Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Whispering in the Dark

Voice of the Fire, by Alan Moore with Illustrations by Jose Villarrubia, Top Shelf Productions, 2003

In the eighties and up to the mid-nineties, Alan Moore was a god. There wasn’t a comic out there that he worked on (Swamp Thing, Miracleman, Watchmen, V for Vendetta) that isn’t worth the reading and rereading.

Looking back twenty years later, his stories stand up and are still timely, topical, relevant, human, and interesting. The same can hardly be said for the era’s lesser authors. With the passage of time, Moore’s stuff became weirder, in some respects darker, but far less immediately engaging and moving. Experimentation with bringing post-modern self-referentialism to comics found its best expression in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (never mind the horrible adaptation), though there was some enjoyable work in his semi-parodies Tom Strong and Top 10, but the distance between subject and author (not to mention reader) limit that later work’s emotional appeal.

Amidst the last few glory years of the nineties, Moore published a one-off pocket paperback Voice of the Fire that eventually Top Shelf Productions, a noted independent graphic novel and comic book publisher, republished as a hardcover with an all new introduction by other comic book god Neil Gaiman and illustrations by Jose Villarrubia.

I’d known about Moore’s novel at the time of its publication, having read something to that effect when he was publishing installments of From Hell in Steve Bissette’s Taboo, but never got around to reading it. By that point, Moore’s mainstream comics days were over and he seemed to be billeting about from one short lived independent comic start up after another with work began that was never completed (the incredibly promising Big Numbers with Bill Sienkiewicz) and work that became increasingly difficult to track down. A one-off pocket paperback published in Britain during the winding down of my college years was not a pressing concern.

Eventually, I stumbled upon the book while looking for various old Moore comics at the library, so I ordered it and set it down on my to-read shelf. And waited. And waited. It never felt all that pressing. True, when I’d went back and read Moore’s early stuff, the vivid crackle of his prose and the seamlessness of his plotting never failed to excite and entertain and leave me feeling almost more enlightened for having read it, but as the narrative boxes in his comics became larger and larger, as his comics became more novel-ish in word count, they became more of a chore to read.

This is not to say that wordy comics are a bad thing or that every writer should strive for the economy of Lynd Ward or Masereel, just that the more involved Moore’s prose, the less I came to like it.

Essentially, I had come to the conclusion that writing graphic novels or comic books is a far different skill set from writing novels, much as writing novels is a far different skill set from writing poetry. While Moore had the dynamic interplay between words and pictures fairly well laid out and demonstrated a mastery that seemed effortless, his long form writing felt more leaden, more challenging but without the rewards that a challenging text might involve.

That last clause is the nickel summary of the novel Voice of the Fire. Told in twelve chapters spanning nearly 6,000 years, Moore’s debut novel kind of tells the story of his hometown, Northampton, smack in the dead center in England. While various characters from the past reappear throughout the narrative as ghostly echoes, we leap through the centuries and decades, most of the tales featuring some kind of murder or ritualized slaughter. Fire, as the title hints at, is frequently an ingredient in these deaths and the victims are seldom silent for very long.

A good example of that is in the chapter “Confessions of a Mask. AD 1607.” In this, the severed head of one of Guy Fawkes’ crew narrates how he came to be hung upon the city’s walls then relates the travails of a new head hung along beside him.This is the kind of narration that made Moore's name in comics, bringing curious literary devices and off-center characters to illuminate bigger events from different perspectives. The narration is at once wry and melancholy and the single instance of a non-animate character in the book.

Moore starts out with the strategy of setting the stage for what is to come (and potentially turning off a high percentage of readers) with the opening chapter, “Hob’s Hog, 4,000 BC.” In this, we are treated to our first killing, the ritual slaying of an unnamed primitive idiot, a caveman Benjy Compson, who narrates for us in a stilted strange dialect. Obviously as Moore is unable to write in the language of the time (and even if he could, we couldn’t read it), there being no written language), the author has created a pastiche English that is both challenging and frustrating.

A-hind of hill, ways off to sun-set-down, is sky come like as fire, and walk I up in way of this, all hard of breaths, where is grass colding on I’s feet and wetting they.

There is not grass on high of hill. There is but dirt, all in a round, that hill is as like to a no-hair man, he’s head. Stands I, and turn I’s face to wind for sniff, and yet is no sniff come for far ways off. I’s belly hurts, in middle of I. Belly-air come up in mouth, and lick of it is like to lick of no thing. Dry-up blood lump is come black on knee, and is with itch. Scratch I, where is yet more blood come.

In bove of I is many sky-beasts, big and grey. Slow is they move, as they is with no strong in they. May that they want for food, as I is want a-like. One of they is that empty in he’s belly now, he’s head it is come off and float a-way, and he is run more quick a-hind, as wants to catch of it. In low of sky is grass and woods go far ways off, where is I see an other hill, which after is there only little trees as grow world’s edge a-bout.

And so on. For forty-three pages. The next chapter, a scant 1,500 years later is actually written in slightly archaic, but clearly modern English. Moore must have felt at forty plus pages he was pushing his luck with fractured grammar and opted to shift tactics. And from chapter two, Moore’s game is up. As his structure is to tell twelve different first person narratives of time and place throughout Northampton’s long storied history, he will need no less than twelve distinct voices. Alas, the author is too strong a personality to be long buried. From chapter to chapter, there is little in the way of starkly drawn contrasts between who is saying what. Everything comes off a little too Alan Moore and a lot too little who they should be.

Perhaps that is part of Moore’s message, like again per Faulkner that the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past, that we have more in common with someone from 2,500 BC than we think. Certainly Moore sets up a kind of parallelism in his opening chapter’s constant influx of warped sensory data and the final chapter's metafiction starring his own self as he prowls Northampton and restlessly consumes and reflects on everything around him. Perhaps chapter two’s killer for profit is not so different under the skin from the killing done in a fit of insanity suffered by the penultimate chapter’s character, Alf Rouse. Perhaps these brackets demonstrate Moore’s overarching goal, but there doesn’t seem to be a heaping of evidence to suggest it other than my maybe-ing.

The spoken conceit of Moore's novel, relayed in the final chapter as well as through various interviews, seems to be about how we affect place and place affects us, how the both co-exist in a symbiosis that leaves its affects long after we are dead and gone. Growing up in crummy council housing can narrow one's expectations of life, leading one to making a bad choice of spouse, leading to child abuse, leading to children who grow up with little expectation of greater things and little energy to do more than continue on in the same round as previous generations. Of course, with Moore, however, this message gets a bit gussied up in magic and the supernatural, but the gist remains the same.

Unfortunately for Voice of the Fire, though, the shift from one story to another with tenuous connection to what precedes it doesn’t really draw the reader along. You can marvel at some of Moore’s highly polished prose stylings, some of his quick-witted punnery, but the novel fails to deliver sufficiently in heart overall. The connection between 2,500 BC and Post AD 43 and Post AD 290 and AD 1064 isn't drawn very distinctly because there doesn't seem to be any real connection. The characters, while some strong and some weakly drawn, exist in isolated spaces where they catch occasional glimpses of the past. They barely touch each other and all too rarely touch us. When only some characters touch us, they are like many of Moore’s characters in the other world, too far behind the veil to leave a lasting impression.

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