mike, the local champion.” (That would be the Archangel Michael, who is engaged in an eternal metaphysical snooker tournament that determines the fates of the city’s residents.)
Read that passage out loud, and you can’t miss its galumphing iambic rhythm. Moore, in fact, keeps that meter running for the entire length of the novel, and that’s just where his acrobatic wordplay begins. One chapter takes the form of rhymed stanzas. Another is blank verse, run together into paragraphs but pausing for breath every 10 syllables. A third is a play whose central seam is a conversation between Thomas Becket and Samuel Beckett.
The novel’s most difficult and wittiest chapter is written in a convincing pastiche of Joyce’s portmanteau-mad language from “Finnegans Wake,” and concerns Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, who spent her final decades in a Northampton mental hospital. At one point, the malign spirit of the River Nene tries to persuade her to drown herself: “It is a ferry splashionable wayter go, I’m trold, for laydies of o blitterary inclinocean. But then fameills of that sport are oftun willd, vergin’ near wolf, quereas with you there’s fomething vichy gugling on.” (Note the allusion to Virginia Woolf, who did drown herself.) Lucia declines, and goes on to encounter Dusty Springfield (“Dust’ny Singfeeld”), with whom she has sex while Number 6 from “The Prisoner” looks on. Yes, this is relevant to the plot, more or less.
Books this forbiddingly steep need to be entertaining in multiple ways to make them worth the climb, and Moore keeps lobbing treats to urge his readers onward: luscious turns of phrase, unexpected callbacks and internal links, philosophical digressions, Dad jokes, fantastical inventions like the flower resembling a cluster of fairies — the “Puck’s Hat” or “Bedlam Jenny” — that is the only food the dead can eat. Those who have read Moore’s comics will recognize some of his favorite themes too. Snowy Vernall, who experiences his life as predestined, is in the same boat as Dr. Manhattan from “Watchmen”; there’s a strain of Ripperology left over from “From Hell”; the demon Asmodeus, who appeared in “Promethea,” plays a prominent role here in a different guise.
If cleverness were all that mattered, “Jerusalem” would be everything. Its pyrotechnics never let up, and Moore never stops calling attention to them. Again and again, he threatens to crash into the slough of See What I Did There?, then comes up with another idea so clever he pulls out of the dive. (When the book, in its homestretch, hasn’t yet demonstrated much of a connection to William Blake, Alma Warren effectively engages a detective to work one out, in the person of the real-world actor Robert Goodman jokingly pretending to be a private eye called “Studs.”) The only way to endure “Jerusalem” is to surrender to its excesses — its compulsion to outdo any challenger in its lushness of language, grandness of scope, sheer monomaniacal duration — and confess it really is as ingenious as it purports to be.
What redeems the relentless spectacle, though, is that it’s in the service of a passionate argument. Behind all the formalism and eccentric virtuosity, there’s personal history from a writer who has rarely put himself into his own fiction before: the family legends and tragedies that Moore has blown up to mythical size to preserve them from the void, and the streets and buildings, lost and soon to be lost, whose every cracked stone is holy to him. Northampton, Moore suggests, is the center of all meaning, because so is every other place.
Douglas Wolk is the author of “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.” He writes frequently about comics for The Times.
By DOUGLAS WOLKOCT. 14, 2016