In England’s Boroughs
Northampton by Step72
From The New York Times:
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.”