Friday, May 9, 2014

Alan Moore's "Voice of the Fire": Book Review

Shamans, heads, magic, a bridge, crossroads, dogs, pigs, flame: elemental and elusive, this powerful novel recapitulates the evolution of English and the growth of Northampton, Alan Moore's home city. Don't let the first chapter dissuade you. "Hob's Hog" may best Riddley Walker or the "Sloosha" chapter of Cloud Atlas, for Moore limits an adolescent boy's expression of a bewildering encounter with a "cunning-man" and his companion to four hundred words, these shattered and fragmented into Neolithic limitations, personal or linguistic+++. A wizard himself, Moore forces us into an altered state.

The narrator's mother dies. "Theys bits of bright is move out from she eyes and hang on trees." (17) The sun, hitting her eyes, fails to rouse her, and the boy realizes she is no more. More than once, we will follow a corpse pushed down into a grave, a body's bits looking back at us before they are tramped down and the dirt conquers the flesh. Yet, very late, Moore nods to and alters a notion of the Kabbalah, whereas we are God dispersed from the Big Bang into fragments, yearning for universal end to be reunited.

Twelve chapters recapitulate the progress supposed as paths turn into roads and roads into highways. A shifty young hustler in "The Cremation Fields" laments the new sky-gods who displace the earth-mother's worship. Yet, neither faith appears to ease the existential condition. As she justifies her own machinations: "If we in this world are cruel by harsh necessity, how much more wicked are the gods who want for nothing but torment us to the death?" (94) Exiled already ca. 2500 BCE, they "cook the blood from the earth and let it scab to crowns and daggers," as the world's energy already exhausts.

After "In the Drownings" post-AD 43 dramatizes the coming of the Romans from a fisherman's odd perspective, "The Head of Diocletian" post-290 introduces a foreigner's reaction. Sent by Rome to apprehend forgers of imperial coins, he sums up the culture clash and another decline: "There's few signs of the Empire to be seen out here, a scattering of villas where retired generals struggle to afford their mistresses." (140) Moore does not falter in creating recognizable characters for each of his dozen narrators. He stays poised, adjusting the tone to the manners and mentalities of the era.

By 1064, it's a jumble. Alfgiva, crippled beggar turned nun, morphs into martyred St. Ragener from 870 and then into a witness to a terrible emanation from the crypt of local St. Peter's in 1050. Jump to after the Conquest, where after 1100 the Church of the Holy Sepulchre rises roundly with emanations of the Templars and their fearsome rite once removed to a very different setting than the Crusades where Simon of Senlis encountered his own astonishing and similarly unnerving revelation.

Religion dominates the second millennium. The executions of Guy Fawkes and his Catholic conspirators in 1607 leaves one of the less fervent victims unconvinced of sectarian verities. He theorizes "that life is ordered by the principles of some religion so peculiar and obscure that it has no followers, and none may fathom it, nor know the rituals by which to court its favour." (197-8)

"Angel Language," its title a theme via magician John Dee filtered increasingly into the last third of Voice of the Fire, opens with six paragraphs from a judge in 1618 that rival Joyce's abilities. After crafting graphic fiction with its own restrictions placed on what an author may explore within its boundaries, this first novel enables Moore to stretch out. It may not please all, but it merits patience. It moves forward as our language does, into passages of beauty and terror. While this section for its neater patterning felt slightly schematic in its chiasmus, the echoes express confusion appropriately.

In 1705, one of the last two women. lovers and partners, sentenced to be burned as witches in the kingdom has her say. "We had our fun, and at the end of it they fetched us out and burned us both to dust. They had a stronger Magic. Though their books and words were lifeless, drear and not as pretty as our own, they had a greater heaviness, and so at last dragged us down. Our Art concerns all that may change or move in life, but with their endless writ they seek to make life still, that soon it shall be suffocated, crushed beneath their manuscripts. For my part, I would sooner have the Fire. At least it dances. Passion is not strange to it."*** (248)  Consider how this passage resounds with conviction, and clarity. Moore channels his intelligence into men and women we can understand, no matter their century, and he provides much to reflect upon about the clashes between nature, energy, and order.

As the voices overlap, and images such as blue beads, an odd beast, or the name of Eleanor repeat, the reader faces a commitment. Five years in the making, its detail convinces me. No chapter felt false. For those with less stamina for British minutiae via arcane lore, the concentration demanded by Moore to match his own scrutiny may weary. However, if you wish a bracing, and sometimes bewildering series of unreliable narrators beckoning you into the impossible conundrum of any author: how to escape the subjective when describing one's own reality--note an aside to Niels Bohr.

After a chapter on John Clare, the nature poet gone mad, recounted in suitably dispersed and chronologically scattered fashion, we move into the last century. Alfie Rouse's roguish testimony of his own manipulations updates that of the second chapter's scoundrel: how relationships--intimate or casual-- fall prey to greed and weakness exerted by the more scheming among us. But no teller escapes some sympathy. We learn of him in the Great War, and such an observation for its familiarity does not ring less true if from a returned veteran with a head wound, an calculating salesman and with an eye for the ladies: "Half those fellows in those trenches wouldn't be there if not for the way their girlfriends look at them when they're dressed up for war. Deny it if you can." (271)

Finally, it's Alan Moore, although he does not use the singular first person, but only appears as the author, in "Phipps' Fire Escape." He takes us around Northampton in 1995, a town with its mind "encased in concrete." Moore tries to align us with its hidden pulse. "The only constant factor in the local-interest photograph collections are the mounds of bricks, the cranes against the sky." (296) Barclayscard and Carlsberg loom as the present-day replacements for button factories, or those for shoes and boots. Debt and drink: the creations of his neighbors, as he witnesses municipal decay.

After so long with this novel, Moore's reluctance to let it go attenuates its last few pages. He reasons that "raising the dead to tell us what they know" (302) explains his endeavor. If you look at pp. 306-13 in passing they point you back to certain ideas, and Moore's mission: "Make the real a story and the story real, the portrait struggling to devour its sitter." (306) We all, he concludes, are caught in fiction. So, to me resurrecting the voice of Nelly Shaw the condemned witch, if not in magical or weighty analogies but cartographic terms: "Lacking any territory that is not subjective, we can only live upon the map. All that remains in question is which map we choose, whether we live in the world's insistent texts or else replace them with a stronger language of our own." {interview here}

One wishes every talented artist or writer had five years per project. Enhanced by Jose Villarubia's illustrations, appended so as to not distract but enrich the reading, the focus of this, so intense, may scare off the pale, but those tough-skinned enough to endure the plunge into fire and alphabets will find the brilliance of this memorable novel akin to heat itself, to comfort and to warn those who seek to come close to its flickers and smoke. Mirrors held by twelve men and women, we peer in. (Amazon US 8-10-13)+++Overwhelmed? Deciphering Hob's Hog Enticed?*** Moore's "Bog Venus"


Bo said...

One of my favourites--superb review!

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Bo, Just thinking of you today, as I had this reviewed recently! Wanted to send this along. I know it appeared in Britain already, and I reckon you've a copy finished already. Moore is somebody I am just learning more about after Watchman and V for V; he needs to write more fiction and screeds, too! All best wishes. JLM Pagan Britain by Ronald Hutton.