Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Michael Moorcock – The Cornelius Chronicles (1969-1977)

“Jerry didn't mind the bombs as much as the rock scene. He wouldn't care what they sent so long as it wasn't Simon and Garfunkel.”

Jerry Cornelius is quite possibly the weirdest incarnation of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion. Jerry is an achingly cool secret agent assassin pansexual music snob who dies and comes back to life frequently. He's armed with supercool weapons like the needlegun and the vibragun, and he throws parties so cool that everyone from Elric to Charlie Parker to Hawkwind attends, (though no one leaves). While all incarnations of the Eternal Champion strive to restore the balance between the forces of order and chaos, Jerry is purely a force of chaos who is never happier than when tearing down empires, regimes and civilisations, or just generally running amok. All this is weird enough, but it doesn't cover the way in which the stories are told. Moorcock wrote the original four Cornelius novels at the height of the 60s counterculture and SF's bold and experimental New Wave, leading him to write a series firmly engaged with its turbulent time and enlivened by the avant-garde techniques of William Burroughs. Aside from the first book in the quartet, the Cornelius stories are told out of chronological order and interspersed with cut-up text from headlines, adverts and newspaper articles to emulate a true sense of chaos. But for all that, Moorcock's pulp instincts and his feel for a good story hold the whole thing together, creating one of those rare pieces of art that manages to be both boldly experimental and immediately engaging. Indeed, these four books may be the great man's crowning achievement.

The Final Programme (1969)

Amazingly, the actual book is arguably weirder than the cover. 

   'The Final Programme', the first Cornelius novel, is relatively straightforward. 'Relatively' being the operative word. When we are first introduced to Jerry Cornelius, he is scheming with a bunch of dubious characters to storm his father's house by sea where his brother, Frank, has holed up so he can steal back his sister and lover, Catherine, from him. This should appear familiar to fans of Moorcock's work, as it's basically the same plot as the first Elric novel. But it is far from simply being a retread. Whereas Elric has always been about moral ambiguity - Elric realises that a lot of the stuff he does simply isn't very pleasant, and boy does he angst about it - Jerry Cornelius is gleefully amoral. Even when he accidentally shoots and kills Catherine, as Elric does to his sister in 'The Dreaming City', he seems more sulky because he's lost this particular game rather than devastated by the death of his true love. 

Jerry, seen here Corneliusing
   Jerry's associates are lead by Mrs. Brunner, the ying to Jerry's yang, a Thatcher expy who represents order at its most fascistic and stiffing. She is hoping to use the technology designed by Cornelius' father to create a computer capable of running the ultimate programme that would be able to predict the fate of the earth and everyone in it to the smallest detail. On the promise of revenge, Jerry tags along with Miss Brunner to track down Frank through secret Nazi caves in Lapland to find a secret document left by Major Newman, an astronaut who allegedly gained some profound insight on a mission that went wrong. This of course Moorcock fans will recognise as a retelling of the Elric story 'While The Gods Laugh'. 

Pictured: cosmic illumination
   Like Elric and his sword Stormbringer, Jerry and Miss Brunner are suggested to be two halves of one whole. In much the same way as Elric draws energy from Stormbringer eating souls, Jerry is a kind of energy vampire who feeds off the life energy of those around him. But Jerry shows himself to be a very different kind of (anti-)hero to Elric. For much of the book he just coasts along; even the promise of revenge against Frank hardly seems to get his blood flowing, and he barely tries to stop Miss Brunner from completing her evil plan. In addition, unlike Elric, Jerry Cornelius likes sex. A lot. In addition to his incestuous relationship with Catherine, Jerry will and does sleep with anything that moves, male or female, allowing himself to be seduced as much as seducing. 
   In the end, Miss Brunner runs her final programme and has sex with Jerry, and the merge into the hermaphroditic being Cornelius Brunner, forming a kind of dark messiah that brings about the apocalypse by leading the whole of the human race into the sea to drown. Perhaps as chaos and order have been united in the perfect balance, there is nothing left for this universe. (This is the first book in a series).

The triumph of Cornelius Brunner
 A Cure For Cancer (1971)

"This book... has an unconventional structure."

   Jerry Cornelius returns in 'A Cure For Cancer', apparently none the worse for wear for merging with Miss Brunner and causing the apocalypse. Perhaps more than any other incarnation of the Eternal Champion, the Cornelius stories make full use of the concept of the multiverse - different alternate universes in which the same struggle between order and chaos is endlessly recapitulated. 'A Cure For Cancer' warns us at the beginning that it has an unconventional structure. While 'The Final Programme' is a linear story that, while weird, still holds together and makes narrative sense, the rest of the Cornelius Quartet from here on out is told out of chronological order, in a series of disjointed but related scenarios playing out in different times and in different universes, as characters representing larger concepts interact. We already have Jerry representing chaos and Miss Brunner and Frank representing the extremes of order, but 'Cancer' expands the Cornelius troop to include the greedy and lustful Bishop Beesley, who represents organised religion. 

Pictured: subtlety
   This time round, Jerry manifests as a photo negative version of himself from the previous novel - white hair and ink black skin and teeth. This Jerry is hardly a moral inversion of the old Jerry - he's just as amoral here as he ever was. This time he's searching for a device he invented that allow him to switch between universes - at the cost of absorbing life in this universe - in order to find a universe in which his beloved Catherine is still alive. 

   As well as facing off against Bishop Beesley, who wants to steal Jerry's device to create a universe of such pure order that time itself will stop, Jerry has to contend with the deranged military forces that Frank has allied himself to this time, militaristic psychopaths who have turned England into a battleground in order to wipe out what they see as some kind of ideological cancer. 'A Cure For Cancer' was written during the Vietnam war, but it's not hard to see how its satire remains pertinent today. 
   While the disjointed structure makes it difficult to figure out exactly what's going on, that's kind of the point. Here Moorcock is plunging us directly into the chaos, and his disruption of conventional narrative structure comes off as a masterstroke. The characters are well drawn enough and there is a consistent texture of atmosphere that the novel maintains its own momentum and is able to come together somewhat for its conclusion. While Jerry may be amoral, selfish and dangerous, he's a darn slight better than the forces he's up against. 

The English Assassin: A Romance Of Entropy (1972)

"As he had often suspected, the end had come quietly and the breakdown had been by slow degrees. In fact the breakdown was still going on. Superficially there was nothing urgent about it. As the weeks passed and communications and services slowly worsened, there always seemed to be a chance that things might improve. He knew they could not improve."

Ashes to ashes...
   Jerry Cornelius himself sits this one out for the most part, which is understandable as the guy's in something of a bad way, drudged up from the ocean floor or screaming incoherently. But that's OK because it gives us more time to focus on the supporting cast. Una Pearson, the suave female assassin who first appeared in the Oswald Bastable novels but is much more at home in the Cornelius crew, takes centre stage here, acting as much as an agent of chaos as Jerry ever did, shooting up European aristocracy and taking his place as Catherine's lover as well. Catherine herself finally gets to spend some significant time alive and undergoes some character development herself. We are introduced to Prinz Lobkowitz, who represents the fading European aristocracy (and gets killed by Una a lot), Major Nye, who represents British Imperialism, Jerry's larger than life cockney mum and her lover, the lugubrious Colonel Pyat. 
   'The English Assassin' follows the unconventional structure of 'A Cure For Cancer' but takes it even further. While in 'Cancer' there was more or less a single narrative thread that it was just about possible to untangle, 'Assassin' atomises the narrative further, providing a series of vignettes occurring across multiple universes and time streams as the characters struggle for the upper hand in this particular iteration. Whilst not providing a solid narrative drive, each of these scenarios deepens our understanding of these characters and the way they interact. Although they all have different agendas, over the course of the novel we see just about every possible permutation of characters working together to further their own needs, proving that they are not as different as perhaps they would like to believe. The openness of the symbols recurring throughout the Cornelius stories and the vagueness of the actual plot allow a myriad of interpretations, which again is perhaps part of the point. 

The Condition Of Muzak (1977)

"Soon he was nearing London. In the evening light the city was phosphorescent, like a neon wound; it glowed beneath a great scarlet sun turning the clouds orange and purple. And Jerry was filled with a sudden deep love for his noble birth-place, the City of the Apocalypse, this Earthly Paradise, the oldest and greatest city of its Age, virgin and whore, mother, sister, mistress, sustainer of life, creator of nightmare, destroyer of dreams, harbour of twenty million chosen souls."

"All art constantly aspires towards the condition of muzak."

   How do you bring to an end something as open-ended and bizarre as the Cornelius Chronicles? 'The Condition Of Muzak' manages the nigh-impossible by acting as both a summation, a clarification and an obfuscation of everything that's gone before. The narrative is as jumbled and as piecemeal as in 'The English Assassin', but here the pieces of story we get appear to be from in between and behind the scenes of all that has gone before. Or is it? Are we catching Jerry in between the missing gaps in 'A Cure For Cancer', are we going to get enough context to be able to put all the events in 'Assassin' into a coherent order? Moorcock is aiming for nothing so simple. These could be the missing pieces of story, or they could be part of some other similar iteration in a different universe, or it could be Jerry sighing and going through the motions of repeating everything from the previous books for our own benefit. Or perhaps, as some sections of 'Muzak' indicate, Jerry is just some seedy kid from Ladbroke Grove who dreams of being a multiverse-surfing super spy because he and his beloved spacerock group The Deep Fix just can't catch a break. The Appendices at the back of the book thumb their nose to the very idea of continuity, giving a timeline of events across the whole of the Twentieth Century and the whole of the world which one man could not possibly have taken part in.
   The interactions between the characters this time round give us some of the clearest examples of who they really are. For example, Miss Brunner explains to Jerry, "Liberty! How I hate it! Given the chance I intend to establish a sane element of authority in this country again." 'Muzak' also puts Moorcock's vision of the future into clearer focus. A recurring element of the endgame scenarios dreamed up in the Cornelius Chronicles is the Balkanisation of larger states, and this is shown clearly here, with England splitting up into a multitude of tiny city states. 
   Also in focus is is Jerry himself and his role in the narrative. The novel's title refers to something that was once shocking and invigorating becoming mere background noise, a condition both Jerry and the Twentieth Century find themselves in at the beginning of the story. The sixties have given way to the seventies, the hippy dream has died and as a new age of cynicism is ushered in Jerry finds himself disillusioned with all his musical heroes, and perhaps with the very idea of heroism to begin with. If you deal in it all the time, even chaos can become boring. Jerry's ensuing identity crisis is played out with reference to the comedia dell'arte, with Jerry (and the audience) assuming that he has the role of Harlequin, with Catherine as his Columbine, and this drives his attempts to find a universe in which he can be with her. However, as the story continues, he begins to realise that his true role is that of Pierrot, the sad clown, and that he is always destined to lose his Columbine, and that Una Pearson is her Harlequin. While this suggests that Jerry will never be able to be with Catherine, it provides Jerry with a way out by taking the narrative pressure off him. Jerry ends his chronicle with the chance to shrug off the chains of narrative conceit, to stop being merely a symbol of chaos and perhaps to live a while as just a person. 

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