Science Fiction Studies

# 8 = Volume 3, Part 1 = March 1976


Ralph Willett

Moorcock's Achievement and Promise in the Jerry Cornelius Books

Michael Moorcock has emerged in the late sixties and early seventies as that rare phenomenon, the popular novelist whose work has also become a cult among the young and the avant-garde. He entered Britain’s world of popular culture at the age of 17 as editor of a boys’ magazine, Tarzan Adventures, and then wrote comic strips for Fleetway’s popular fiction publications; now over 30, he is compared not only to Edgar Rice Burroughs but also to William Burroughs, especially with respect to the Jerry Cornelius books: The Final Programme, 1968, The Chinese Agent, 1970, The Nature of the Catastrophe, 1971, A Cure for Cancer, 1971, The English Assassin, 1972, An Alien Heat, 1972, and The Hollow Lands, 1974.1 Moorcock lacks William Burroughs’ accurate and devastating satire, and his verbal experiments have been less radical, but in both artists can be observed a basic dissatisfaction with linear methods of representing space and time, a surreal sense of co-existing multiple worlds, and an emphasis on apocalyptic disaster.

Moorcock’s eclecticism is a facet of his work that the reader cannot escape; echoes of other writers abound, even if the final result and total effect are Moorcock’s own. And the very conception of Jerry Cornelius as a fluid, metaphoric being erodes the old convention of the "retrospective" novel (as J.G. Ballard calls it), in which characters were the property of their creator. Tales about Jerry Cornelius by writers other than Moorcock appeared in New Worlds, the magazine edited by Moorcock and Ballard, and were collected, along with some by Moorcock, in The Nature of the Catastrophe, edited by Moorcock and Langdon Jones. This collection is dedicated to Borges, and in the introductory discussion of the "real identity" of Jerry Cornelius, several references are made to the Argentine writer, and specifically to "The Immortal." The Cornelius chronology at the end of the book (1900-1968, but with mention of a reference in Vergil!) could well derive from a similar chronology (1066-1921) in "The Immortal." And the universe of the Borges story, in terms of history ("in an infinite period of time, all things happen to all men") and ethics ("all our acts are just, but they are also indifferent"), resembles that of the Jerry Cornelius novels.

The introduction, written from "New Mexico" by a "James Colvin" is itself a hoax, reminding us not only of Borges, but also of Poe. Incest (between Jerry Cornelius and his sister Catherine) with hints of necrophilia also evokes Poe, while in The Final Programme, Jerry’s father’s house, a fake Le Corbusier chateau on the coast of Normandy, seems sentient, like the House of Usher: "As he looked up at it, Jerry thought how strongly the house resembled his father’s tricky skull" (§4).

Other writers come to mind, such as Donald Barthelme, who is also fascinated with the impedimenta of modern civilization and creates a tone resembling Moorcock’s, both sad and nonchalant, and Ronald Firbank, especially in An Alien Heat, set in a "decadent" future in which people give themselves up to "paradox, aesthetics and baroque wit." But it is Borges’ juxtapositions of the real and the imaginary, and above all, the dream-like fictions in which he plays games with space and time, that are most frequently called to mind. The following lines from "The Garden of Forking Paths" provide an apposite transition: "In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui PÍn, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them."2

Since time is relative, not absolute, any temporal reality is only a possible order of events. Moorcock clearly appreciates and responds to this perception, mixing "real" news items with fictive speculations, and in The English Assassin, offering a series of eight different futures, each in the form of "The Alternative Apocalypse." The reader is deliberately refused the comfort of sequential logic by different type faces or by short paragraphs with unrelated randomized headings. The arbitrary nature of literary beginnings and endings, is indicated in The Nature of the Catastrophe where the opening of "The Tank Trapeze" repeats the end of "Sea Wolves." (Both stories are by Moorcock.) Moreover, "The Delhi Division," also by Moorcock, begins with the identical sentences opening the chapter "The Hills" in The English Assassin, although the protagonist is different: "A smoky Indian rain fell through the hills and woods outside Simla and the high roads were slippery. Major Nye [Jerry Cornelius in EA] drove his Phantom V down twisting lanes flanked by white fences." Once again, the limits of the individual novel or story are challenged. The action is enfranchised and, in its mirror-image, made more ambiguous. Are we witnessing merely different points in time or events in identical universes? The knowledge of the two passages is unsettling like a recurrent dream.

Indeed, modern existence itself takes on a dream-like quality as the single person, inundated by media images, experiences a bewildering montage of facts, moods and messages. As one critic has pointed out, "What Michael Moorcock does is to set them [events and visions] all down flat, giving equal importance to each; and the effect, paradoxically, just because life actually is like that, is one of extreme fantasy."3

The element of the fantastic is compounded today by radio, TV, magazines and movies, so that our consciousness may be aware of a variety of time-zones at the same instant. Moorcock will place his characters in an airship with Art Deco furnishings, but equip them with modern gadgets such as needleguns and nerve-gas grenades. The English Assassin begins in 1975, but moves rapidly to the period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and later takes in Una Persson’s appearance as a music-hall entertainer at the turn of the century, and Mrs. Cornelius’ bank holiday excursion to Brighton in the 1930s.

Certainly, Moorcock shares in the nostalgia of the sixties; "camp" in the second half of that decade made all of the recent past available for evocation. But a sense of irony was retained, and Moorcock too knows where to draw the line, especially in An Alien Heat, where an omnivorous nostalgia assists the pursuance of hedonism. In that futuristic novel, the characters vie with each other to set "fashions" which will catch on universally and, while capable of visiting the past, prefer to re-create it. But the past will take its revenge, as the avatar of Jerry Cornelius, Jherek Cornelian, is plunged into the squalor and brutality of Victorian London’s slums.

Yet despite the movements in time that characterize The English Assassin and The Nature of the Catastrophe, the world of Jerry Cornelius is basically that of the 1960s, "a gift wrapped throwaway age," as Miss Brunner calls it in The Final Programme [§11], a mixture of dream and nightmare, buoyant, élitist, androgynous, narcissistic, overpopulated, and either violent itself (the Kray twins), or permeated by images of violence (Vietnam, the Kennedy assassinations). Although London in the 1960s was often said to be the most exciting city in the world, the decade still produced books with such titles as Suicide of a Nation. Something of that despair finds its way into The English Assassin (subtitled "A Romance of Entropy") with its newspaper reports of heroin addiction, car crashes, Vietnam killings, murder and rape, and A Cure for Cancer, the most anti-American of the novels with its materials of ubiquitous U.S. military advisers, American internment camps, and paranoid right-wing rhetoric.

Moorcock’s time travelers act out his plots in a variety of exotic locations, ranging from Lapland to Cornwall, from Phnom Penh to Simla. At the centre of this world lies Cornelius’s Time Centre, set up in a convent in Ladbroke Grove, west of Central London. All the leading characters in the novels and tales find their way to this part of Notting Hill (one centre for the Alternate Society in the Sixties), drawn, for one reason or another, to the Time Centre or to a huge social gathering: Jerry’s party in The Final Programme at his Holland Park house or the Gala Ball at Hearst’s San Simeon, rebuilt on the site of the old convent in The English Assassin. These events are ended by the breakdown of government and by personal violence, respectively, but it is national violence, along with anarchy and entropy, that Moorcock usually portrays. The squandering of resources and energy precipitates the death of the universe; there is a frequent sense of "things narrowing down," or, as Mrs. Cornelius puts it in The English Assassin: "Everyfink’s runnin’ art ‘ere. Food, Fuel, Fun" (4). Wasteland images predominate: in "The Sunset Perspective" (The Nature of the Catastrophe), New York is described in terms of distant gunfire, collapsing neon signs and corpses on steel gibbets, and, as cities are destroyed or filled with refugees, a post-atomic vision like Bob Dylan’s in "A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall" (1963) is produced ("guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children"; "I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’"). This fictional universe is inhabited, indeed "created," by agents and double agents, alternately manipulators and victims, not always in full control of their powers and technology. It is this random factor which renders Jerry and the Time Centre vulnerable.

Glamorous, bisexual, capable of colour change, resurrection, and, from book to book, metamorphosis (the seedy Jeremiah Cornell in The Chinese Agent, the childlike Jherek Cornelian in An Alien Heat), Jerry Cornelius would seem, as his initials suggest, to have many of the prerequisites for a messiah. But only in The Final Programme, where he merges physically with Miss Brunner, does he take up this role—in The English Assassin such a suggestion is ridiculed by Colonel Pyat: "A bloody Teddy boy, more like" (§4). Even as a modern hero, Jerry departs radically from the Superman image of assertive masculinity. His function—the maintenance of equilibrium between law and chaos—precludes purposeful action; Jerry likes everything "how it comes." Enervated when he loses energy, he is ordinary enough to weep in self hatred, to vomit and suffer from migraine, and to be captured by the enemy, at which point he is inclined to scream and whimper. These characteristics were noted by M. John Harrison (one of Moorcock’s collaborators): in "The Flesh Circle" (The Nature of the Catastrophe), he has Dr. Naw say to Jerry, "You’re guitars, guns and glitter, but are you anything else? ... You see yourself as some sort of power-point—a personal quasar—but you’re down on the floor with the rest of us, scrabbling among the bones to save your pretty skin..." (§5).

To read the later Cornelius novels is a distinctly masochistic experience, and beneath the "guitars, guns and glitter," there is an underlying despair and nihilism. In A Cure for Cancer, that despair engenders a cynicism which is, in social terms, deplorable. Captured twice by Bishop Beesley and once by a U.S. government agent, Jerry abandons humanity to its fate in a private, romantic gesture, maximizing entropy and diffusion so that his sister Catherine will have sufficient energy to live a few days longer.

New art forms are called into being when new material or "content" needs to be articulated. Unfortunately, Moorcock’s inventive structures (in such works as A Cure for Cancer and The English Assassin) seem only to celebrate and mock the Sixties "scene" (an ambivalence characteristic of the period) and to deplore the violence of the modern world, while recognizing its inevitability. An Alien Heat, a comparatively conventional narrative novel, is a more considerable affair, using the future and the past to make a dialectical examination of freedom and discipline. Even the emissary from the past, Mrs. Amelia Underwood, an intelligent, hymn singing gentlewoman from nineteenth-century Bromley in Southern England, has to admit the attractions of the leisured civilization of the future in which she finds herself: "It was hard, indeed, to cling to all one’s proper moral ideals when there was so little evidence of Satan here—no war, no disease, no sadness (unless it was desired), no death, even" (§9). But despite this concession, Moorcock’s skepticism towards this projected society, which lives off the achievements of the past and fails to invent anything genuinely new, is clear enough, and finds expression through another visitor, Li Pao: "What ghosts you are. What pathetic fantasies you pursue. You play mindless games without purpose or meaning, while the universe dies around you" (6).

Jherek Cornelian, whose nostalgia for the nineteenth century takes the form of pictorial reproductions and an air car that resembles a small steam locomotive, falls in love with Amelia, follows her back in time and, Orpheus-like, arrives in the underworld. His experiences among London’s down-and-outs teach him misery, cold, hunger and fear, so that, on his return, he is better equipped to to answer his mother’s question (the book’s first spoken words): "How do you mean, my love, ‘virtuous’?" He has learnt that virtue has to do with corruption, which in turn has to do with "not being in control of your own decisions" (§ 14), a widespread circumstance in nineteenth-century London. With freedom comes the possibility of choosing responsibility and moral action.

Like John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and the detective novels of Peter Lovesey, An Alien Heat (and its sequel, The Hollow Lands) demonstrates a recent and continuing interest by contemporary writers in the Victorian period, an interest at times devoted to the accumulation of documentary detail, but one which also permits the comparative study of British cultures. The Jerry Cornelius of "Sea Wolves," dressed in a Diane Logan hat, a yellow Saks shirt, a brown Dannimac coat, and dark orange trousers from Italy, already seems dated. But the modernist techniques of the Cornelius books, and the seriousness and control shown in An Alien Heat, make Moorcock one of Britain’s most promising novelists.

NOTES

1. US and UK editions: The Final Programme (US: Ace ph 1968: UK: Allison & Busby 1969, Mayflower ph 1971); The Chinese Agent (US: Macmillan 1970, Ace pb 1971; UK: Hutchinson 1970); The Nature of the Catastrophe (UK: Hutchinson 1971); A Cure for Cancer (UK: Allison & Busby 1972, Quartet ph 1973; US: Harper & Row 1974); An Alien Heat (UK: MacGibbon & Kee 1972, Mayflower ph 1974; US: Harper & Row 1973, Harrow ph 1973); The Hollow Lands (US: Harper & Row 1974; UK: Hart_Davis MacGibbon 1975).

2. "The Immortal" and "The Garden of Forking Paths" both appear in Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths, ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby (NY 1964).

3. Emma Tenant, "Fin de Millenium," The Listener, 24 Jan 1974, p. 117.

 

ABSTRACT

Michael Moorcock entered Britains’s world of popular culture at 17 as editor of a boys’ magazine, Tarzan Adventures; he then wrote comic strips for Fleetway’s popular fiction publications. He has been compared not only to Edgar Rice Burroughs but to William Burroughs, especially with respect to the Jerry Cornelius books: The Final Programme (1968), The Chinese Agent (1970), The Nature of the Catastrophe (1971), A Cure for Cancer (1971), The English Assassin (1972), An Alien Heat (1972), and The Hollow Lands (1974). Moorcock lacks William Burroughs’s accurate and devastating satire and his verbal experiments have been less radical, but in both artists can be observed a basic dissatisfaction with linear methods of representing space and time, a surreal sense of co-existing multiple worlds, and an emphasis on apocalyptic disaster. The perspective of Jerry Cornelius as a fluid, metaphoric being erodes the old convention of the "retrospective" novel (as J. G. Ballard calls it), in which characters were the property of their creator: tales about Jerry Cornelius by writers other than Moorcock appeared in New Worlds, the magazine edited by Moorcock and Ballard, and were collected, along with some by Moorcock, in The Nature of the Catastrophe, which is dedicated to Jorge Luis Borges. The world of Jerry Cornelius is basically that of the 1960s—buoyant, elitist, androgynous, narcissistic, over-populated, and permeated with images of violence.


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