Let me say this first: Alan Moore’s second novel is not an easy read. If you know the legendary comic writer’s work, you know that he’s far more concerned about his art than making sure everyone “gets it”, and in that respect Jerusalem may be his most challenging work ever. But like all of Moore’s best work, if you stick with it, you’re in for something special — an experience no other author could possibly provide.
Trying to summarise Jerusalem its own monumental task, so I’ll let the official synopsis do it for me:
In the epic novel Jerusalem, Alan Moore channels both the ecstatic visions of William Blake and the theoretical physics of Albert Einstein through the hardscrabble streets and alleys of his hometown of Northampton, UK. In the half a square mile of decay and demolition that was England’s Saxon capital, eternity is loitering between the firetrap housing projects. Embedded in the grubby amber of the district’s narrative among its saints, kings, prostitutes, and derelicts, a different kind of human time is happening, a soiled simultaneity that does not differentiate between the petrol-coloured puddles and the fractured dreams of those who navigate them.
Employing a kaleidoscope of literary forms and styles that ranges from brutal social realism to extravagant children’s fantasy, from the modern stage drama to the extremes of science fiction,Jerusalem‘s dizzyingly rich cast of characters includes the living, the dead, the celestial, and the infernal in an intricately woven tapestry that presents a vision of an absolute and timeless human reality in all of its exquisite, comical, and heartbreaking splendor.
In these pages lurk demons from the second-century Book of Tobit and angels with golden blood who reduce fate to a snooker tournament. Vagrants, prostitutes, and ghosts rub shoulders with Oliver Cromwell, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce’s tragic daughter Lucia, and Buffalo Bill, among many others. There is a conversation in the thunderstruck dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, childbirth on the cobblestones of Lambeth Walk, an estranged couple sitting all night on the cold steps of a Gothic church front, and an infant choking on a cough drop for eleven chapters. An art exhibition is in preparation, and above the world a naked old man and a beautiful dead baby race along the Attics of the Breath toward the heat death of the universe.
See what I mean? That said, we are incredibly proud to present this excerpt from the novel. It’s a portion of Chapter One, where Ernest Vernall — nicknamed Ginger for his red hair — ascends to the upper rafters of St Paul’s Cathedral to use his painting skills to touch up a religious fresco of an angel… an angel that has other plans.
Applying first a shallow coating of the fleshy-coloured gesso down the long sweep of the angel’s side-lit jaw line, Ernest waited until it was dry before he rubbed it down to a fine finish with his glass paper and then got ready to lay on a second coat. He’d barely started slapping this with hurried, practiced motions on the yard-wide face before he noticed to his consternation that the tints upon its far side, which he hadn’t touched yet, had begun to run. The storm outside had mounted to its zenith with a staggering barrage of thunders as Ern squinted up, bewildered and alarmed through an incessant lantern-Morse of lightning, at the dribbling colours moving on the angel’s flat and slightly in-bowed head and shoulders.
Squirming droplets, each a different shade, were running up and down and sideways on the inner surface of the dome round the angelic face, with their trajectories in shocking contravention of all reason’s laws. Moreover, the fast-swarming rivulets did not appear to Ern to have the glisten that they would if they’d been wet. It was instead as if dry streams of grains, infinitesimal and rushing, poured across the brushwork features following their inward curve like bright-dyed filings swimming over a weak magnet. This was an impossibility and, worse, would almost certainly be stopped out of his wages. He took an involuntary, faltering step back, and as he did so widened his appreciation if not comprehension of the frantic, trickling activity and motion going on before him.
Neutral greys and umbers from the shadows on the far right of the giant face where it was turned away were crawling on a steep diagonal towards its upper left, where they pooled to a blot of shading such as you might get to one side of a nose if whomever it might belong to looked straight at you. Radiant Chrome Yellow and Lead White bled from the halo, forming an irregular bright patch with contours roughly like the angel’s rightmost cheek if it were slightly moved so that it was illuminated. With a bleak, numb horror moving up his spine Ern realised that without its modelling disturbing the almost-flat plane on which it was described or breaking from the confines of its two-dimensional domain, the angel’s massive face was turning slowly, still within the surface of the fresco, to regard him with a gaze that was head-on. New creases of Payne’s Grey coagulated at the corners of its eyes as loaf-sized lids, formerly downcast shyly, fluttered open with small flakes of paint falling from fresh-created wrinkles into Ernest’s mouth as he stood there beneath the spectacle with jaw hung wide. His circumstances were so wholly unbelievable he didn’t even have the wits to scream but took another step back with one hand clapped tight across his gaping maw. At the far edges of the figure’s epic mouth, also migrated up and to the left now, dimpled cracks of mingled Ivory Black and crimson crinkled into being as the pale, foot-long lips parted and the painted angel spoke.
“Theis whille beye veery haerdt foure yew” it said, sounding concerned.
The ‘is’ or the essential being of this coming while as, from your viewpoint, it apparently goes by will be a sudden and extreme veer in the pathway of your heart with things that you have heard concerning a fourth angle of existence causing difficulties to arise within your mortal life, that is concluded in a graveyard where the yew trees flourish, and this will be very hard for you. Ern understood this complicated message, understood that it was somehow all squeezed down into just seven mostly unfamiliar words that had unfolded and unpacked themselves inside his thoughts, like the unwrapping of a children’s paper puzzle or a Chinese poem. Even as he struggled to absorb the content bound in this exploded sentence, the mere noise of it unravelled him. It had a fullness and dimension to its sound, compared to a whole orchestra performing in a concert hall, such as the latter might have in comparison with a tin whistle blown inside an insulated cupboard. Every note of it seemed to be spiralling away in countless fainter and more distant repetitions, the same tones at an increasingly diminished scale until these split into a myriad still smaller echoes, eddying minuscule whirlwinds made of sound that spun off into the persistent background thunderclaps and disappeared.
Now that it had completed that first startling quarter turn the table-sized face seemed almost to settle down into its new configuration. Only at its edges and around the mobile mouth and eyes were particles still creeping, dots of pigment skittering in little sand-slides round the fresco’s curvature and making small adjustments to accommodate the slight and natural movements of the figure’s head, the shift of gleam and shadow on its opening and closing lips.
In the few moments that had actually elapsed since the commencement of the episode Ernest had clutched at and as soon discarded several desperate rationalizations of his situation. It was all a dream, he thought, but then knew instantly that it was not, that he was wide awake, that those teeth on the left side of his mouth still ached, with those upon the right retaining fragments of fried bread from breakfast. He decided that it was a prank, perhaps accomplished with a Magic Lantern, but was instantly reminded that the pictures cast by such devices do not move. A Pepper’s Ghost, then, like they had at Highbury Barn so that the shade of Hamlet’s father seemed to walk upon the stage, but no, no, the effect required a sheet of angled glass and there was nothing in Ern’s working-space save Ern himself and his materials.
As each fresh explanation turned to shreds of flimsy tissue in his hands he felt the panic terror welling in him until he could take no more of it. His tightening throat choked out a sob that sounded womanly in his own ears and turning from the apparition he began to run, but as the footing shuddered under his first step the dreadful fact of where he was, alone and at great altitude, returned to him with overwhelming force. Above, the thunderstorm had clambered to its flashing, crashing peak and even if Ern could have overcome the clenched paralysis that gripped his vocal cords for long enough to scream, nobody down below would ever hear him.
He’d just jump, then, get the whole thing over with and better that, the flailing fall, the pulverising impact, better that than this, this thing, but he had hesitated far too long already, knew he couldn’t really do it, knew he was and always had been in the last analysis a coward when it came to death and pain. He shuffled back around to face the angel, hoping against hope that when he did the trick of light or hearing would have been corrected, but the mammoth physiognomy was looking straight towards him, its peripheral lines still squirming faintly and the highlights on its lids slithering quickly to change places with the eye-whites as it blinked, then blinked again. The roseate tones in which its lips had been depicted swirled and curdled as it tried what seemed intended as a reassuring smile. At this, Ern started quietly weeping in the way he’d wept when he had been a boy and there was simply nothing else save crying to be done. He sat down on the planks and sank his face into his hands as that transfixing voice again began to speak, with its unwinding depths and curlicued reverberations scurrying away to shimmering nothing.
“Justiiyes abdoveer thier straeelthe.”
Just I, yes, I, just my affirming presence and my just eyes watching from above, around a veer or corner in the heavens where the doves and pigeons fly, among the hierarchies and the hierophants of this higher Hierusalem, over the straight and honest straitened trails which are the aether of the poor that I have made my great tribunal whereby do I now announce that Justice be above the Street.
Ern had his stinging eyes closed and his palms pressed to his face, but found he could still see the angel anyway, not through his finger-cracks or eyelids as with a bright light but more as if the rays had swerved around these obstacles by some route Ern could not determine. His attempts to block the sight out proving useless he next clasped his hands across his ears instead, but had no more success. Rather than being muffled by the intervening pads of gristle, bone and fat, the entity’s cascading voice seemed to be circumventing these impediments to sound with crystal clarity, almost as if its source were inside Ernest’s skull. Remembering his father’s madness, Ern was coming rapidly to the conclusion that in fact this might well be the case. The talking fresco was just a delusion and Ern had gone round the bend like his old man. Or, on the other hand, he was still sane and this uncanny intervention was a real event, was genuinely taking place there in the dangling loft above St. Paul’s, there in Ern’s world, there in his life. Neither of these alternatives was bearable.
The sparkling music of each angel-word, its shivering harmonic fronds and its disintegrating arabesques, was crafted so the sounds were subdivided endlessly in ever-smaller copies of themselves, just as each branch is like its tree in miniature, each individual twig a scaled-down reproduction of its branch. A river that fragmented into streams and at last rivulets upon its delta, every syllable would trickle through a thousand fissures and capillaries into Ern’s core, into the very fabric of him, all its meaning saturating him in such a way that its least nuance could not be misheard, misunderstood or missed.
“Justice above the Street”, the vast, flat face had said, or that at least had been a part of it, and in his thoughts he found a strong and sudden visual image to accompany the phrase. In his mind’s eye he saw what was, in short, a set of scales hung up above a winding band of road, but the stark crudeness of the imagery bewildered Ern, who’d always thought he had a fair imagination for such things. These were no gleaming balances suspended in the glorious streaming sky above a rustic lane as in some Bible illustration, but the rough marks of a child or imbecile. The hanging pans and their supporting chains were no more than uneven triangles, joined near and not exactly at their apex by an oblong drawn in an unpracticed hand. Below this was a wavering and elongated rectangle that may have been a street or may as well have been a strip of curling ribbon.
With as few lines to its making as the angel’s utterance had words, the simple sketch unloaded all its diverse implications into Ern by much the same means that the being’s voice had utilised, implanting modest parcels of awareness that unwrapped themselves into a thing much bigger and more complicated. Studying the slipshod mental picture, Ernest comprehended that it was related in a mystifying way to every idle thought he’d had while on his walk to work that day, as though those notions had been foggy and inverted memories of this immediate revelation, memories that in some puzzling fashion one might have before their subject had occurred. The image in his head, he understood, had a connection to his earlier musings on the difficulties of the poor, to his consideration of the shoe-trade in Northampton and seemed even relevant to the rude, loving thoughts he’d had about his wife. It also called to mind his ponderings upon his offspring, John and little Thursa, and what would become of them, as well as his brief conjuring of Heaven as located at great height above the streets of Lambeth. Chiefly, though, Ern was reminded of the black men that he’d thought of in America, the freed slaves and his horrid visualisation of the branded children. He still wept, sat helpless there upon the filthy floorboards, but his tears were not now wholly for himself.
Having succeeded in attracting Ern’s attention, the big painting of a face proceeded to impart its lesson, there amidst the crackling wrath and rage that seemed locked in a course which circled the cathedral’s spire. From the continual and subtle shifts of its demeanour, it seemed anxious to convey instruction of profound importance on a staggering range of topics, many of them seeming to be matters of mathematics and geometry for which Ern, though illiterate, had always had a flair. The knowledge, anyway, decanted into him so that he had no choice as to whether he took it in or not.
The vision first explained, using its mangled and compacted bouillon-words, that the surrounding storm was a result of something, in this instance the angel itself, moving from one world to another. In with this Ern heard an inference that storms themselves had a geometry that was to human senses unperceivable, that bolts of lightning that might strike in different places and on different days were yet the selfsame discharge, though refracted, with reflections even scattering through time, into the past and future. The phrase by which it expressed this wisdom was “Foure lerlaytoernings maarcke iyuour entreanxsists …” For lightnings mark our transits …
Ernest lifted up his shining flash-lit cheeks to stare despairingly at the quartet of archangels picked out in blue and gold upon the skullcap of the dome above the frescoes. Tranquil and expressionless they offered no assistance, were no consolation, but at least weren’t moving. As he let his gaze sink back to the expanse of slowly writhing specks that was the face of his interlocutor, Ern distantly realised that this was the only area of the fresco, or of any of the frescoes, which was thus afflicted. In a sense, this made things worse because if he were mad then wouldn’t he be seeing visions bubbling everywhere and not just in one place? He wished he could pass out or even have his heart pack in and die, so this insufferable horror would be over, done with, but instead it just went on and on and on. Looking towards him patiently across the boards that cut it off at chest-height, the huge head appeared to shrug its robe-draped shoulders sympathetically, an energetic ripple of displaced mauves and burnt umbers moving through the garment’s folds and then resettling as the glimmering impossibility resumed Ern Vernall’s education, much of it related to the field of architecture.
” … aeond thier cfhourvnegres orfflidt Heerturnowstry awre haopended.”
And there at the higher convergence of the aeons that is fourfold on the dim benighted verges of our Heaven, at the ‘or’ of things, the golden-lighted hinge of possibility that in this hour when are black people freed hove off the lid of an eternal here and now of history that is already happened, has turned out, has ended happily with hope and awe or is in your awareness unresolved and open-ended, yet rejoice that Justice be above the Street, for lightnings mark our transit and the corners of Eternity are opened.
This continued for two and three-quarter hours.
The lecture was expansive, introducing Ern to points of view he’d never really thought about before. He was invited to consider time with every moment of its passing in the terms of plane geometry, and had it pointed out that human beings’ grasp of space was incomplete. An emphasis was placed on corners having unseen structural significance, being located at the same points on an object whether realised in plan or elevation, constant though they be expressed in two or three or more dimensions. Next there was a discourse on topography, albeit one in which that subject was projected to a metaphysical extreme. It was made clear to him that Lambeth was adjacent to far-off Northampton if both were upon a map that should be folded in a certain way, that the locations although distant could be in a sense conceived as being in the same place.
Still on matters topographic, Ern was introduced to a new understanding of the torus, or ‘the life-belt shape’ as he inwardly called it, an inflated round pierced by a hole. It was remarked upon that both the human body with its alimentary canal and humble chimney with its central bore were variations on this basic form, and that a person might be seen as an inverted smokestack, shovelling fuel into its top end with brown clouds of solid smoke erupting from the other to disperse in either earth or sea, in anything save sky. It was this point, despite the tears still coursing down his cheeks, despite the fact that he felt he was drowning, at which Ern began to laugh. The idea of a man or woman as a chimneypot turned upside down was just so comical he couldn’t help it, with the picture that it called up of long streaming turds unfurling over London from the city’s foundry towers.
Ern laughed, and as he did so did the angel, and its every scintillating intonation was brim-full with Joy, with Joy, with Joy, with Joy, with Joy.
Excerpted from Jerusalem by Alan Moore. Copyright © 2016 by Alan Moore. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
Alan Moore’s Jerusalem will be available on 13 September 2016.