Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Cornelius Chronicles

Michael Moorcock The Cornelius Chronicles (1977)
I had two of the four volumes collected within this housebrick a while back, having picked them up cheap under the impression of Jerry Cornelius probably being important for some reason or other; but I ended up giving the collection away without having read the thing, and I'm not quite sure why beyond that I wasn't a big reader in the nineties. Having since recognised Moorcock as a fucking genius, I'd been quietly kicking myself on this particular score for a while, so here we are, back where I started, and this time I have all four in a single volume and my brain is probably better attuned to this sort of stuff than it once was.

Truthfully, I'd been put off Jerry Cornelius by association with Grant Morrison's Gideon Stargrave strips in Near Myths magazine which, according to Moorcock, were essentially photocopies of his own character coloured in with a slightly different crayon; but Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time novels were decent enough to suggest that I should at least give Jerry a look, and on close inspection I see Moorcock was right, and that Gideon Stargrave is indeed a poor substitute for the real thing - Blink 182 when you could be listening to the Sex Pistols. It was specifically the affected flamboyance of Gideon Stargrave which always irritated the living shit out of me, so I'm amazed to read the genuine article and see that it can be done right, with wit, and without coming across like one of those seventies teenagers who used to walk to school with a Gentle Giant album under his arm and without the bag which would have prevented the rest of us seeing what he had and just how cool he was, how far ahead he was compared to everyone else. He'd probably even done it with a girl and everything.

Anyway, enough about that guy. I'd been warned that Cornelius is best read by just diving in, holding on tight, and not worrying too much over whether or not it makes sense. This was sound advice, although it's not so disjointed as I anticipated - at least not in the sense of a William Burroughs novel being disjointed. The Final Programme (1966) and A Cure for Cancer (1971) at least seem to follow vague stories, or else give a good impersonation of doing so. I've a feeling that it may be the latter - scenarios and set pieces arranged so as to suggest narrative without quite amounting to one, with the novels following a non-linear logic of their own, like a dream or a piece of music, or - if this isn't too obvious an observation - one of the weirder psychedelic albums of the era to which these stories refer.

It's significant that Jerry Cornelius is absolutely of his time, the sixties arguably being the point at which the ideas of the European avant-garde in art entered the mainstream and suddenly you had pop music taking its cues from Pierre Schaeffer or Marcel Duchamp. Hindsight has possibly dimmed the significance of this particular great leap forward, coming as it did with an intellectual dimension expressed as young people rejecting whatever behavioural models had already been set up for them by their parents' generation, but reading these novels is a great reminder of how dangerous such ideas once seemed, even the fact of their being ideas.

'These old fashioned rules no longer apply. Your sort of morality, your sort of thinking, your sort of behaviour—it was powerful in its day. Like the dinosaur. Like the dinosaur it cannot survive in this world. You put values on everything—values...'

'I think I can see a little of what you mean.' Marek lost his composure and rubbed at his face. 'I wonder... is it Satan's turn to rule?'

'Careful, Herr Marek, that's blasphemy. Besides, what you are saying is meaningless nowadays.' Jerry's hair had become disarranged as he talked. He brushed it back from the sides of his face.

'Because you want it to be?' Marek turned and walked towards the stove.

'Because it is. I am scarcely self-indulgent, Herr Marek—not in present-day terms.'

'So you have your own code.' Marek sounded almost jeering.

'On the contrary. There is no new morality, Herr Marek—there is no morality. The term is as barren as your grandmother's wrinkled old womb. There are no values!'

I get the impression this is additionally what Moorcock was doing with narrative, rejecting the tightly woven plotting of Sexton Blake and others in favour of something weirder, more organic, and certainly more provocative. What has surprised me most about reading this is suddenly realising where all those loopy sixties spy thrillers came from, The Prisoner, The Avengers, and ultimately Austin fucking Powers. Even the current, painfully self-conscious television version of Doctor Who looks a lot like it's trying hard to be Jerry from where I'm sitting. To veer off at a fairly substantial tangent, the position of Moorcock as a writer seems very much parallel to that of Hawkind, the band with which he has been closely associated, as memorably summarised by Nigel Ayers of Nocturnal Emissions in issue seven of The Sound Projector:

If you look at the whole of that so-called industrial scene from Cabaret Voltaire to Marilyn Manson, the band with the most far reaching influence wouldn't be Throbbing Gristle, but Hawkwind! This is something that they rarely mention in the press, as Hawkwind have this reputation as a British hippie band who do science-fiction and theatrics and therefore must be naff. Zoviet France have told me they were very keen on Hawkwind; SPK were well into Hawkwind back in Australia; and what are Graeme Revell and Brian Williams doing nowadays? Making soundtracks for science-fiction films - I rest my case! I think it's about time Hawkwind were reassessed. I have long been tired of those outfits who cite influences no-one has heard of, or can stand listening to. Back in the early '70s, Hawkwind were the first band I was aware of to popularise the idea of sonic attack, infra and ultra sound as a weapon. Listen to Sonic Attack on Space Ritual. That of course has long since been taken up by that whole noise scene, but Hawkwind were rarely acknowledged. If you look at the information war thing, you'll notice that Hawkwind had the post-modern writers, Michael Moorcock and Bob Calvert working with them. Though Moorcock is best known for his very popular science-fiction and fantasy genre work, it's more accurate to call him a postmodernist or at least a modernist. Moorcock pointed many in the direction of William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard and - stone me, he even wrote for Re/Search. When Hawkwind's In Search of Space came out in the early seventies, it came with a booklet of very similar material to what the London Psychogeographical Society, the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, Iain Sinclair, and Tom Vague have been doing more recently. Whenever I used to see Psychic TV, I thought Hawkwind. Whenever I saw Throbbing Gristle I thought Hawkwind without the lights and without the tunes. That combat clothing thing - Hawkwind!

Of course, members of Hawkwind get walk-on parts in the third and fourth Cornelius books, so maybe the above isn't too great a digression. Reality logically intrudes upon Jerry Cornelius because it is our world to which his story refers, even at its wildest. Jerry is dead for much of The English Assassin (1972), or at least dead in some of its variant realities. Notable amongst the alternate worlds described in this volume are the proto-steampunk variants featuring Oswald Bastable from Moorcock's The War Lord of the Air, and Zenith from the Sexton Blake continuity for which Moorcock has also written, and there's the world - possibly our own - in which Jerry Cornelius is a fiction and A Cure for Cancer is only a novel. Generally speaking, The English Assassin is a parody of the establishment and the class system, rendered comic and ultimately stripped of meaning at a party with a guest list encompassing Frankie Howerd and numerous members of Hawkwind, amongs others. Over and over, it reveals institutions and traditions in collapse, returning to inert cultural material by a process of entropy, or even just boredom:

In the third bedroom of the Casa del Monte, seated on a black walnut panelled Lombardy bed, covered in seventeenth century carvings, the most corrupt and feeble-minded publisher in America sipped his vodka and tonic and stared sourly at his tennis shoes while one of the Oxford dons bored him with a long and enthusiastic description of the joys and difficulties involved in doing Now We Are Six into Assyrian. It was what they both deserved.

Whether intentional or not, this establishes Rupert Murdoch and J.R.R. Tolkien as essentially variations on a theme, or at least it does from where I'm sat. Only the lower orders - those with less to lose - survive more or less unscathed, as suggested at the close of the book with Mrs. Cornelius scoffing candy floss and contemplating bingo on the beach as she watches her offspring build sandcastles. When Moorcock novelised The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle he recast Irene Handl's nameless cinema usherette as Jerry's wonderfully coarse mother and its not difficult to see why. She is solid and eternal, unaffected by the broad sweep of history, history
being for her, I suppose, a bourgeois affectation - more Jerry's concern:

The image of a Britain become a nation of William Morris wood-carvers and Chestertonian beer-swillers drove him deeper into his jungle and caused him to abandon his books. He was only prepared to retreat so far. He was forced to admit, however, that the seventies were proving an intense disappointment to him. He felt bitter about missed opportunities, the caution of his own allies, the sheer funk of his enemies. In the fifties life had been so appalling that he had been forced to flee into the future, perhaps even help create that future, but by the sixties, when the future had arrived, he had been content at last to live in the present until, due in his view to a conspiracy amongst those who feared the threat of freedom, the present (and consequently the future) had been betrayed. As a result he had sought the past for consolation, for an adequate mythology to explain the world to him, and here he hid, lost in his art nouveau jungle, his art deco caverns, treading the dangerous quicksands of nostalgia and yearning for times that seemed simpler only because he did not belong to them and which, as they became familiar, seemed even more complex than the world he had loved for its variety and potential.

Note the emergent sixties obsession with Victoriana, which Moorcock rewrote as that which we now recognise as steampunk. The Condition of Muzak (1977) completes the cycle and serves better than any of the other books to define just what it has all been about, namely the complex degrading to the simple, great art, culture, or even thought reducing to background music; and furthermore that the process of entropy is itself inherent to the existence of that which it destroys:

'If time could stand still,' said Hira reflectively, 'I suppose we should all be as good as dead. The whole business of entropy so accurately reflects the human condition. To remain alive one must burn fuel, use up heat, squander resources, and yet that very action contributes to the end of the universe-the heat death of everything! But to become still, to use the minimum of energy—that's pointless. It is to die, effectively. What a dreadful dilemma.'

This final part of the story is framed within a variant of reality in which Jerry is revealed as a struggling musician and a bit of a loser, someone destined to fail, with all of those other, more glamorous realities quite possibly having been just his drug-addled juvenile fantasies, in turn serving to emphasise just how pathetic is the reality of this, his last and lowest plane of existence.

The Cornelius Chronicles are about change, the nature of change, the future, our expectations, and history as a construct; or they are in so much as they can be said to be about any one thing; at least I think they are. It's hard to tell because this is one fuck of a lot of non-linear narrative to get through, and it's routinely bewildering, even boring in places - some of which may be intentional - but as promised, the whole really is worth the effort expended in sticking with it. This is one of those rare books which could potentially change either your life, or at least the way you see the world.

Moorcock really is a genius.

1 comment:

  1. The only set of books I have re-read multiple times. Now you need to read the rest.