Alan Moore: "I've disproved the existence of death"

The comic book author talks about writing a 750,000 word prose novel about Northampton.

Alan Moore can't be accused of playing it safe. In his 40-year career, he has written a genre-busting superhero comic (Watchmen); a graphic novel in which the hero is a terrorist (V for Vendetta); and one of the most beautiful -- but scandalous -- pieces of pornography ever produced (Lost Girls).

Since 2008, he has been occupied largely with writing his second novel, Jerusalem, due for publication next year. It could easily be the oddest novel ever written. Ostensibly a history of Moore's home town, Northampton, it features his favoured technique of appropriating characters from other literary works; the author describes its middle section as being like a "savage, hallucinating Enid Blyton".

Its wider purpose, Moore says, is to "disprove the existence of death" -- but that is if he can get it into print at all: it will clock in at 750,000 words, making it longer (by far) than Vikram Seth's hefty A Suitable Boy and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. The book is so long that the only printers who might be able to tackle it are Bible-makers.

“It is a very big book -- but it's very readable," he assures me when I call to ask how it's going. "Apart from the Lucia Joyce chapter, which is completely incomprehensible." How so? "It's all written in a completely invented sub-Joycean text. I read it through again and I can actually understand most of it -- well, all of it. But it's the only way I could have written that stuff. It's an experiment."

Then there's chapter 29, composed in the form of a stage play by Samuel Beckett, based around one of the times the playwright visited Northampton to take part in a cricket match. (I'm not making this up: the 1925 and 1926 matches appear in Wisden, which records that Beckett was "a useful, left-arm, medium-pace bowler".) While his team-mates took off in the evenings to patronise the city's pubs and prostitutes, Beckett decided instead to go on a "church crawl". It is this event that Moore is restaging.

Apart from these literary jeux d'esprit, the main thrust of the book explores Moore's belief that time doesn't work the way we think it does. "I've come to think that the universe is a four-dimensional site in which nothing is changing and nothing is moving. The only thing that is moving along the time axis is our consciousness. The past is still there, the future has always been here. Every moment that has existed or will ever exist is all part of this giant hyper-moment of space-time."

Confused? Moore puts it this way. "If you think about a standard journey in three dimensions -- say, being in a car driving along a road, the houses you're passing are vanishing behind you, but you don't doubt that if you could reverse the car, the houses would still be there. Our consciousness is only moving one way through time but I believe physics tells us all those moments are still there -- and when we get to the end of our lives, there's nowhere for our consciousness to go, except back to the beginning. We have our lives over and over again."

Moore is friends with (and revered by) several leading physicists -- many of whom will gladly tell you there are probably more than three spatial dimensions. He is particularly taken with the pop-star-turned-TV-populariser of science Brian Cox, and asked him recently: "How do you square the second law of thermodynamics with your earlier assertion that 'Things Can Only Get Better?'" (This joke is very funny to only a very small number of people.)

Surely Moore must be worried that, in the age of Twitter and rolling news, no one will ever finish his super-sized masterpiece? "As long as I finish it," he says. "Although I have doubted that people will even be able to pick it up. I'm not averse to some kind of ebook, eventually -- as long as I get my huge, cripplingly heavy book to put on my shelf and gloat over, I'll be happy."

That said, he does worry that while his first prose novel, Voice of the Fire (published in the mid-1990s), took 300 pages to cover the county of Northamptonshire, Jerusalem uses 750,000 words to explore an area of Northampton about half a square mile across. "So the next one will be several million words and it'll just be about this end of the living room."

Moore says he hopes never to write anything as long as Jerusalem again but he won't countenance scaling it back. "Any editor worth their salt would tell me to cut two-thirds of this book but that's not going to happen. I doubt that Herman Melville had an editor -- if he had, that editor would have told him to get rid of all that boring stuff about whaling: 'Cut to the chase, Herman.'"

One question remains: how do you celebrate finishing a 750,000-word novel? Moore pauses. "I'll probably have a bit of a lie down."

The full Q&A with Alan Moore will be published tomorrow.

Helen Lewis-Hasteley is an assistant editor of the New Statesman. She tweets @helenlewis

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism