Because the novel is set almost entirely in Moore’s neighborhood in Northampton, United Kingdom, and since the narrative contains a multitude of innovative stylistic experiments, many reviewers have compared Jerusalem to Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. These comparisons are fair enough — Moore is certainly offering his version of a modernist epic — yet it’s even more appropriate to describe Jerusalem as Moore’s own Lord of the Rings: it’s a sweeping three-volume epic centering on a vast struggle between light and darkness that includes a quest to destroy a cursed Ring of Power that threatens to doom the world.
Jerusalem’s One Ring is the Destructor, a torus-shaped waste incinerator built in the Boroughs (at the heart of Moore’s Northampton) after World War I. Although this incinerator was replaced by low-income apartments during the 1930s, Moore depicts its corrosive force as continuing to damage the world today. From Moore’s perspective, the Destructor is a tangible manifestation of a profound social sickness; it represents a catastrophic breakdown in human relationships, as well as a tendency in urban planning (and in Western cultural life more generally) to treat underprivileged populations as problems to be managed rather than as living communities.
During the story’s Prelude, set in 2005, Michael Warren awakens after an accident at work to discover he can now recall the strange details of a childhood dream. He shares his newly recovered dream memories, which include horrific recollections of the Destructor, with his sister Alma, an artist who sets out to create three sets of paintings based on Michael’s visions. Each painting has the same title as a chapter from Jerusalem, with Alma’s artistic goals echoing Moore’s agenda for the novel — to thwart the symbolic and metaphysical power of the Destructor by exposing the attitudes and ideologies that fuel its nihilistic potency. “That thing over there is what we’ve really got to deal with,” Alma tells Michael, gesturing toward Bath Street where the Destructor once stood. “That’s why I’d better make these paintings great, to change the world before it’s all completely fucked.”
Each of Jerusalem’s chapters offers a vignette centering on one of the Boroughs’ many diverse inhabitants, including humans, angels, demons, and time-traveling ghosts; the characters’ lives intersect in space and time (and other higher dimensions), forming an intricate web of narrative interconnections. Although the novel is sweeping in its reach, the sickness represented by the Destructor unifies its various narrative trajectories. If Tolkien’s One Ring represents a lust for power that corrupts everyone who comes into contact with it, Moore’s Destructor serves a parallel function: it represents the culmination of addictive fixations in thought, habit, and socioeconomic policy that annihilate meaningful connections and flatten out the rich multidimensionality of human relationships. Unlike Tolkien’s One Ring, which functions allegorically, Moore invites us to regard the Destructor as the literal embodiment of devastatingly real — and apocalyptically poisonous — worldviews that sustain toxic social, political, and economic relationships.
One chapter of Jerusalem, “Burning Gold,” offers an economic history of Britain that begins with the arrival of the Romans, who imported the concept of money to British shores. The chapter then goes on to describe the establishment of mints, the invention of promissory notes, and the ever-growing manic instability of derivative markets, from the Dutch tulip craze in 1637 to the present day. Told from the perspective of Roman Thompson, a radical left-wing activist, this story reveals how
the divide between reality and economics is a hairline fissure widening across the centuries to a deep ocean vent from which unprecedented forms of life squirm up with dismal regularity: bubbles and crazes, Wall Street crashes and Black Wednesdays, Enron and whatever bigger fuck-up is inevitably coming next.
In Moore’s depiction, the decline of the Boroughs is the direct result of this long and brutal history of economic innovations. “This area is up in the top two per cent of UK deprivation,” Thompson observes. “Simply living here takes ten years off your life. These people at the shitty end of economic theory are the product of all that creative number-crunching.”
Lest we imagine that Thompson’s malefic economic history is merely a detour within the sprawling epic, Moore drives the same point home in his Afterlude, when Alma notes that the Industrial Revolution may have actually started in the Boroughs with the creation, on Tanner Street, of “the first power-driven mill anywhere in the world.” She also recounts that Adam Smith himself visited the mill, which appeared to him as “a factory being run by ghosts,” and he was astonished at how “a massive unseen hand” seemed to be “guiding all this furious mechanical activity.” Inspired by his experience in Northampton, Smith conceived what has arguably become the most damaging concept in modern economic philosophy:
Adam Smith, with his half-baked idea about a hidden hand that works the cotton looms, decides to use that as his central metaphor for unrestrained Free Market capitalism. You don’t need to regulate the banks or the financiers when there’s an invisible five-fingered regulator who’s a bit like God to make sure that the money-looms don’t snare or tangle. That’s the monetarist mystic idol-shit, the voodoo economics Ronald Regan put his faith in, and that middle-class dunce Margaret Thatcher when they cheerily deregulated most of the financial institutions. And that’s why the Boroughs exists, Adam Smith’s idea. That’s why the last fuck knows how many generations of this family are a toilet queue without a pot to piss in, and that’s why everyone we know is broke. It’s all there in the current underneath that bridge down Tanner Street. That was the first one, the first dark, satanic mill.
In Moore’s view, a certain kind of financial thinking lies at the root of the larger sickness embodied in the Destructor: the Boroughs (like every other neighborhood) has the potential to be a New Jerusalem or earthly paradise, if not for the nihilistic power of the “dark, satanic mills” William Blake writes about in his poem, “And did those feet in ancient time” (later transformed into the hymn “Jerusalem”). Money, Moore proposes, destroys what is meaningful in human relationships; it severs emotional connections, renders obligations cold and impersonal, catalyzes predatory and exploitative lusts, and annihilates the possibility of hopeful futures, leaving only the inevitability of apocalyptic collapse.
Moore’s fixation on the power of currency and finance to damage social relationships parallels the argument David Graeber offers in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011). Graeber, an anthropologist who helped plan the Occupy Wall Street movement, challenges the economic commonplace that humans started out using clunky barter systems and then eventually developed currency in order to simplify trade. Despite how ubiquitously this story is told in economics classrooms (and despite the fact that it forms the basis of most accepted economic thinking regarding monetary policy), there is actually no anthropological evidence suggesting that humans started out using primordial barter economies. Graeber shows instead that, prior to the development of money, people often had a much more nuanced and personal sense of obligation to one another. Neighbors would not trade one bucket for two fish, for example, and then call it even (as though some mythical equivalency of fish and buckets could ever be calculated). On the contrary, within a given community, neighbors might often share resources in ways that created meaningful networks of personal indebtedness. According to Graeber, once we reject the myth of the primordial barter economy, it becomes clear that the introduction of abstract currency damagingly transforms personal obligations into impersonal debts.
The resultant loss of meaningful interpersonal connections is the sickness Moore diagnoses in Jerusalem. Nothing is personal, Moore asserts, because we have embraced an economic worldview that says we owe each other only what can be precisely quantified. Jerusalem drives this notion home in a chapter presented from the perspective of James Cockie, a corrupt Boroughs politician whose stream-of-cliché musings rationalize his predatory business ventures while condemning the “human rubbish” of the neighborhood. Cockie is the kind of politician who would build a waste incinerator like the Destructor in the middle of a community: driven only by the pursuit of profit, he feels he owes his neighbors nothing. At the end of the novel, as a miniature scale model of the Boroughs at Alma’s art exhibit is consumed in flames, Cockie storms up to her and demands to know if she started the fire. “No,” she replies, “you did.” This is Moore’s final message: people like Cockie and the attitudes he represents have turned places like the Boroughs into “concentration neighborhoods” filled with literal and figurative satanic mills where “symbols and principles are going up in the same billowing black cloud as shit and bacon rinds and jam-rags.”
In short, people like Cockie, in Moore’s blunt estimation, have economically and politically raped the Boroughs. I do not use this troubling analogy lightly: Moore himself explicitly frames the destruction of the Boroughs as a rape narrative by juxtaposing the story of the city’s history with Dez Warner’s violent sexual assault on Marla, a mixed-race prostitute. High on crystal meth and inflated with egotistical lust, Dez thinks of Marla as an “it” rather than a “she,” his intoxication creating a self-enclosed fantasy disconnected from the reality of his situation. Dehumanizing Marla enables Dez to take what he wants from her with little feeling; there’s nothing personal for him about such violence. Moore intercuts this rape narrative with descriptions of other events happening around the world: drone strikes, terrorist attacks, the unfolding devastation of climate change, and ongoing capitalist exploitation. “With Mandelbrot self-similarity,” Moore notes, “structures repeat at different scales throughout the system.” Marla’s rape, in other words, is happening everywhere at once: people are always taking what they want because they have no sense of obligation to others; they owe other people — and the planet itself — nothing at all. A character in another chapter, Robert Goodman, drives the comparison home explicitly as he reflects upon the Boroughs: “The neighborhood, it’s … you know. Raped and with her face smashed in, but she put up a good fight. Good girl. Brave girl. Sleep tight.”
Even though Marla survives Warner’s attack, eventually becoming a powerful, redemptive figure, Moore’s emphatic association between sexual assault and the violence that has been inflicted on the Boroughs (and the larger world) is clearly problematic. Many readers will justifiably take issue with his decision, as a white male author, to center the emotional core of his story on rape of a woman of color and her rescue through the efforts of others. Without dismissing these concerns, I think it is also important to note that Moore’s basic point — that radical depersonalization has become a common source of everyday violence — nonetheless bears striking validity.
Moreover, Moore does not present sexual violence as a spectacle for consumption but rather uses it to indict the twisted sickness at the core of contemporary society. Alma’s exhibition functions as what the angels in the story call the Vernall’s Inquest; it is an inquiry — culminating in Alma’s accusation that Jim Cockie is responsible for the burning of the Boroughs — that will lead to the Porthimoth di Norhan, a grand tribunal “where a judgement would be handed down once and for all.” Jerusalem itself, with chapters that exactly parallel Alma’s paintings, metatextually functions as such a Vernall’s Inquest for its readers, seeking to provoke our own Porthimoth di Norhan: if we can begin to make the right judgments, rather than remaining comfortable within our distance and disconnection, then perhaps it might be possible to create positive and meaningful change in the Boroughs and beyond.
If the idea that is destroying the Boroughs (and the world) is the perverse economic notion that we owe our neighbors nothing because we are all disconnected individuals pursuing our selfish interests while guided by an invisible hand, Moore counters with the rich understanding that we are more intimately interconnected with those around us — and with those who precede and follow us — than we can ever adequately comprehend. This is the key to grasping Jerusalem’s vast, sprawling form, with its sweeping cast of characters that reaches from the ancient past to the distant future; the chapters of the novel, like the people of the Boroughs, at first seem isolated and disconnected but later cohere into a complex, interconnected whole.
In this regard, Jerusalem functions as what Patrick Jagoda calls a “network novel,” similar to Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (1999), or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010). Such novels, told from shifting points of view within an interlocking framework, foreground the ways in which networked experience has become central to contemporary life. In the 21st century, Jagoda observes in his 2016 book Network Aesthetics, connection has become ubiquitous, yet despite heightened interconnectivity, individuals often feel more isolated from one another than ever before, and network narratives (which invite readers to experience a broader view from the synthesis of diverse perspectives) can often highlight forms of linkage that remain otherwise invisible. This is precisely what Moore sets out to accomplish with Jerusalem: deploying Jagoda’s network aesthetics in order to recover a feeling of meaningful connection between people and events. If the Destructor embodies “a pure and awful poetry of fire […] that turned the fragile threads connecting people into ashes,” Jerusalem, by contrast, painstakingly recovers such lost threads, imbues them with new meaning, and encourages readers to recognize and reject the nihilistic tendencies that dominate social life.
In the final chapter of Jerusalem, Michael Warren asks his sister if she believes her paintings have succeeded in saving the Boroughs as she intended. Despite her earlier optimism regarding the transformative power of art, Alma is skeptical: “I’ve saved the Boroughs, Warry, but not how you save the whale or save the National Health Service. I’ve saved it the way that you save ships in bottles.” “What I’ve made,” she finally says, “is a glorious mythology of loss.” In the novel’s final pages, Moore reveals the magnitude of what he has set out to accomplish — his novel is a metatextual ritual that aspires to overturn the fundamental economic mythology built into the social fabric of late capitalism — yet the author displays a wistful humility concerning his project’s ultimate efficacy. In a contemporary global milieu dominated by the poisonous sentiment that we owe nothing to our neighbors — exemplified by Brexit in the United Kingdom and the rise of the alt-right in the United States — the message offered by Jerusalem makes it one of the singular literary accomplishments of our fraught historical moment.
David M. Higgins is the Speculative Fiction Editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.