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KING OF THE CITY

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Michael Moorcock is like some alien force babbling out book length fantasies about albino fencers and incestuous siblings.
  I read somewhere that back in the sixties he could grind out a novel in a week, which isn't too surprising if he takes half as much speed as his characters. He's dreamt up images like the chaosphere and the multiverse which now bob around the culture, appearing on Coil albums and physics texts, while he offered Jerry Cornelius free of charge like Linux to other writers (for a while). For the last two decades, however, he's slowed down his production and concentrated on a well-crafted novels, letting his happily odious Colonel Pyat run rampant over the world and exploring his home town in the nostalgic and beautiful Mother London. Moorcock seems to see all of his books as series within series, and his latest, King of the City, is billed as a sequel to Mother London.
It's a story he's been telling a long time, the torment of a three-way incestuous affair, though here he's toned down the Wagnerian elements, and made his main characters Dennis and Rosie mere first cousins, while the evil brother, Barbican, is a slightly more distant relation. At the novel's start, Dennis is a tabloid photographer who has just snapped the shots proving that Barbican, until recently the most powerful man in the world, had faked his own death and is living a dream life screwing royals on Little Cayman. Lady Diana, however, has had the poor timing to die while Dennis is returning to London, making this paparazzo persona non grata in England's green and grieving land. So Dennis retreats inwardly to consider how life led him up to this gross festival of public sentimentality. His story is that of growing up with Rosie and Johnny (Barbican) Begg, from childhood shoplifting to teen existentialism, Dennis and Rosie in pure contact while Barbican envies them from outside. Barbican, however, quickly rises up England's commercial powers and uses his riches to woo Rosie, a social worker in Africa, while Dennis mostly does drugs and plays Hawkwind tunes.
Unfortunately, Dennis is something of a problem. Moorcock is great with nostalgia, evoking old London's eateries, its bloodsports, the strange customs of its inward-looking communities, and the first half of the novel, written in short, fast-paced chapters (all given great slangy pulp titles--The Spit, The Lick, The Skin, etc.) is full of nasty satire and feeling for kids making their way in this big city. But while Moorcock has a talent for drawing sympathetic portraits of amoral monsters like Colonel Pyat or Jerry Cornelius, Dennis, on the surface so much more a normal guy, is full of nothing so much as long humorless homilies on the evils of the Grand Consumer and modern capitalism. The chapters grow longer, conversations become earnest q-and-a sessions about corporate irresponsibility, and then Dennis gets into his fantasy rock band and things really start to drag. The end of the book reads more like a fulfillment of Moorcock's own musical and political fantasies than any his readers are likely to share by that point after been hectored for the last couple hundred pages. This is all too bad, because he really is capable of some great scenes such as a visit to the bird market:
    "Strutting dusty chocolate, glaring ebony, pulsing scarlet, crimson, yellows and verdanta. Fancy white tiles streaked with vividly coloured shit. Old iron beams hung with busy wicker and wire, swift, dark eyes, defiant beaks. Gorgeous ruffs around huge, clawed feet. Caged flutter everywhere. ... New Marshalsea was like a gathering of Victorian regiments: imperial scarlet and gold and royal blue, periwinkle and evergreen. And every one an officer or a lady. Proud to be fowl."
It's this strange mix of poetry, nostalgia, and satire which I enjoy most in his writing, but found increasingly stifled by Moorcock's polemic. As Dennis's rhetoric blooms, his fantasies grow less and less enticing.
Last Updated on Friday, 29 July 2005 20:57  


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