John Feinstein is one of the big names in sports journalism. He’s written books on a number of headline-getting sports stories and consequently can be heard often on sports radio as an expert guest. Feinstein’s background is as a newspaper guy, writing for the Washington Post among others. The Last Amateurs is about college basketball in the Patriot League, a (mostly) non-scholarship league that struggles to survive in the world of big time college ball. To Feinstein, this is one of the last bastions of unadulterated amateur basketball in the United States. These kids play for little more than the love of the game and the glory of winning the league’s one berth to the NCAA Tournament. He follows the seven teams from schools like Holy Cross, Lehigh, and Navy through a whole season, focusing on the personalities, on the struggles peculiar to this one of a kind league, and on the great basketball games that never came close to showing up on a Sportscenter highlight reel. Feinstein’s newsy writing and copious background anecdotes keep the book moving at a fast pace. It isn’t, however, the transcendent sports writing of a Roger Angell. Instead, the book reads like a dozen Sports Illustrated articles strung end to end. As such, this is a fantastic book for fans of college basketball, as it really captures what is best about that game.
“I do miss something from the war,” Bosnian journalist Nidzara Ahmetasevic tells Sebastian Junger halfway through his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Ahmetasevic is talking about the wartime closeness she shared with friends in a basement bomb shelter in besieged Sarajevo. “The love that we shared was enormous,” Ahmetasevic says. “I missed being close to people, I missed being loved in that way.”
The sentiment lies at the heart of Tribe, a book offering a surprising thesis about the ways humans have traded communal belonging for excessive safety.
Junger gets a considerable amount done in a quick 133 pages: Tribe posits a reason why white settlers found life among Native American tribes appealing, theorizes about false PTSD claims among returned U.S. veterans, and conveys the author’s equality-minded view of how heroic behavior varies between genders — all in addition to remarks on hitchhiking, attachment parenting, Junger’s dad’s opinion of military service, and more. It’s an awful lot of ground to cover in such a short book, and it’s inevitable that Tribe would either feel inchoate and sketched or else aggravatingly dense. Because Junger is an adventurous storyteller (rather than, say, an academic theoretician), he opts for the former.
It’s not necessarily a good thing. The book’s lightness makes it accessible, an easy entry point to weighty subject matter. But its concision can make Tribe feel breezy even as it discusses life and death — if not outright incomprehensible.
Tribe is essentially a critique of modern civilization, beginning with Junger’s observation of the inexorable appeal of Native American lifeways to early settlers (“The intensely communal nature of an Indian tribe held an appeal that the material benefits of Western civilization couldn’t necessary compete with”). It proceeds through an examination of how disastrous or violent circumstances can create similar human closeness, and includes a discussion of how our society’s distancing itself from such harsh conditions has inadvertently sharpened those events’ capacity to traumatize the people who endure them.
All of these points have been covered in other, heavier books. Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday examines traditional tribal lifestyles’ usefulness in the present day. The entanglement of war with human closeness and purpose is the focus of Chris Hedges’s War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. (Both Hedges and Junger include the same anecdote, in fact, about a teenage couple in besieged Sarajevo, that dies, sniper-shot, on the banks of the Miljacka River.) Junger also briefly mentions the work of seminal disaster researcher Charles Fritz, noting that Fritz could find almost no examples of mass panic during large-scale disasters. This plays into his overarching point that difficult experiences can be unifying rather than shattering. The exact same studies by Fritz and fellow researchers — and that exact same, crucial point — are detailed in Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant A Paradise Built in Hell.
Junger uses these insights towards another point. “Because modern society has almost completely eliminated trauma and violence from everyday life, anyone who does suffer these things is deemed to be extraordinarily unfortunate,” he writes. “This gives people access to sympathy and resources but also creates an identity of victimhood that can delay recovery.” This is an important observation. It, too, resonates quite closely with previous work — in this case Harvard psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman’s seminal book Trauma and Recovery, which remarks that “to hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim and that joins victim and witness in a common alliance.”
What Junger achieves, then, is to assemble parts of all those books into one slim volume. So much the better for the busy reader. Unfortunately, Junger’s quick look at violence, trauma, and modern anomie also omits important information from other books, and as a result ends up on shaky ground, failing to consider counterpoints or bring its own arguments to a close.
Part of the takeaway from this book is that regarding military service as a source of permanent psychiatric disability is incorrect for most soldiers. Junger includes a lengthy discussion of how the U.S. Veterans Administration mishandles former soldiers’ mental health issues, and how America’s cultural misunderstanding of war plays into that deleterious milieu. The information isn’t wrong per se, but what it has to do with the rest of the romanticizing of foregone tribal lifeways, etc., or why that necessitates anything more than the 2015 Vanity Fair article from which the book sprung is never quite made clear. Worse, Junger says that the low rate of combat engagement among U.S. soldiers means their diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder often aren’t real — but he fails to consider that some soldiers develop PTSD from military sexual trauma, or from other adverse experiences outside of combat or before their enlistment.
Worse, he seems to misunderstand the diagnosis entirely. Here, as in the Vanity Fair article, Junger describes his own bout with what he calls “classic short-term PTSD,” departing from this insight to further dissect trauma and the ways modern society misunderstands it. The problem is, there really is no such thing as “short-term PTSD.” It sounds like what Junger had was post-traumatic stress, a weeks- or months-long psychological adaptation to adverse events (in his case, exposure to war) that typically resolves on its own. Although psychological care can sometimes be relevant, most mental health professionals don’t regard this as an illness. (Tellingly, Junger’s approach to his diagnosis involved little more than an acquaintance’s ad hoc comment at “a family picnic.”) Post-traumatic stress disorder is only diagnosable after three to six months, does not often go away on its own, and can endure for a lifetime if untreated. The implication that Junger’s case is typical PTSD is misleading — and to some extent, calls his conclusions into question.
The problems in his argument go even deeper. “In Bosnia — as it is now — we don’t trust each other anymore; we became really bad people,” Ahmetasevic tells Junger. “We didn’t learn the lesson of the war, which is how important it is to share everything you have with human beings close to you.” Junger’s thesis is that other cultures (the “Stone-Age tribes” white settlers once joined) did learn that lesson. But he assumes that violence is innate to humans and necessary for human closeness, never parsing evidence that it is not. And he doesn’t examine what this Bosnian journalist means by “really bad,” and how becoming so after the war might have arisen directly from the painful, long-lasting effects of the severe trauma Junger doesn’t quite seem to believe in.
He does argue that collective dissatisfaction with our “society that is basically at war with itself” should lead to a large-scale rearrangement of our lives and lifestyles. (“I also believe that the world we are living in — and the peace that we have — is very fucked up if somebody is missing war,” Ahmetasevic offers.) In a time of impending ecological disaster, that’s worth considering. Junger’s point about encouraging stronger communities and more human closeness is a good one. But this half-baked, too-brief book, so scattershot that its message is hard to ascertain, won’t get us there.
The title character of Marcy Dermansky’s tantalizing second novel Bad Marie is a quintessentially modern anti-hero. A smoker, a drinker, an adulterer. She curses in the company of small children. She gets a little drunk at work. Marie is the guilty pleasure personified, a trickster set loose on bourgeois morality and tact.
An attractive young woman who often touts her breasts as her most prominent if not best feature, Marie constantly calculates how other women measure up to her. She’s also a convicted felon. (She aided and abetted a bank robber named Juan José, who was her lover at the time.) Released from prison on her thirtieth birthday, she quickly reconnects with a childhood friend, Ellen, who hires Marie to serve as nanny to her “precocious” two year-old daughter, Caitlin. We’re told from the start that the arrangement “would have been humiliating had Marie any ambition in life. Fortunately, Marie was not in any way ambitious.” Don’t believe it, though. Marie’s ambitions are just more devious than those of most people. Conversely, her friend Ellen is a successful New York lawyer. She has an amazing apartment, a refrigerator stocked with tempting food, an angelic daughter, an exotic French novelist husband name Benoît Doniel. It’s via Ellen’s life that Marie gains access to most of her guilty pleasures—chocolate, whiskey, inane cable movies, long baths, the seduction of a married man. Marie is the type of person who can’t help but give in to guttural desire in ways that would shame most people beyond words.
The trouble starts early, when Marie is discovered passed out in the bathtub with Caitlin. Even while Ellen berates her, the seduction of Benoît Doniel begins. Naked in the tub, Marie opens her legs “not a lot, just enough” and locks eyes with him. Before the week is over, Benoît joins Marie and Caitlin for long daytime baths—a precursor to the rendezvous with Benoît in his and Ellen’s bed while Caitlin naps. Marie falls in love with Benoît, or she falls in love with the idea of him, a man she sees as “the world’s most attractive, underappreciated living French author.” Unsurprisingly, it isn’t long before Marie and Benoît rush onto a flight to Paris, running off with Caitlin secretly, illegally, Ellen’s credit cards footing the bill. Marie convinces herself that Ellen’s sense of entitlement makes it okay to do these things. “Ellen really thought she had it all: happiness, a family, security.” But this was all before Marie arrived to take her down a peg.
Marie believes she’s found a kindred soul in Benoît. Unfortunately for her, she has. He’s just as bad, if not worse, than she is. It’s this twist that forces her to grow up. She starts off feeling very adult on the airplane. After all, she’s packed “juice cups and diapers, organic string cheese” for a toddler. She doesn’t yet know about the hundred things Caitlin will need in Paris that she forgot in New York. Benoît even admits that “this will all end badly” when they’re on the plane. But he does nothing to stop it. His ennui seems romantic at the time, and Benoît a prisoner of fate. However, even before they make it across the Atlantic, Marie begins to learn that his acquiescence is not an endearing symptom of their love, but an albatross. Their tryst in Paris is quickly undercut by the responsibility of caring for a small child. It’s all id, for both the adults and the child, and it can’t last long like that.
Dermansky offers a satisfying portrayal in Bad Marie of what it’s like to be blissfully at the whims of a toddler—to win by losing, by giving in. Marie is only really happy when she’s with Caitlin, strolling in the park, bathing, napping, eating mac n’ cheese. There’s so much real affection between Marie and Caitlin, as they struggle and grow together like real families do, that one almost forgets how ineffably wrong it is what Marie’s doing. In many ways, it’s the fulfillment of the life she imagined for herself before her life with the bank robber turned terribly wrong, before prison. Her life with Caitlin, though, isn’t sustainable either. Marie doesn’t have enough money to keep going for long. And, of course, Caitlin isn’t actually her daughter.
There’s something about Marie that drives her to places where she doesn’t speak the language, where she’s baffled by the culture, and this says a lot about her. She’s lost, sure. But she had a chance at a future once too, she’d done well-enough in college, before she became irreversibly bad, before she fell in love with Juan José. Marie can’t help herself, and that’s compelling and endearing. Above all else, it’s tragically human. Even when she doesn’t want to—especially then—she flees from safety, the angel-haired Caitlin on her hip. We know she’s doing wrong. That’s the obvious part. But we also see the denied potential in Marie, the unrequited love. She’s been shit on her whole life, so it’s kind of satisfying to see her fight back, even if she does so via the reckless endangerment of a small child.
That being said, it isn’t hard to imagine a narrative counter to Marie’s, one from Ellen’s perspective. Something you might see on Dateline or 20/20. A successful woman robbed of her child by an envious girlhood friend, the babysitter, and a dusky, adulterous foreign husband with an overly indulgent name. Ellen is a teary, rueful presence that shadows Bad Marie. For as much as Marie needs Caitlin, it’s still Ellen the girl begs for, not Marie. Time and again throughout the novel, Marie is forced to realize this. She fantasizes about Ellen’s pain, Ellen jealousy. She wants to make Ellen hurt, but she can’t do this without also hurting Caitlin.
A film critic, in addition to being an engaging and witty prose stylist, Marcy Dermansky has confirmed the heavy influence of film on her work—stating in the endnotes that Bad Marie was her “attempt at writing a French movie.” The echoes of characters and plotlines are clear. Bad Marie can easily be pictured as French New Wave without the saccharine music, or a more contemporary French thriller like Tell No One or Right Now. We have pseudo-artists, stylish, artful, uncompromising, unutilitarian; an obsession with how people take on and transform identity at will, and how they suffer the consequences of metamorphosis; the juxtaposition of wealthy Paris celebrities with suburban mediocrity and obscurity. The stylized smoking, the promiscuity, the junk food. Bad Marie is satisfyingly familiar in these ways. What’s even more interesting is that Dermansky has never really spent much time in Paris, a “long weekend” she mentions in the endnotes. One of the reasons that this Paris is so familiar to a fan of French cinema is that it was written from the memory of a connoisseur of French cinema. And as such, Dermansky doesn’t exactly offer a sycophantic view of Paris. It’s gritty, it’s dangerous, it’s sometimes boring—the city, not the book.
In the novel, Marie is disappointed by this realness. She wants a Champs-Elysées from an advertisement, not the genuine article. “You think that if you ever go to Paris,” she explains to Caitlin, “that [going to the Eiffel Tower] is one thing that you have to do, and then when you get there, boom, you don’t want to. The appeal is all gone. You’re left with your own taste of bitter disappointment.” It’s when Marie moves past the disenchantment of her life that she shows real growth. Some maturity is salvaged from the ashes of regret. This is also why Caitlin is the most important supporting character of this pleasurably dark novel. If it wasn’t for the little girl who Marie has to care for, then she could just leave. She could cut her losses and take off. With Caitlin counting on her, with a child’s very survival in her hands, Marie has to gird herself and find a way to make things work.
There’s a scene early on in the mini-series version of Generation Kill in which Lee Tergesen, the actor who plays Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, wins over the Marines from 1st Recon Battalion with whom he is embedded. Recon is the eyes and ears of Operation Iraqi Freedom and one of the forwardmost units to push deep into Iraq in the first days of the war. The jarheads address Wright simply as “Reporter,” and treat him with a cool saltiness – until he lets slip that he used to write for Hustler. The soldiers, their raunchy humor already established, instantly warm to him. As the mission unfolds, Wright becomes the eyes and ears of the folks back home, evoking for his readers the cultish fraternity of American warriors on the front line of a strange war. HBO’s Generation Kill was based on a New York Times bestseller by Evan Wright, and it was adapted for HBO by David Simon and Ed Burns, the architects of The Wire. For his new collection of reported pieces, Hella Nation, Evan Wright breaks the ice in much the same way. In the introduction, he discusses his early years, a slow metamorphosis from shiftless slacker to crack reporter, starting with the unlikely gig as Hustler’s entertainment editor. “My career at Hustler began with an overdose of Xanax,” he writes, and we’re off and stumbling. Wright’s back-assward path into serious journalism makes for entertaining reading, and there’s an important point to it. In the early 1990s, his life was a parade of blurry tableaus: blackouts, bar fights, stealing cars, and “waking up in vacant lots or hospital emergency rooms not knowing how I had gotten there, or sometimes what my name was.” In journalism, Wright found a way to cope with his demons and overcome his youthful conviction that “failure was a sort of philosophy to live by.” He accomplished this turnaround by focusing on the lives of other people who lived at the margins of American society. In these remote places on the cultural map, the rivers run deep, the currents are swift and unpredictable, and people need a skillful guide if they wish to know what it’s like to ride the whitewater. His background as something of a misfit has enabled Wright to gain amazing access to the lives of other misfits. More than once, almost by chance, he has crossed paths with characters who live in parallel universes where values are warped and decorum non-existent. In “Portrait of a Con Artist,” which first appeared in Rolling Stone in 2000, Wright wrote about Seth Warshavsky, a dot-com whiz kid in Seattle who founded an online porn company, Internet Entertainment Group. By the late nineties, IEG was being touted by Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal as the porn industry’s version of Microsoft, supposedly earning revenue of $100 million in 1999. Following his departure from Larry Flynt’s Hustler, Wright moved from LA to Seattle and went to work for Warshavsky, a tourettic, human growth hormone-addicted porno-nerd-cum-Internet mogul. As chief Web editor, Wright soon learned that IEG was a sham, built around little more than smoke, mirrors, and Warshavsky’s pathological relationship with the truth in all of his business dealings. One thread that runs through all of the pieces in Hella Nation is Wright’s straightforward, almost deadpan descriptions of scenes that are perfectly absurd. During his ill-fated tenure at IEG, such scenes were common. One unfolded when Warshavsky had Wright meet with a group of analysts from an investment bank that had agreed to underwrite IEG’s initial public stock offering. Taking the men inside IEG’s video porn production warehouse, Wright was surprised to find that just one of the dozen or so booths that were supposed to be broadcasting live nude girls 24/7 contained an actual live nude girl. Far from being dismayed by the inactivity at the warehouse, the analysts gathered around the single booth, enthralled by a nude woman’s desultory masturbation before a webcam in a faux bedroom. “The one with the MBA from Harvard,” writes Wright, “suggested I had better insist on receiving stock options from my boss – Warshavsky – ahead of the IPO. He shot me a jocular smile.” This is a deeper subtext that runs through much of Wright’s work. As seemingly insane as many of his subjects are, their ridiculousness is often dwarfed by the ridiculousness of an American culture that is fascinated with, and eager to be taken in by, those risky characters who operate at society’s margins. The credulous businessmen in “Portrait of a Con Artist” are in this way not unlike Wright’s readership: ready, willing to be taken in. These are the stories that magazines like Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair live for. I, for one, was astounded and mesmerized by several of the stories in Hella Nation. I marveled at the access Wright was able to get and the thoroughness of his reporting. Only rarely did what he wrote strain my own credulity. Those moments were for the most part born of the skepticism of admiration. The stories include a dispatch from Afghanistan (Rolling Stone, ’02), where infantry soldiers from the Army’s 3-187th Battalion, Fifth Platoon Delta, are ostensibly battling the Taliban. In fact, they spend most of their days laboring in 125-degree heat, discussing the rumored existence of a McDonald’s in Kandahar, debating techniques for wiping your ass without toilet paper, and marveling at the disturbing proclivity of their Pashtun allies in the Anti-Taliban Forces to fraternize with young boys in their camp. There are profiles of an alcoholic skateboard punk from West Haven, Connecticut (Rolling Stone ’01), who won fame and corporate sponsorship in Hollywood by being featured doing never-before-seen tricks in underground skating videos, and a flamboyant Ultimate Fighting Challenge champ on whom the upstart blood sport had, at one time, hopes to pin (Men’s Journal ’02). In a breezy essay entitled “Scenes from My Life in Porn” (LA Weekly ’00) Wright sketches some mostly humorous memories from his days working at Larry Flynt Productions. One of the oldest stories, first published in Hustler in late ’97, is a profile of the rock group Motley Crue. At one point, the band’s drummer, Tommy Lee, explains how he had once managed to run himself over with his own car: “‘I pulled over to pee after drinking tons of beers,’ Tommy relates. “‘I left my Corvette in neutral, and it ran over both my legs. And dude, my leather pants fucking exploded.'” A lengthy piece that first appeared in Rolling Stone in 2000 follows the activities of a group of young anarchists, starting with the infamous Battle of Seattle during the World Trade Organization’s conference there: “As Wingnut inevitably says, when asked by police who his leader is, ‘I work for Mother Earth, arrest her.'” Wingnut’s other hero, we learn, is Ted Kaczynski. Wright travels with Wingnut from Seattle to a tree-sit high above the ground in the old-growth Douglas firs of the forest outside Eugene, Oregon, then down to LA. Wright covers a lot of ground, and he seems to prefer to treat every story as an embed. There are two stories in Hella Nation that I found particularly engrossing. The first is an investigative piece about a young San Francisco gym teacher who was attacked by her neighbor’s dogs in the hallway outside her apartment and killed. I remembered this gruesome story from when it happened in late 2001. Wright fills in astounding details. The dogs, rare Presa Canarios, were procured by a white supremacist while he served a life sentence in California state prison, and were being cared for by his lawyers, a married couple who had also legally adopted him. The couple exchanged pornographic letters with their “son,” and, it was rumored, photographs of the wife engaged in sexual acts with the dogs. The final story in the collection is a 25,000+ word profile of Pat Dollard that appeared in Vanity Fair in March ’07. Dollard was a Hollywood agent and producer until he dropped out of sight around Thanksgiving of 2004, only to resurface in Iraq, embedded with Marines in Baghdad. He returned to LA with a self-shot documentary film about his experiences and a desire to become a “conservative icon, the Michael Moore of the right.” Dollard’s late sister, Ann, was a prominent liberal activist, well-known in elite Hollywood circles, but this is not the only thing about him that made his new direction surprising. As Wright writes, “When you consider that just eighteen months earlier Dollard was a confessed whore-loving, alcoholic, coked-out Hollywood agent, his transformation into the great hope of conservative America is nothing short of astonishing.” Wright was first introduced to Dollard by a friend who believed Dollard could help him get Generation Kill made into a movie. The back of Hella Nation has a quote from Newsday: “[Evan Wright’s] style owes more to Hunter S. Thompson than to any sort of political correctness.” I sort of disagree, and so does Wright. “Gonzo journalism was born and died with Hunter S. Thompson, and lives on only in his writing,” he writes in the introduction. There’s no gonzo to Wright’s straightforward narrative approach – no madcap prose fraught with the writer’s own drug-fueled lunacy, a staple of Thompson’s work. Wright got that mostly out of his system before he became a serious journalist. Where Wright’s writing is reminiscent of Thompson’s is in certain conclusions about American culture that he leads the reader to. Wright’s subjects are outsiders, but an Evan Wright story is itself a subversion. The mainstream magazine reader is the one on the outside looking in.
“This will be very hard for you.”
— Alan Moore, Jerusalem (spoken by an angel)
Jerusalem, the new novel by Alan Moore, sits on my desk, thick and foreboding. At 1,279 pages, it’s a behemoth compared to the author’s last prose work, Voice of the Fire, a relatively scant 304.
One doesn’t just dive into a novel this size without testing the water. So I hold the book in my hands (it’s heavy, as expected, like a dense loaf of bread). I flip through the pages (the resultant breeze feels nice on this soupy summer day). I read over the marketing copy (vague, as expected). I think back on other Alan Moore works I’ve enjoyed (Watchmen, of course, but also his true magnum opus, the Jack the Ripper study From Hell). I wonder why I’ve taken up the task of reading this novel when my shelves are a graveyard of similarly sized ones, finished (Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day) and unfinished (David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest) alike.
I think: Alan Moore’s an imaginative storyteller. Despite Jerusalem’s intimidating size, it should be fun.
I also think: Maybe I should be reading this book on a Kindle.
There’s no clear way to approach Jerusalem other than to plunge in, so I do.
I’m a little over 200 pages in and already getting a sense of how Jerusalem is less a “mere” novel and more a grand literary project: an ambitious attempt by Moore to encapsulate the soul of his hometown of Northampton, England. The city was the same setting for his first novel, in which its spirit was captured by polyphonic voices speaking to us from 4000 B.C. to the end of the 20th century.
So far, Jerusalem is a novel the conceit of which (chapters told from different characters’ perspectives at different historical moments in different literary styles) has more strength than the story. I’m briefly introduced to Mick and Alma Warren, modern-day sibling residents of Northampton on whom the rest of the novel’s events (both past and present) supposedly hinges. I’m more excited to be thrown back into the past in chapters the disparate subjects of which seek to cast Northampton as the omphalos of England; the nexus of existence in which can be gleaned the entire story of humanity.
This is an obvious Joycean undertaking, and it goes a long way toward explaining (and perhaps justifying) Jerusalem’s generous length. Moore’s writing is nothing if not hyper-descriptive; baroque, even. One wonders if this is compensation for the lack of visuals that accompany his similarly grand, tangled comic book narratives. These early chapters cross the point into self-indulgence. But just as I’m about to give up, Moore casts me into a different time frame and I’m enthralled.
One moment, I’m peering over the shoulder of a fresco restoration artist in St. Paul’s cathedral hallucinating (or not) a conversation with an angel. The next, I’m following a drug-addled sex worker walking Northampton’s streets in 2006. If there’s one thing uniting his characters here, it’s their station as members of the working class. They live and work in The Burroughs, Northampton’s lower-class area and the site of frequent tension with the forces of redevelopment.
Is there some kind of equitable justice above these streets? Some cosmic force that can set things right? Knowing Moore’s work, I’m sure these questions will have not just metaphoric answers, but literal ones as well.
I decided not to bring Jerusalem with me on a three-day vacation. So now I’m back at home and hunkered down in Alan Moore’s Northampton. My new goal: read around 150 pages a day.
I carry Jerusalem with me everywhere. I take the novel on public transportation to and from work, where it sits open in my lap like an infant. I try to read it on the elliptical machine at the gym, an awkward task that means I’m switching to a reclining stationary bike for the next week or so. I dip into the novel during my lunch break, after dinner, before bed.
This is heavy reading in more ways than one. The density of Moore’s prose forces me to constantly come up for air. And yet, I’m never tempted to stay above water for long. I’m intrigued by the characters: a Benedictine monk making a spiritual stop in medieval “Hamtun;” “Black Charley,” an American transplant and one of Northampton’s first black residents; the struggling modern-day poet Benedict Perrit, doing what all us struggling writers do best (namely, beg friends for drinking money).
Some characters, like the aforementioned poet, we follow from the moment they wake up to the moment they return to bed at close of day. Moore pays particular attention to mapping the city streets his characters wander. I’m reminded of a similar scene in From Hell, where Dr. William Gull’s calculated perambulations past London landmarks ultimately reveal the shape of a pentagram. I’m also reminded of W.G. Sebald, whose semi-fictional wanderers uncover the psychogeography of particular places; the secret histories trapped in landscapes and buildings.
There is true world-building going on here. Whitmanesque, these pages contain multitudes. And I’m starting to realize these disparate voices aren’t that disparate at all; in fact, they’re delicately interconnected. Figures from the past and the present, alive and dead, bob and weave and brush up against one another.
This book, I’m learning, is haunted by history.
One of the most striking things of Moore’s best work over the years: his focus on the nature of space-time; of time as a fourth dimension; of past, present, and future all happening at once. Time, in his Weltanschauung, is an architectural dimension that can be mapped and explored. It’s the same philosophy that haunts Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen and that propels Jack the Ripper’s legacy through time in From Hell.
Jerusalem is a startling expansion on these ideas. While ideas of space-time have appeared in nearly every chapter so far, they’re concentrated in one marvelous section I’ve just finished. Snowy, a member of the Vernall clan (of whom the siblings Mick and Alma Warren are present-day descendants), hangs off the top of a building while below, in the gutter, his wife gives birth to a daughter. During this moment of suspended time, Snowy explores the idea of the world as an “eternal city” — one in which everything has been preordained.
There’s something frightening (and oddly comforting) about this philosophy, which borrows from the poet and mystic William Blake (an influence on Moore’s work), Friedrich Nietzsche’s myth of “eternal recurrence,” and the ideas of like-minded thinkers. We’re meant to see this idea as not a curse but a kind of hope.
If it’s true, it means, in a sense, I’ll be reading this book forever.
I’m now over 400 pages in, and I’ve just discovered that Jerusalem is also available in a three-volume slipcase edition. My wrists ache.
While the economy of reading an enormous book in more manageable, digestible “books” are a comfort (see a similar edition for Roberto Bolaño’s 2666), I’ve convinced myself that by reading Jerusalem in its uninterrupted, single-bound version, I’m getting the more authentic reading experience.
The 2016 Olympics are on in the background. Indeed, there’s something Olympian about reading Jerusalem as one entire text. I feel strong.
I’m also glad I’ve opted out of reading Moore’s novel on an e-reader. I’d most likely miss out on the physical sense of accomplishment that comes from feeling the weight of this book gradually increase in my left palm and decrease in my right: one page, then 10 pages, then 50 pages.
The second hefty part of Jerusalem finally lays bare the vast supernatural cosmology Moore’s hinted at in previous pages, with all their angelic visions and ghostly hauntings. What he’s created: a three-tiered universe of Northampton: the Burroughs (in our everyday reality), Mansoul (a sort of astral plane from which all time and space can be seen, the name borrowed from John Bunyan), and a mysterious Third Burrough.
For more than 300 pages, we follow Mick Warren on an odyssey through this landscape, the result of a near-death experience as a child in 1959. During the few moments where Mick’s body loses consciousness, we travel in and around this “world above a world.” We meet angels (known as “builders”). We meet demons (former “builders”). We meet a ragtag gang of ghost children called The Dead Dead Gang, some of whose members can literally dig through time. We’re flung back to seminal moments in Northampton’s history, spending the night with Oliver Cromwell on the eve of a decisive battle in the English Civil War and watching two fire demons, salamanders, cavort through the city and bring about the Great Fire of 1675.
There are some indelible images in these pages, including the ghost of a suicide bomber who’s eternally trapped in mid-explosion (the rules of this afterlife being that the form you occupy is the form you had during your greatest moment of joy) and a serpentine ghoul that haunts the River Nene and plucks newly dead souls into her underwater purgatory.
It’s unfair to expect perfection from mammoth books. Yet the longer a novel runs, the more unforgiving a reader becomes about moments in the story that could be tightened, or excised altogether. Great Big Novels bring out the editor inside us all.
I’ve spent three days trapped, so to speak, in the otherworldly realm of Mansoul. I’m starting to long for the voices of the humans back on three-dimensional Earth. Moore’s too talented a writer to waste his time (and ours) with much of this rambling middle section. You’ll get an important episode told from one perspective, then a shift in perspective in the next chapter that requires a recap of earlier events. This means pages go by before the narrative moves forward.
Twelve days after starting this book (holding at bay, for the moment, the deluge of other reading materials in my life), I round the halfway point of Jerusalem. It’s the moment where the spine finally cracks and I can read the book on a desk without the use of my hands.
I like to think I crack the spine out of necessity, not vindictiveness.
Moore, you sadist.
I’m back on the human plane of existence, back in the polyphony of voices that is Jerusalem’s strength. And then, on page 900, I’m dropped into a 48-page narrative from the perspective of James Joyce’s mentally ill daughter, Lucia, a patient at Northampton’s St. Andrew’s Hospital.
These pages are written in a mock-Finnegans Wake word salad built on puns and double meanings. It feels a little sadistic, placing such a passage here. It’s an inventive idea that’s fun at first, but, like a lot in this novel, it goes on for longer than it should. Also: I’m frustrated at being impeded so close to the end by having to sort through this linguistic playground.
So here is where I make a confession. I skimmed. With a copy of the original Finnegans Wake looming over me on my bookshelf (similarly unfinished), I quickly stopped trying to parse the logic of each sentence. As soon as I got the idea — al fresco assignations with men who may not really be there, painful memories of childhood abuse — I moved on.
Perhaps one day this section will be worth revising and translating. As of now, I’m rabid for Jerusalem to end.
Moore, you genius.
A few chapters after my troubled date with Lucia Joyce, I come across one of the more brilliant, transcendent sections in the novel. It’s composed of a pivotal character’s final earthly moments interspersed with a fantastical journey in which his essence (along with that of his deceased granddaughter) travels into the future. Together, the pair witness the evolution of the human race, its eventual demise, the resurgence of giant crabs and land-walking whales as the new lords of the earth, the heat death of the universe, and the last spark of light before eternal darkness.
It’s a lovely, touching moment that rewards my investment in this novel. Arriving on the heels of a farcical play (featuring the ghosts of Samuel Beckett, Thomas Becket, John Bunyan, and John Clare), it’s a testament to Moore’s skill at genre juggling, at cultivating a sense of awe at the universe’s frightening expanse and its beautiful mysteries.
Sixteen days later, making the final lap of a noir-ish detective story, a poem from the perspective of a drug-addled and ghost-haunted runaway, and a somewhat anti-climactic gallery opening, I arrive at the last page.
I close Jerusalem and drop it on the floor at my feet. I don’t need to do this; it’s a purely dramatic gesture. The resultant thud is a satisfying testament to my accomplishment.
I’m drained. But I’m also grateful. And a little sad.
It’s a paradoxical feeling I get after finishing big books like this one. The quiet thrill of having been completely submerged in an author’s vision. The feeling of finally coming up for a merciful breath of air. The longing to read flash fiction by Lydia Davis.
I’m still thinking about this fascinating mess of a book and its countless allusions (both major and minor): the art of William Blake, episodes of the U.K. version of Shameless, comic books, modern art and poetry, the time theories of Charles Howard Hinton and Albert Einstein, the hymns of John Newton, demons from apocryphal books of the Bible, H.P. Lovecraft, Melinda Gebbie (Moore’s wife), Tony Blair, Jack the Ripper, Buffalo Bill, billiards, global warming, the Crusades, the War in Iraq, the end of the world. A cacophony of material that doesn’t always coalesce perfectly but that, fittingly, creates what one character describes as “an apocalyptic narrative that speaks the language of the poor.” And the mad. And the sad. And the frustrated, the lonely, the lost.
In a sense, all of us.
My wrists stop aching.