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Archive for December, 2016

Jerusalem, Post 3

HRSFANS Book Club – read-a-LONG up to our Feb 2017 meeting: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.

This post has GUARANTEED 0, ABSOLUTELY NONE plot spoilers.

It has ridiculously hand-wavingly vague, I wouldn’t count it but maybe Kevin would concept/perspective spoilers.

NEW PROPOSAL for shorter version of the read

I propose that the official Book Club plan for February 6, 2017 meeting be to discuss Jerusalem‘s “Book One—The Boroughs”: the first third of the book. (Of course, if you don’t manage all of that, it’s also still fine to come! Book Club realized long ago that we can have good Book Club meetings whether or not people liked the book, and I think this also counts for whether or not people have finished the book!)

This book is long and dense enough that, considering other commitments, I’d have a lot of trouble finishing it by a month from now. The few people I’ve talked to who are also reading it are not yet so far along as me. So perhaps realism is the better part of valor.

“Book One” alone will presumably leave us hanging as to the main plot, but, seriously, this is not a plot-driven book. Let me say that again: this is a seriously not plot-driven book. It’s like Citizen Kane, which is less a story than a character study. Jerusalem is less a story than an set of character studies, linked to add up to a portrait of a place and a way of life.

Like the density of the writing, this may make Jerusalem pretty annoying for people who like their novels comprehensible. (Though I hope some of these people will try it out, then come to complain, anyhow: see above—Book Club is good with or without love of the book!) Also, it’ll mean we get more than usual chance to speculate on what the heck is supposed to be going on in general.

My husband’s told me that I’m really not making this book sound inviting in these posts. Well, what can I say? I was surprised that more people showed interest in reading Jerusalem: I had suggested it because I wanted the support of more readers for a task that was looking kind of daunting to me. I agreed to write about the reading experience—and that feels daunting, too—as a sort of giving back to those people who are also reading.

So thank you for reading this, and thank you for reading Jerusalem. And please come to HRSFANS Book Club meeting February 6, 2017, to help us all.

Is it SF/F?

Is Jerusalem a work of science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction?

Books that seem on the borders of genre, or beyond it, come up every now and then at Book Club, like River of No Return and Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four Hour Bookstore. (In the former case, the overall consensus was “maybe,” in the latter “no.”) I say science fiction uses technology as a vehicle for exploring aspects of humanity: “Given people being people, what about if …” I’m not sure what I’d use as a definition for fantasy: probably something similar, but using some set of outside-lived-experience-realistic tropes rather than using technology. very much welcome better definitions in comments.

So I’d say Jerusalem is not SF/F. There’s some things going on that are outside of what we can experience in average everyday life, but those aren’t being used to advance a plot or an argument or an understanding, so far as I can see.

Preserve a fragment of the life

Quotes, from “Atlantis,” perspective character Benedict:

On recently refurbished crab-paste brickwork were the words or possibly single word NEWLIFE, a sideways silver logo, more a label for a mobile phone or for an everlasting battery than for a tower [apartment] block, he’d have thought. Benedict winced, attempting not to look at it. For the most part, he found it comforting to still reside in the beloved neighbourhood, except for those occasions when you noticed that the loved one had been dead for thirty years and was now decomposing. Then you felt a bit like someone form an item out of Fortean Times, one of those lovelorn and demented widowers still plumping up the pillows for a bride who’s long since mummified. Newlife: urban regeneration that the’d had to literally spell out because of its conspicuous absence otherwise. As if just bolting up the mirror-finish letters made it so. What had been wrong with all the old life, anyway?

And this:

He’d always felt that he could talk to Lily, although looking back it pained him to admit that most of what he’d talked was drunken rubbish. That was largely what had finished it between the two of them. It was the drink and, if he were entirely honest, it was Ben’s insistence that the rules in his relationship with Lily be those that had suited his own parents, Jem and Eileen, thirty years before, particularly those that suited Jem. Back then Ben hadn’t really taken in that everything was changing, not just streets and neighborhoods but people’s attitudes; what people would put up with. He’d though that at least in his own home he could preserve a fragment of the life he’d known right here in Freeschool Street, where wives would tolerate constant inebriation in their husbands and consider themselves blessed if they’d a man who didn’t hit them. He’d pretended that the world was still that way, and he’d been stunned right to the core of him when Lily took the kids and demonstrated that it wasn’t.

About that place and that way of life, which it seems Jerusalem is designed to evoke: they’re in bad shape. They’ve been in bad shape for some time: by some counts, they’ve been declining for centuries. I don’t know whether Northampton is a known place to Englishmen and Englishwomen. There’s reference in the text to it not being known, rather unaccountably so, and quite unlike how a similar place would be talked up in America. Which leads me to: both my parents grew up in Flint, Michigan. I’ve never lived there, but the city’s always still been my family’s center of gravity, and I’ve heard all my life about the pain from the city’s decline, witnessed from inside and out.

There is something living about the innumerable people, resources, animals, ideas, ambitions, projects, and so forth that converge, then weave and dance and brawl, to create a city, and the livingness of a city can resemble a lifeform in ways more than just metaphorical (if I’m remembering correctly from Steven Johnson‘s Where Good Ideas Come From, the same back-of-a-napkin formula for the total length of veins in a human can also be used to estimate the total length of water pipes in a city — and by the way, if I’m remembering correctly, Johnson explains why that isn’t as trivial as it sounds). So there is something tragic about the death of a city, as for a person.

And there is also something tragic about a person who has the lifestyle he was led to expect ripped away from him by the arc of history. Do I think it would be good for anyone if more modern marriages conformed to that of Benedict’s parents? No. But I don’t blame Benedict for thinking what he grew up with was normal, or for assuming that what he’d seen growing up would suit him. (McNorris opening Boomtown Season 2 episode 2 is an amazing exposition of this.)

There are a lot of angry people in my country now. Some of them are angry and frightened, and very sad, because they feel like their lifestyle has been taken away over the past several decades, or because they fear a sudden apparent change in society’s course will lead to their lifestyle being taken away over the next several decades. They’re in pain. Whether or not the pain, or the changes that precipitate it, could be or should be avoided, it’s worth acknowledging people are scared and hurting, for reasons including (if certainly not limited to) that you should expect them to lash out.

And this year Britain’s been through its own unexpected change in course, in large part due to similar fear and anger.


Jerusalem, Post 2

HRSFANS Book Club – read-a-LONG up to our Feb 2017 meeting: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.

This post has GUARANTEED 0, ABSOLUTELY NONE plot spoilers.

It has VAGUE concept/perspective spoilers.

Next set of favorite quotes –

From “X Marks the Spot,” perspective character Peter:

The duty … seemed both at once to make his soul all jubilant take flight, and be a matter of such heaviness he should be broke and flattened quite beneath it. In these contradictions did the feeling in him seem all human feelings rolled into one, and he was filled with it so that he thought to burst. This thrilling yet uncomfortable sensation, he concluded, must be that encountered by all creatures when they act the works of God.

From “Modern Times,” perspective character with several aliases, who is 20 years old:

Perhaps in some way everybody had a sense before it came, as if it were already all set out, of how their end was going to be. He glanced up at a speckled cloud of birds that dipped and swung and flattened out like a grey flame against the sunset, as they flocked above the local inns and hardware shops before returning home to roost, and thought it was a pity that you couldn’t tell beforehand how your life was going to be, and never mind about your death.

and another of the quotes that I’m beginning to believe bears on some main theme, also from “Modern Times” –

Perhaps the only meaning that events had was the meaning that we brought to them, but even knowing this was probably the case, it frankly wasn’t that much help. It didn’t stop us chasing after meaning, scrabbling like ferrets for it through a maze of burrows in our thoughts and sometimes getting lost down in the dark.

Time, place, and orientation

In the few centuries prior to the fall of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. there was, rather than Judaism such as we’d recognize it, a Jewish spectrum with many different facets. Only two of the several dozen previously extant strains outlived the Temple, though: that which would be come rabbinic Judaism, and that which would become Christianity. There were a plethora of holy texts early on, though, ones that made it into the Bible, ones that made it into the Apocrypha, ones that were lost until the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls and became trendy like the Gospel of Thomas, texts of which copies were maintained only in Ethiopia until the 18th century, or that are still lost but are casually referred to by title in books that did make the canon, and so on and so forth. Some of them jibe pretty well with standard Bible texts, and some are way Out There in a direction that, from this distance, isn’t even easy to describe. I learned about this in Donald Harman Akenson’s Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmud, which is just so much fun to read. So much fun. Seriously. (Akenson’s main approach to the reader is, “I really don’t care what you think about who or when or What wrote the Bible, and I hope you don’t really care what I think either, because can’t we all just agree that it’s so COOL?”)

But connecting back to our regularly scheduled pre-Book Club: one of the texts is called the Book of Jubilees, and what I remember hearing about it in Surpassing Wonder is that it reads like you’re supposed already to know the whole text and all its references, no matter where you pick it up. I suppose it must be written on scrolls (it was, after all, before the invention of codices, right?), but it presents as if totally non-linear. Which has to be maddeningly difficult to get into.

Jerusalem isn’t like that, but it puts me in mind of what I’ve heard of Book of Jubilees. It is dense and interconnected in a way that’s not merely linear. It does build from chapter to chapter: I finally have evidence of that. At my last post I hadn’t yet seen two perspective characters interact, but “Rough Sleepers” (Freddy) and “X Marks the Spot” (Peter) do have a face-to-face, and indeed the two chapters show the same interaction from each character’s perspective in turn. Peter in his chapter notes something about Freddy which I hadn’t noticed at that point in Freddy’s chapter.

What I still don’t know (having finished “Blind, But Now I See”) is whether we’ll ever have a perspective character come back, or whether there will be a linear plot to speak of.(I’ve also heard that the logical structure for the last Wheel of Time book would have been to be several hundred single pages, each depicting a different character’s view of the day of the end of the world. This is, mind you, not entirely unlike Nnedi Okorafor‘s Lagoon.)

I think the real reason Jerusalem feels like I’m supposed to know more than the text has told me is because I’m supposed to know the place. Not all chapters take place in a single geographic location across time, but most of them do so far, and when characters go for walks (or bike rides) the turns and street names and landmarks are specified in a way that really feels like gibberish to me, but also really seems like it is supposed to be meaningful if you’ve taken those walks yourself.

Starting to draw up the introductory post the other week I did a few Google searches on Moore, Blake, and reviews of the book, and among other stuff found a Goodreads Q&A page (“Ask the Author“) for Alan Moore. Then I realized anyone who actually wanted to read secondary sources could find what they’d want better than I could: I don’t usually find it that useful to read an author expound on his/her fiction, as the fiction should speak for itself. I did notice from that Q&A, though, that Moore expects Jerusalem to become his most personal published work. I think that’s what I’m feeling about there being a “know” to be “in.”

I’ll want to write more later about this place-layered-ness, particularly regarding the idea that a certain kind of sanctity does inhere in a place, and regarding what happens when people recognize holiness in a place over time even as their cultures’ ideas of the holy change.

Write back, please!

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