I didn’t know what to make of this chapter at first. To be honest, it’d been a while since I’d read Jerusalem after taking time to undertake some other projects. Certainly the preceding chapter “ASBOs of Desire” left me a lot of thoughts and a grim feeling about what happened to its protagonist the sex worker Marla. But in “Rough Sleepers” we have something … different.
We are introduced to a man named Freddy Allen: someone who seems to have once been a thief, or a criminal of some time and “left the life,” “the proverbial Twenty-five Thousand Nights,” a long time ago. Freddy also seems to be ageing, and suffers from some kind of condition that keeps him from tasting food, or even seeing colour. He feels chronically exhausted, appears to have insomnia if the words “rough sleepers” have anything to do with it, and possesses a whole lot of regrets.
The story begins in 2006, around the same place and time that Marla, Alma and Mick Warren are active. But as I’ve said before, while Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire was a chronological psychogeographical romp through Northampton, Jerusalem dispenses with that completely and, in the case of “Rough Sleepers” shatters all teleology – all Point A to Point B – space and time completely. It’s eternalism, simultaneity between space and time multilayered and specifically localized with extreme prejudice.
It is when Freddy visits his old friend and gets some kind of root, alternatively called a Puck’s Hat, Hag’s Tit, Bedlam Jenny, Whispers-in-the-Wood, or Devil Fingers as well as better developed “fairy” or stunted “spacemen” varieties, that we realize Freddy’s “life” was literally that. It was his life … before he died.
As it turns out, ghosts – or at least people who are “rough sleepers” — still exist in the Burroughs. The Puck’s Hats are about the only things they can eat that give any form of additional flavour or vitality in their otherwise thin and grey existences. It’s the revelation of the Puck’s Hat that makes you feel like you’ve walked into a gritty banal adult version of The Sixth Sense.
And it doesn’t end there. That was a soft, almost gentle twist. It felt more like turning over in a strange dream on your mattress past three in the morning but with the kind of dreaming that makes you reread everything you just read with a whole other kind of connotation. I mean to say that this chapter isn’t just Freddy’s ghost story. We are still talking about the ghost story of the Burroughs after all.
We learn that the ghosts of the Burroughs, or the rough sleepers as they are called, are people who still continue to live their lives after their bodies are gone, or fail them. They are just weighed down by regrets, the things they didn’t get to do in life, or the habits that have ingrained far too deep within themselves. Also, depending on their vitality they can inhabit various fractured time periods in different places within the Burroughs, where they can meet others of their kind with varying levels of awareness or consciousness.
At one point, seemingly on the behest of Freddy’s friend – who seems to be a living older man that regularly invites the rough sleepers into his home – he goes to visit Georgie Bumble. Georgie Bumble exists in his office which is simultaneously a thorn-hedge, a multi-layered car park, machinery, and a men’s lavatory. Either Freddy phases through these layers of a modern building to see Georgie, or they all exist in different periods of time in the same space, or it is the idea of the place that George inhabits.
Georgie gives blowjobs to monks in this isolated, dirty restroom for Puck’s Hats. It is a sad afterlife reminiscent of a line in Alan Moore’s prose poem The Mirror of Love when he states: “Disqualified from open love / we rendezvoused in squalor, / all we were allowed [...] Our culture / embracing Colette, / writing so perfectly Missy’s name / upon her anklet, / also came to know / dark hallways; / reeking lavatories, / reminded in our tenderness / of our equivalence / with shit.”
Georgie’s fate is terrible enough in “the life,” but worse in the afterlife: as you have to consider that he will probably be doing this for the rest of existence just to subsist or, like Freddy, because he doesn’t think he can go anywhere else. It is here that we realize that not only to do the ghosts of people and places co-exist with reality, with only a few living people aware of them, but ideas themselves can manifest in a kind of funky Ideaspace, or something not unlike Neil Gaiman’s Endless mythos: concepts as places or living entities made by sentient beings. Alan Moore elaborates on this further in his interview with Dominic Wells when he states, again in a very Nietzschean fashion or a Neil Gaiman Season of Mists mentality that heaven and hell in Jerusalem are basically dead characters reliving the same moments of their lives – actively chosen or unconsciously internalized – over and again.
This complex urban afterlife system that gets even stranger when you also consider that there is a level of time travel extant. For example, when Freddy goes to visit his habitual sexual partner Patsy “for old time’s sakes,” he actually goes back to the 1920s and even physically changes a bit as he does so. There he meets Clara and her young daughter Doreen. You would be forgiven if you didn’t even know who these two were. Doreen is Alma Warren’s mother and Clara her grandmother. But when Freddy knew them “during the life” they were his friend’s wife and child respectively, but it snaps back well to the prologue “Work in Progress” like the temporal elastic band it is.
It also gets better. As Freddy copulates with Patsy, playing out their age-old rote of that one day when they had an affair on her husband, he actually sees Marla from the previous chapter watching them. What is so interesting about this is that Marla, during their drug-induced or withdrawal flights of imagination, actually visualized a woman and a man looking like Freddy and Patsy having sex in her apartment before it was ever hers. It seems like a clever, and eerie, one-off. Even the mention of the gang of ghost children led by Phyllis Painter (who might also exist as a memory or a past incarnation when Freddy sees her again meeting Patsy) hearkens back to Marla’s chapter. And there is more.
There is the way that Freddy describes the movement of his fellow rough sleepers. He explains that they are like grey afterimages or, towards the end of his own chapter in the billiards place, pigeon feathers flapping. This last image unites both Alma Warren’s dream with her mother Doreen telling her about an abandoned shed outside their home being where the dead go, and Ernest Vernall’s view of pigeons hiding under the church where he worked until his sanity changed. Perhaps both Alma and her ancestor saw, or made aware, of more than merely pigeons. It is almost akin to seeing a Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere of ghosts, a London Underground coexisting above with it.
But what really cinches it for me, what pulls back space and time like an elastic yet again and unifies everything we’ve seen so far is when Freddy goes watch a billiards game. But it isn’t just any billiards game. Not only is this pool game being watched by ghosts like Freddy, but it’s the Builders that are playing it. It’s funny, isn’t it? Just when we thought the Builders might have been a one-off in a dream, or metaphorical it turns out that they exist further in the mythology of Alan Moore’s Burroughs.
Yet these are more than Builders. These are the four Master Builders. And the pool table corresponds with four symbols that we see at the very beginning of Jerusalem. There is a diagram at the beginning of the novel: with a graffiti-drawn penis, a skull, a castle, and a crucifix. I will admit this much: I didn’t know what to think of them so I didn’t include them in my impressions of “Work in Progress” or even my initial understanding of Jerusalem’s path.
Each Master Builders corresponds with one of these symbols and these images are different parts of the Burroughs seen over by the Master Builders as played on this billiards table. When they move, they are after-images of radiant light as seen by Freddy and his cohorts. It becomes clear that they are engaged in a more serious version of Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens analogy of God playing “an ineffable game of his own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players, to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time,” with the addition of building or maintaining pathways of fate.
Something interesting happens here. There is a game between two Master Builders. One of them is a white-haired young looking man named Mighty Mike. Between him and his grey Russian-looking opponent Yuri, Freddy realizes that Marla’s life is on the line. She almost falls into the skull pocket. Indeed, after her chapter it seemed pretty clear that she was either going to die, or face a fate worse than death. Instead, in a move that almost seems impossible, Mighty Mike sends her into the crucifix, or church ball pocket. What is also interesting is that Mighty Mike seems to be looking right at Freddy when he does this.
It hearkens back to two points. First, Freddy’s friend that lets him eat the Puck’s Hat tells him that he still has a destiny left: that there is still more to see. That is fairly odd for someone who is already dead and has fallen through the cracks of existence. But the second point is that the rough sleepers generally are ignored by the Builders in their games and, indeed, are discouraged from making any noise around them at all. Mighty Mike seems to be smiling at Freddy, playing an ineffable game of his own.
How can a ghost still be part of the game of fate and have a future? How could he be tied to a living woman whose fate is still pretty unclear at this point in the game? And did he and Marla notice each other and will this mean anything? It also reminds me of the fact that the Destructor is a tower, or in a tower, that Freddy had to go past in order to travel to see Patsy in her localized space-time.
Like Freddy Allen, I thought the game was over. I thought the Destructor was inevitably going to win its nihilistic battle over the spiritual level of the Burroughs. But it seems as though the Master Builder, like Alma Warren and her Vernall Inquest introduced through her dream, still think this can be changed. Perhaps the Destructor is the structure imposed over the Burroughs and has that metaphorical shadow over everything, and could be challenged? Even destroyed?
And then there is Freddy himself. He has given up on the possibility of “upward mobility” or salvation. He blames himself for the bad things he did in his past. He blames himself for the bad things he planned to do, but didn’t go through with. Will we see where this goes? Wherever it goes, like any journey into Alan Moore’s works, it will be messy. It will be ugly. And yet you will still feel something from it. There will still be meaning.
And here I was afraid I would have run out of things to write about with regards to Jerusalem. Perhaps “X Marks the Spot” will give us some more answers, or maybe even more interesting questions.