The 6,000-Year-Old Man

Alan Moore
Voice of the Fire
Top Shelf Productions

Every place has a secret identity; every city, like every culture, is built on the burial ground of its past. The invisible histories and blood debts of Northampton, England, where Alan Moore has lived all his life, are the subject of Voice of the Fire. Moore is probably the best-known contemporary comic-book writer, and his most famous graphic novels--Watchmen and From Hell--address the echoes of history and the power of place. His only prose novel to date (it was originally published in the UK in 1996), Voice of the Fire is consecutively narrated by a dozen characters who have lived in Northampton over the past 6,000 years. (The last speaker is Moore himself, attempting to make sense of the path he's charted.) Ideas and images recur from chapter to chapter: headlessness and footlessness, enormous shaggy black hounds, a pebble in the mouth, a pig sacrificed in the place of a boy or vice versa.

If this seems a bit similar to Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, it is in places, but the history that concerns Moore is local rather than global. There's no plot to resolve at the end, only skeins of theme extended into the present day. As Moore strolls around his neighborhood in the final chapter, it's as if roots extend from his feet, down through the strata of architecture and bodies belonging to everyone who's ever lived there.

When Moore's plotting falters, as it sometimes does, he relies on the bottomless well of cleverness that his comic-book readers know well. One chapter postulates a shockingly perfect solution to the secret of the 12th century's mysterious Knights Templar; another takes the form of a Borgesian detective story with a third-century Roman treasury investigator as its sleuth; a third involves the memories of a skull on a spike; a fourth is a diary written in the voice of 19th-century poet John Clare. Assuming the persona of Elinor Shaw, one of the last two women executed for witchcraft in England, Moore explains that she actually did conjure imps and demons, but was only responsible for a few of the sorcerous murders she was accused of.

The book's opening chapter is so clever it's practically show-offish: A nomadic hunter-gatherer, abandoned by his tribe in 4,000 B.C., falls in love with a girl who's trouble. He tells his story in a vocabulary so tragically limited that he doesn't have the words to understand what's happened to him, or even to understand the difference between his waking life and his dreams. (He's terrified of even looking at written words or pictures: "If man look on they, he's gleanings is all come to queer, that he may glean not which is world and which is mark.")

Moore's habit in his comics, almost a tic, is to make important dialogue scan as iambs: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. He maintains that rhythm for virtually all of Voice of the Fire (although a chapter in the voice of an 11th-century nun switches to the da-da-DUM rhythm of anapests: "On the day of the feast I awake with such words in my mouth as to frighten the wits from my poor sister Aethelflaed, there in her cell next to mine.") Luxurious and portentous, and lacking the visual support of Moore's comics, the novel's language is word-drunk nearly to the point of purpleness. A character can't mention glassblowing without imagining "the glazed sands all about the furnace hole made hard, shot through with bitter juice of kelp and bladderwrack and coppered blue." This sort of hyper-aestheticized diction belongs more to the author than to his characters. But Moore is illustrating how everyday speech becomes the heavier ash-language of history, as time makes every voice a voice from beyond the grave.

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