Sunday, 23 November 2014

Voice of the Fire

Alan Moore Voice of the Fire (1996)
I wasn't going to bother with this one on the grounds that although I generally adore the bollocks off of Moore's comics, I've never really got on well with his prose in isolation, finding it excessively florid, and rich, and difficult to digest without the pictures which at least serve to break things up a little. I wasn't going to bother with this one but I'd just read Lance Parkin's biography of the man, and there it was in Half Price Books for a couple of dollars...

Oddly, the prose is at least as baroque as I anticipated, possibly even more so, and yet it works wonderfully. Of course, you have to take it at a certain specific pace in order to get the full benefit, but the narrative proves to be of such fascinating detail and quality that you don't mind - a novel you hope not to finish rather than one which keeps you skipping ahead to see how many more pages must be endured; which is all jolly nice.

There aren't any pictures to keep you going, and the bearded one throws us in at the deep end with the first chapter, Hob's Hog which is written in the restricted vocabulary of a Neanderthal, and serves to demonstrate the sheer scale of Moore's skill - nearly sixty pages of a story told through its own unique grammar, and yet once over the shock, it's gripping to the point that you wish it were longer. Moore strikes a balance between the reader's innate love of decoding without sinking so far into character as to lose sight of the readership.
Make she a cat-noise, as for say that I make more loud as I may. Say she that chewing-thing is make in fire with dusts from sun-grass take, as grow here by, with little waters put to they. Eat I, and it is good, and good is fire-meat now in mouth of I. Is ox, by lick of he.

Actually, there are pictures, but they appear as the appendix and don't really add a great deal.

Voice of the Fire divides not so much into chapters as twelve short stories or scenarios, pertinent moments in the lives of twelve characters snatched at intervals from between the present and the past extending back so far as 4000BC. All are either set in Northampton, or on the land which is to become Northampton, or in lives which relate to the same by one means or another; and the final character is Moore himself as he writes the novel and discusses it with his brother and others. If they're not all true stories in the academic sense, they at least reference that which is understood as truth in terms of historical Northampton, and by extension the world beyond.

Moore's Northampton is at the centre of England, the universe, and culture itself. Having grown up in what is very roughly the same region of the country, this is the aspect of the novel I don't quite buy in so much as any town or village with a permanent population going back at least a generation tends to form the centre of its own cosmos, and usually with reasons at least as valid as those given here; but for the sake of argument, we follow this one just to see where it will go.

I have to admit I find Moore's clannish dedication to his home town a little odd, even insular at worst, reminding me unfortunately of my father's partner, a Coventry born woman who has never been to London, not even by accident, and tells me I think you'll find that Coventry has a lot to offer you if you just give it a chance, Lawrence. I grew up in black hole towns of the kind which tend not to let people go without a fight. I couldn't wait to get out, and I'm not sure I really understand such dedication to accidents of birth and geography; so I'm surprised to find that a black hole town is exactly that which Moore describes here, despite the fact of his quite obviously loving the place. He loves it for the right reasons, I guess.
Here, unmasked, a process that distinguishes this place as incarnated in industrial times. The only constant features in the local-interest photograph collections are the mounds of bricks; the cranes against the sky. A peckish Saturn fresh run out of young, the town devours itself. Everything grand we had, we tore to bits. Our castles, our emporiums, our witches and our glorious poets. Smash it up, set fire to it and stick it in the fucking madhouse. Jesus Christ.

The humour is very, very black, and the book is notably chock full of severed limbs, feet, heads, madness, folks burned at the stake, and the smelliest descriptions of sexual acts you could ever wish to read. It's almost a three-hundred page Hogarth cartoon, and its purpose is similarly destructive in pursuit of something better. Specifically Voice of the Fire is, at its most basic level, the mapping out of territory - and is as such not a million miles from what I suspect Moore's Big Numbers might have done had it ever been completed; and the territory is mapped out as it is in the short, brutal lives of its victims because:
The Dreamtime of each town is an essence that precedes the form. The web of joke, remembrance and story is a vital infrastructure on which the solid and material plane is standing. A town of pure idea, erected only in the mind's eye of the population, yet this is our only true foundation.

...and the reason for this mapping is to restore the songline so that the fabric of the world shall mend about it. In other words, the novel and its writing have a perhaps ritual function falling somewhere between confession in the religious sense and just plain old making the world a better place, which - before anyone feels inclined to get pissy - is more or less by its own admission.
'So what's this book about, then?'

It's about the vital message that the stiff lips of decapitated men still shape; the testament of black and spectral dogs written in piss across our bad dreams. It's about raising the dead to tell us what they know. It is a bridge, a crossing-point, a worn spot in the curtain between our world and the underworld, between the mortar and the myth, fact and fiction, a threadbare gauze no thicker than a page. It's about the powerful glossolalia of witches and their magical revision of the texts we live in.

Which brings us back to the Voice of the Fire itself:
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 so pretty as our own, they had a great heaviness, and so at last they 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.

So, for the sake of the rest of us, Northampton may as well stand in for where you're at, and Alan Moore has once again produced something which feels like the most important thing you've ever read while you're reading it, something which seems to extend far beyond its own pages and therefore influences your environment.

If this all sounds somewhat like the promise of a twelve album Gentle Giant boxed set and no more sweets until you've listened to the whole fucking thing, the details to remember are that this is a great book, and is not in any way difficult to follow despite how it may appear from a distance or from the impression I may have given with my fumbling description, and it's probably quite an important book too.

I wasn't planning on reading Jerusalem given its supposed mammoth word count combined with reservations regarding Moore's prose as stated somewhere above, but after this one, I don't want to miss it.

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