Let’s get one thing out of the way: Alan Moore—renowned comics writer and author of the celebrated superhero epic Watchmen—isn’t a recluse. He leaves the house to do things like plan arts festivals and make short films, and he even spent a few days on holiday in Brighton with his wife not long ago and had, he says, “a lovely time.”
This mild statement may come as a surprise to those who know of Moore’s unwillingness to travel to comic book conventions, even to accept awards. It’s one of many insights I get when I ring him up. We met once 30 years ago at his last U.S. convention, and we have spoken a few times since; despite his cranky reputation, I’m warmly greeted.
Speaking in intimidatingly long and thoughtful sentences, Moore is affable, relaxed, and eager to talk about his new novel, Jerusalem, to be published in September by Norton’s Liveright imprint in the U.S. and Knockabout in the U.K. It’s a 600,000-word opus that has been lurking, Cthulhu-like, behind his last decade of work. Remixing the most-reader-challenging tricks of writers such as James Joyce, Roland Barthes, and Mark Z. Danielewski, Jerusalem is an astonishing collection of words and ideas that weaves a hypnotic spell.
Getting back to the travel thing, Moore confesses he has “been a bit light on holidays.” It’s not so much a desire to stay in his house as it is an intense connection to his hometown of Northampton, in the East Midlands of England. This humble city is his muse; he is its poet laureate, and the massive Jerusalem is an extraordinary exploration of the minutiae of Northampton history, geography, and existence, mined from a love and knowledge of the place no one else would be crazy enough to try to amass. He and the town share a birthday, he notes. “Maybe I’m more than the poet laureate, and I actually am Northampton. I think that most people around the town, they kind of know that.”
And Jerusalem is Northampton as well. A map of the center of town is printed in the endpapers, like the map in many a fantasy novel, but instead of tracking the journey through a Narnia or Westeros, it’s a world of common alleys and sordid churchyards where ordinary humans play out the intricate art of living, dying, and remembering, and an occasional dark menace—human or otherwise—appears fleetingly just beyond a garden wall.
Moore explored the city in two previous works: his first novel, Voice of the Fire, was also a history of Northampton told from multiple viewpoints. And the idea of time and family informed the great lost work of the Moore canon, Big Numbers, originally called The Mandelbrot Set, an unfinished comic series that mixed the changes wrought in a small English town with the then-newish idea of fractal images. Why this single-minded focus? Something about Northampton shines through the cracks of time and space, Moore says. It’s all the inspiration he’ll ever need: “Jerusalem started out on the gamble that I would have enough material to fill a book that was as big as the one that I was envisioning. And I think I was right to trust the town on that one. Didn’t let me down.”
The novel’s origin lies in Moore’s contemplation of his own mortality. He found various conceptions of the afterlife lacking. The conventional Christian idea “didn’t sound like it was quite the kind of lifestyle that I’d like to pursue for the rest of eternity,” he says. “All of that golden marble, it sounded like a 1980s plasterers bathroom.” He realized that the afterlife he’d like most was simply “my lovely, untidy house, all of my books, my wife and my children, and my friends, and my childhood, and all of my experience—but just forever.” Moore found a solution that was “startlingly easy”: he wrote an immense novel that encompasses all of his feelings for home and family. And along the way, he says, he unknowingly re-created Albert Einstein’s thinking about time and space.
Jerusalem, with its meditations and crisscrosses of time and the border between life and death, reflects the idea of time as a hypercube. According to Einstein, Moore says, “every single moment is embedded in that gigantic hyperinstant—where everything is happening, in a sense, at the same time.” He adds: “In between, you have every moment that ever has been or ever will be, and they’re all suspended in this giant block forever, unchangingly. And it is only our consciousness moving through this solid that gives the illusion of the passage of time.”
Moore also drew on his own family’s experiences—he appears in the book as Alma Warren, a tall, opinionated sculptor who is Moore in feminine guise—and the memory of a bad experience 10 years ago involving salvia, a South American ritual drug. “Admittedly, I did take rather a large dose to overcome my extreme tolerance for psychoactive drugs,” he confesses. The experience, what he recalls of it, “was something immense. It took me a couple of months to sort of stop feeling haunted by it.” During the trip he felt surrounded by his family, and he also had the sensation of “being up high, on the rooftops, above normal life,” with his ancestors. “I can’t make any sense of that at all,” Moore says. “If I could have, I probably wouldn’t have had to write Jerusalem.”
His empathy for his characters took a dangerous turn when he wrote the chapter based on Lucia Joyce (daughter of James Joyce), who died in a mental institution in Northampton, which is written in a complex invented language. Moore had to take over a year off from working on the book when he finished this section. “At the end of it, I couldn’t think in English for a few days. I was kind of mentally and linguistically nuked.” Yet “the torturous mind-bending part of it was actually the part that I enjoyed the most. It took me almost two years to recuperate from it. But it was ecstatic and probably the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever written.”
But will readers enjoy it too? Moore’s best-known works until now have been comics—the dystopian superheroes of Watchmen, the rebellious conspiracies of V for Vendetta, and the controversial Batman adventure The Killing Joke. Recent works such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Providence have been crowd-pleasers. Jerusalem is definitely not a crowd-pleaser, but Moore has no qualms about putting readers through their paces.
He admits that the concept of literary difficulty was on his mind. “An author will take on a difficult literary approach, knowing it will alienate a certain section of the audience, but which he or she also knows will force the remaining members of the audience to engage with the work upon a more strenuous level.” It’s an approach that Moore used for the notoriously difficult first chapter of Voice of the Fire, and he says, “It’s probably what I’m trying to do in general with a lot of my work.”
This sort of difficulty is what Moore enjoys most as a reader himself. “I don’t like this passive response to art and entertainment that seems to typify the modern era. I don’t like this thought of a massive audience of the passively entertained.”
French critic Roland Barthes famously enumerated five codes in a literary work. Moore suggests he’s found a sixth one, the “ludic code”: an author having fun with himself. “I want that audience to get out of their seats,” he says. “I don’t want them to do as much work as I’ve done, but I want them to do more work than they’re used to, because I think that at the end, they will have had a much more rewarding and genuine experience than if they’d just been entertained passively for a few hours—or in the case of Jerusalem, a few weeks.”
For those who admire Moore, Jerusalem will be the ultimate vindication of his love of technique and allusions. For those who don’t—well, they won’t get far. “Very often I am writing about writing,” he says. “Not to the exclusion of the story. Jerusalem does have a plot. In fact it has several.”
With Jerusalem set to either enshrine him as an important prose author or else a prolix Northampton eccentric, Moore still has a few comics projects in the works, including a final volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But then he wants to concentrate on other creative challenges. In the past he’s recorded albums and published a magazine, and recently he’s been collaborating with filmmaker Mitch Jenkins on a series of short films. Retirement is nowhere in sight. “I think that I’ve contributed probably enough to comics. I can kind of round off that period. What I’m looking forward to is to exploring all of these neglected areas.”
Still, if Moore ends up joining challenging authors such as Danielewski and David Foster Wallace, it’s fine by him. “They’re trying to stretch the boundaries,” he says. “Because, at least from my point of view, the only thing to do with any genre, any medium, is pretty much to break it, to transcend it, to find out what its limits are, and then go beyond them, and see what happens.”