13 December 2007

A Literary Connect-The-Dots Puzzle

The second volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen includes a remarkable document called 'The New Traveller's Almanac', which Jess Nevins refers to as Alan Moore's attempt to kill him. That may well have been Mr Moore's secondary intention, in which case he's failed, but his primary one is rather more audacious. Purporting to be compiled from declassified MI5 documents -- notably the journals of Prospero, Captain Nemo, and Mina Murray -- it pulls together hundreds upon hundreds of literary references in order to place the adventures of the League in one improbably coherent world.

The section dealing with Ireland, for example, draws upon The Crock of Gold by James Stephens, the Fenian Cycle, the Mabinogion, Oscar Wilde's 'The Selfish Giant', The Castle of Leixlip by Wilde's great-uncle Charles Maturin, 'Molly Malone', Sheridan Le Fanu's The Siege of the Red House, The House on the Borderlands by William Hope Hodgson, Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, and the voyage of Saint Brendan of Clonfert. The almanac draws attention to two houses in Connacht with distinctive properties, one being the aformentioned House on the Bordelands, and the other being immediately recognisable to anyone even remotely familiar with modern Irish literature:
'Forty miles east of Galway stands a house that presently belongs to a middle-aged gentleman, one Mr. Mathers. Local legends or tall tales suggest that Mathers' house may somehow form a gateway to a strangely different Ireland, where the laws of physics and logic seem more similar to those reported in the realm that Miss A.L. and Eric Bellman vanished into, rather than to those in our own world.'
Yes, it's the house from The Third Policeman, arguably Flann O'Brien's greatest and funniest novel, and certainly his most accessible. If you haven't read it, you really should rectify that, unless you're a Scottish cleaning lady, if which case you may find rather traumatic the policemen's bicycle obsession. I'm inclined to think Moore has read rather more of O'Brien's work than just the Third Policeman, though, and not just because if the Almanac itself is anything to go by he seems to have read just about everything.

O'Brien's first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, features a treatise on what a novel ought to be, and how fiction ought to be treated by writers. It reads almost as a challenge which Moore has eagerly answered:
Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before -- usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thumbleriggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature.
It works doesn't it, even down to those staggering rarities, the characters in League that Moore has been forced to create due to a lack of a suitable pre-existing puppet to appropriate? Offhand, I can only see two such creations of any note in the entire League corpus to date, being Campion Bond and William Samson Snr, both of whom are examples of what Moore calls 'back-engineering'. They're fresh contributions to the world of fiction on his part, but it is implied that they are respectively grandfather to James Bond and father to William Samson Jnr, the so-called 'Wolf of Kabul', both of whom feature in the subsequent history of the League.

In an interview in The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, Moore is reminded of an introduction he wrote in the 1980s to his first Swamp Thing collection, in which he says something about Doctor Frankenstein kidnapping all the Little Women -- the poor doctor would have been getting on by that point, since I think Alcott's book is set a good half-century after Shelley's, but let that pass. Pondering this reminder, Moore muses:
'That might have been the first time that I actually had the idea for treating mainstream fiction as if it was a superhero continuity. That might have been the first place. Probably the original idea, there must have been some kernel of it back around then, but it didn't really develop until a few years back when it started to.... Certainly well after I'd done Lost Girls, when I'd started to to think how much fun it had been using these fictional characters together in the same context, and started to have musings about whether you can put together a Victorian super-hero thing.'
At its most basic level, that was indeed the premise of the first volume of League -- it was, as Moore says, a 'Justice League of Victorian England', a straightforward adventure story pulling together Mina Murray, Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, Hawley Griffin, and the double act of Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde, under the command of James Moriarty or Mycroft Holmes.

Within an episode or two, however, Moore says that himself and Kevin O'Neill realised that League had far greater potential than they were allowing it, that it was 'a fantastic opportunity to map the entire world of fiction'. For all that, though, Moore has eased his readers into this world. Mina's scarred throat is almost the only evidence of her encounter with fiction's most celebrated vampire, while if Rupert the Bear or Mister Toad appeared, well, they were the result of scientific experimentation, hybrids created by Dr Moreau. In other words, the stories are relatively 'realistic' affairs in the first two volumes of League, with the fictional realms of magic, faerie, and the occult being firmly relegated to the supplementary text sections at the end of each issue.

I mentioned a few days ago how I was having difficulty deciding whether Black Dossier was mindbogglingly brilliant or just self-indulgently clever. My main problem lay in the fact that a hundred and sixty or so pages in, what had up until that point been -- I thought -- implicitly apocryphal, suddenly went mainstream.

I had difficulty accepting that, but having read the Dossier four times at this point, I'm pretty happy with it. I'll tell you why tomorrow.

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