This is it, the Big Book to end all Big Books. The one you may have heard of — Jesusalem — written by that guy who also writes the comics or whatever? (Alan Moore, the groundbreaking, hairy genius behind V For Vendetta and Watchmen.) The one that took him a decade to peck out, clocks in at something like 1300 pages, and weighs as much as a small, dense cat?
It's that Really Big Book, and if you care about books you already know about Jerusalem or you're going to hear about it, and you're going to ask yourself that one, all-important question when it comes to Really Big Goddamn Books: Do I need to read this one?
Yes, you do.
Inasmuch as anyone ever has to read anything, you have to read Jerusalem. People are going to say a lot of things about it — that it's massive (obviously), that it's brilliant (it is), that it's beautiful and maddening and sweet and stupid all in equal measure (true, true, true and true). That it involves dozens (hundreds) of characters — from artists to angels and prostitutes to politicians, from James Joyce to Lucia Joyce (his daughter) and Samuel Becket to Oliver Cromwell — across a span of a thousand years. And that's true, too. Except where it isn't.
Because none of them are 'characters' in any traditional sense. They are, more than anything, decorations. Filips of detail strewn across a very large stage.
No, the half-mile square patch of working-class Northampton known as the Boroughs (conveniently, also Moore's home) is the only character in Jerusalem that actually matters. It has the plot. The arc. It is the only thing permanent enough (save god, and maybe quantum physics) and the only thing resilient enough to count as a character in a novel that's not a story so much as it is dozens (or hundreds) of stories, all woven together into the shape of a novel which is, at almost all points, reminiscent of Joyce's own Ulysses (there are those who will tell you it's more Finnegan's Wake, but those people are fools) with its wandering sensibilities and over-and-over-again chronicling of days in the workaday lives of those who walk the streets of the Boroughs and those others who exist, timeless, in its eternity.
Also, there's a big chunk that's also written in the style of Joyce. But then, there's also a section that's written as a play. Another as an epic poem. Another in a kind of Burroughs/Cormac McCarthy cut-up pastiche with no capitalization or punctuation. Because, when you have a thousand pages to play with, you're going to try some tricks, right? You're going to stretch your wings and see if you can fly. And sometimes, Moore does.
And even when he doesn't, it's fun to watch him try.
Should you read it? Absolutely. Because it is insane in the best possible way. Overachieving in the best possible way. Digressive in the best possible way. It's full of cowboys and dead kids, drunken poets, history, metaphysics, strange cameos, highly personal rants against everything from modern politics to the comic book industry. There are long stretches (like a couple hundred pages about a child choking on a cough drop which devolves into a mind-and-time-bending journey through history, the future, extra dimensions, the spirit realm and, mostly, Moore's remarkable imagination) that play out like pure, mainline literary fireworks. In its best moments, it's like a bedtime story for the overeducated and extraordinarily verbose.
I read maybe a third of it while suffering from a nasty head cold, half-loopy on cold medicine, on my couch, in the middle of the night. All of it was like some kind of pleasant fever dream — the kind of thing you might see while dying slowly of something exotic and tropical, like dengue or malaria — and, like reading Melville, when it got to be too much for me, I would skip paragraphs and pages and fall back into it wherever it hooked my eye. I imagined it all in my head in the voice of Hagrid from Harry Potter, and just kind of settled into it as though I'd been booked onto a months-long ocean crossing, sharing my creaking cabin with Moore as he spun this improbable yarn.
It was awesome. Amazing. Lyrical and beautiful and, in places, so annoying and didactic and over-over-OVER-written that I wanted to throw it across the room, but in others (like simple descriptions of rain or ghosts or the bit about the fist-fighting angels in the dream-world above the Boroughs and the devil mocking them for their poshness) it was so good and gorgeous that I wanted to get on a plane, fly over to Northampton, find Alan Moore, tug on his beard and just say, "Man, what took you so long."
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.