The greatest challenge about reviewing Jerusalem by Alan Moore is summarizing what it's about. This isn't a traditional novel and it doesn't deliver a normal story. The plot is meandering, almost vestigial in some sections. Setting is paramount—language, tone, atmosphere, characters: all of these matter far more than mere plot.
I've come to think of this book as being akin to the Bayeux Tapestry—a sprawling and artistically audacious account of a place and its people. It's a love letter to a neighborhood as only Moore can write it.
In general terms, it's a quasi-fictional history of the Boroughs—the poverty-stricken Northampton neighborhood in England where Alan Moore was born, raised, and still lives—from ancient times through the near future, not told in chronological order, and actively eschewing the concept of linear narrative. It's the story of a unique family who lives there through several generations, and various persons associated with them. It's a story of the afterlife and eternity and the Universe. It's a story about life and death, art and work, obligation and free will, ghosts and angles and builders and demons. Visions and dreams are as real in this world as reality.
If I had to categorize this book, I'd probably call it fantastical realism. Everyone is going to shelve it in their SF sections. But it's more than just these—it's philosophical, historical, political, religious.
It's holy and profane, poetic and pedestrian, beautiful and gritty. It's deeply human. It's hard to explain. You really need to read it.
Alan Moore is famous as one of the most accomplished and lauded comic book writers in history. As much as anyone, he elevated illustrated storytelling formats to the level of robust literature. I had no idea Moore could write like this. Nothing in his graphic works prepared me for the sheer mastery of language on display here. It's a stunning accomplishment. This may actually be a literary work for the ages.
The scope of the work is boggling: not merely in terms of length and word count, but the timeline and setting, as well. It covers all of history, and explodes a narrow British neighborhood into a diorama of the whole Universe and eternity. Moore's knowledge of history is deep and he draws connections between things that many of us miss. The concepts at play here are inventive: his vision of the afterlife is unlike any I've come across.
It's well informed and hugely imaginative. This work is best described as visionary.
Moore's character development, as always, is stellar. All of the people in this book are individual and believable, all possess a tremendous depth of detail, and all ground the world of the novel in the reality of human existence. He has inherent compassion for the characters he writes and that makes it easy for the reader to step into their shoes, to experience the story through their perspectives, and understand what it's like to live in the world of this book.
Jerusalem is brilliant. It's powerful. I think it might even be important. Which is why it's odd that I really didn't like it at first.
It's clear early on that this book is masterfully written but I found it difficult to get into. The first third of it slid past without anything that hooked me. The language is beautiful but none of it stuck, the characters are relatable but I felt no passion for any of them. I kept looking for a story and not finding one. It made for quite a frustrating reading experience. Progress was slow and I frequently questioned whether it was worth this much work. It demands a great deal of effort and I found myself resenting that—I didn't see that it gave me enough rewards to warrant such demands. I came **this** close to giving up several times.
I'm glad I didn't. It took me over 600 pages, but I learned to love this book.
Jerusalem isn't forgiving. It's not easy and it's not necessarily fun. Even after the switch flips and you finally figure out how to read it properly, even after you finally find a flow, Moore still trips you up and throws you for a loop. This novel is confounding and frustrating. You have to trust that all the pieces of it will come together in their own time—and that trust is often challenged. It's worth it. This book demands a lot of work, but that work is fully rewarded. It just takes an act of faith to get to the point where the rewards begin to reveal themselves.
Put that way, it's entirely appropriate and yet another example of how deeply masterful this work is. In their review, Library Journal concluded that Jerusalem is “[m]ore of a work of art than a novel”. I think that's the best summary possible.