Initial Thoughts on “Voice of the Fire”

*I finally started this book, Alan Moore’s only prose novel, completed in 1997 and only properly released in North America in 2003 by Top Shelf. I bought my copy the day it was released to the Direct Market. Just started reading it yesterday, which speaks quite well of my mighty backlog (more thoughts on backlogs at Johanna’s; I must say that comics pretty much eliminated my once-compulsive purchasing of dvds, simply because my financial state couldn’t handle both).

Having gotten through the first two of twelve chapters (which nonetheless eat up over one-third of the book’s total space), I’m struck perhaps most by Moore’s use of language. In case you don’t know, “Voice of the Fire” is a set of short stories, all tied by theme and recurring images and other things, that covers events taking place on the site of what is now Moore’s hometown of Northampton; the place is the same, but the book moves forward in time with each new chapter, ending with a story about Moore himself at the time of the book’s writing. I’m sure that many of you, even in the event that you’ve not read the book or know nothing else about it, have heard of the infamous first chapter of this volume: it’s written entirely in a fantasy bastard tongue, an imaginative representation of what the language of 4000 BC might sound like if directly transmuted into something approximating modern speak. It’s plainly not a literal attempt at conjuring period communication (just as the bits from later periods aren’t presented in the authentic English of their times); rather, it’s an expression of limited communication and limited human development in a specially tuned manner that serves the story quite excellently. It’s even possible that not everyone in this particular chapter talks this way: our narrator isn’t the brightest specimen of early humanity, even in relation to his fellow setters and wanderers. He also cannot distinguish dreams from reality, he has no sense of depth perception, and he’s generally unwise to the ways of the world.

Walks I up hill, and little ways up sees I man on top, and sees he I, with sick and blood on face, and shit on legs of I. Says he as how I look-a-like with pig-arse, and what is I want of there, and like, and say of he is queer, with many sayings as I may not glean. An other man, more big in belly, come by now on top of hill, for look at I. In low of belly is he’s will all little, more as like to babe’s.”

And likewise for forty pages. It’s an interesting gambit to execute the first chapter in such a fashion (though the blow is leavened a ways by Neil Gaiman’s introduction added to the Top Shelf release), but it pays off quite handsomely. The reader is essentially forced to re-learn their way of perceiving the world through the constricted gaze of our young narrator; some words must be concentrated upon (it took me way too long to figure out the way in which Moore intended ‘glean’ to be understood), and extra attention must be paid to simple things like trees in the distance becoming larger upon approach. The ensuing effect is a genuinely alien and unsettling pre-Christian world, filled with barely perceivable danger. And even after the reader is used to the narrator’s language and the world he lives in, even after you can tell that in the quoted passage above the narrator has just shat himself and is taking note of another man’s tiny penis, Moore turns the screw just a little bit more, leading to a finale that proves that you really shouldn’t put your trust in an unreliable narrator, since even after you’ve learned to see the world like him, he still might be making minor errors that even you can’t quite notice, being held behind the white wall of the prose page.

And then the second chapter begins. We are now in 2500 BC. The narrator couldn’t be more different; now we’ve got a seemingly clever woman, apparently cleverer than everyone around her, prone to graft and trickery, and not above murder and identity theft (quite a simple matter when everyone lives days apart and relative may not see their offspring for decades at a time upon leaving them) to further her interests. The language is quite lovely, quite advanced. And yet - key words from the previous chapter are repeated. We’re given a seemingly brighter, more modern guide, yet we’re still very much in the Bronze Age. We’re also still among the huts and visionaries of Northampton, and we see some very similar sights and sites and such, not much changed in a millennium and one half. A flashback here echoes a flashback in the earlier chapter, only from a more devious, eloquent, but perhaps no more trustable perspective. I understand why these two chapters take up so much of the book; we must be taught again how to evaluate our most basic use of senses, we must see the world as a young thing to humankind, if we are ever to appreciate the flavors of time's passage and humanity's developments and lack thereof. This is the membrane that marks the work as the 'novel' that Moore brands it as; I was a bit amused by a commentator at Amazon getting all hot and bothered over the book's novelistic intent (you'll need to scroll down a tad - yes, I know, reader review at Amazon is unsatisfactory, alert the papers, get on the wire, etc.). There truly is much more connection than pure location, and I really must wonder how a reader could miss such an evident element of the work (along with how the niceties of format branding could prompt such a reaction). And what vehement distaste for purple language!

We are drawn father along, and farther in time as the book continues, and I trust that the explorations of speaking and perception will continue as we rush toward the present. I’ll write more when I’m farther along.