It’s taken me three and a half months, but I finally finished Alan Moore’s magnum opus Jerusalem. Made of a number of interlinked short stories set in Northampton, it tells the history of the town as well as the nature of life, death and time itself. It is ridiculously broad in its scope while remaining funny and down to earth, with a serious message about the abuse of the working class. The entire second book occurs whilst a child is choking on a sweet. Each chapter, especially in the last book, uses its own style. There’s an epic poem, a play, a Joycean wordplay chapter. In short, it is a hugely ambitious work that in my opinion succeeds wholeheartedly.
I’ve written before about how artists shouldn’t be afraid to take risks, in reference to David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. Jerusalem is another step beyond in terms of ambition. It’s a detailed history with characters that interweave with other stories in wholly unexpected ways. It is a novel that demands you pay attention, from the first intricate sentences to the final chapter. It can almost be seen as a challenge, such is the scale of the novel. But this is a deliberate tactic, as this novel has complex, rich ideas about time and the evolution of society. It’s worth paying attention to closely and considering the ideas within. The writing style is ornate because it demands your attention and forces you to focus on the novel. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you can click into the rich language it gives back in spades.
It’s inspiring as a writer to read something so ridiculously epic. Alan Moore acknowledges this in an interview about the book, saying:
So, just as much as I intended Jerusalem for everybody, for ordinary people, for anybody who happens to be living a life in the world at this moment, I meant it for artists and writers as well. I wanted to do something that was stupidly ambitious to show that there is still room for these things. The world has not contracted as much as you may believe. The interior of the human head is infinite.
[Full interview here]
What Moore is arguing for is that writers shouldn’t be afraid of imagination. If you find a piece of work going in a strange new direction, embrace it. Jerusalem is the greatest example of this, with a plot that doesn’t make sense on paper at all. The actual experience of it, however, is overwhelming and it all ties together. The imagination of Moore guides the novel and sends it in strange new directions. Moore is also arguing with Jerusalem not to be scared of being too ambitious when creating art. Aim higher for ridiculous projects and you might just create something wonderful. Sure, Jerusalem may put some people off, but you cannot deny the sheer scale and achievement of the novel. The language reflects one of Moore’s central themes as well, that of the richness and beauty of every single moment and day. The book is a rallying call for all artists to push themselves further and aim higher, to not just be satisfied with creating the same things or to stick to the status quo.
Alan Moore is arguing for the power of art to bring new ideas and even create them during the process. Jerusalem introduced the concept of time as a solid dimension, with your consciousness experiencing it linearly. It is only once we are dead that we can see the whole of our lives spread out before us like frozen moments, before jumping back in and starting the whole sequence again. It is a unique idea that impacts every single story in the book, while also linking them all together. This concept explains the ghosts, as well as the sense of deja-vu that characters experience. This concept could be quite academic, but within the bounds of Jerusalem, it becomes easier to digest. It is drip fed to you slowly over the course of the first book and expanded up in the second. It becomes easier to understand as the story becomes the conduit for the idea. By using our imagination we can grasp it easier.
Ultimately, this smuggling of deep concepts through fiction is why Moore still argues for the power of art to change the world. The novel’s last book is concerned with the working class and the poor now being seen as a problem to be managed. It shows the abstraction of money and how the dangerous concepts started in Northampton alongside as the practice of hiding abused women in madhouses. Jerusalem argues that art is not only able to tackle these subjects but that it can end up changing the world. Art is able to highlight and expose issues, using the imagination to fictionalise them and tell the audience a story. We are narrative creatures and as such a good story can change our thinking and then impact the world around us. This is the true power of big ideas in fiction, the impact they have on the wider world around us and how they can change the audience’s mind. This is why Moore argues for the power of the imagination because he knows what impact it can have. Be bold and take risks, because the strange ideas you come up with may influence countless others in many unseen ways.
Of course, such a small blog post like this can only scratch the surface. I’m sure I’ve over-simplified and glossed over some important details. That’s why the real pleasure of discovery comes from reading the novel itself, all 1200 pages of it. It may not be for everyone but I urge you to dive in and immerse yourself in Moore’s vision. It’s hugely ambitious and may not work for you, but Moore shows that it is better to aim for the sky and miss than to play it safe.