9 APRIL 1977, Page 19

Culture shock

Nick Totton

The Condition of Muzak Michael Moorcock (Allison and Busby £4.50) The Final Programme Michael Moorcock (Allison and Busby £3.95) A Cure for Cancer Michael Moorcock (Allison and Busby £3.50) The English Assassin Michael Moorcock (Allison and Busby £4.50) 'This was a gift-wrapped, throwaway age, Mr Cornelius. Now the gift-wrapping is off, it's being thrown away.' And through the debris stalks Jerry Cornelius: assassin, bon vivant, universal idiot genius, specialist in the resurrection gimmick, protagonist of many novels and stories by several hands and central character of the tetralogy now completed by The Condition of Muzak. His secret, though, is that he has no character at all in the normal sense of the word. He is a nomad of the territories of personality; even his skin colour and gender are as labile as his accomplishments ('Jerry could rarely speak German'). He is a set of co-ordinates: a peg on which to hang the costume of one's choice. A potentially infinite manifold of' stylistic gestures—so

long as they have style.

So he represents the zero-point of the novel: either its transcendence or its decomposition. Not only character is abandoned—consistency as a criterion of plot depends formally and actually on consistency of character. These four books employ at least a dozen major alternative universes, a dozen different histories of the twentieth century. as backdrops; and it is doubtful whether any of these is internally consistent. Many of the main protagonists die repeatedly, their resurrection usually going quite unremarked. If a protagonist's death carries no finality, then where are we to look for it ? And without finality of any kind, what is left of plot ?

The parodied Pater epigram in the title of the last novel gives at least one game away. If Mr Moorcock's art aspires to the condition of muzak, then it aspires to endlessness rather than the more conventional goal of eternity; and the difference is immense. The primary qualities of muzak are repetition, blandness, and consistency in the special sense of continuity, homogeneity. Mr Moorcock swings his glove in the face of Western culture's most central values.

Since The Final Programme (now reissued with the other volumes) first appeared in 1969, the challenge has been more or less ignored—in fact, largely unnoticed. Reviewers have concentrated on the normalisation of Mr Moorcock, mainly through the admiring contemplation of Jerry Cornelius's stylish supposed 'character,' and of the books' supposedly 'complex' plots. But an adequate response must start out by noticing that they are pulp-writing of a very blatant and conscious sort. There is nothing in Mr Moorcock's huge oeuvre to suggest that he is capable of orthodox characterisation and plotting at all. When he writes a conventionally structured book, it is two-dimensional and third-rate, bearing all the marks of honourable, in-it-for-themoney deadline work.

What he has contrived to do in the Jerry Cornelius books (some of the best of which are actually outside the tetralogy) is to make a virtue of his incapability. Out goes fuddy-duddy consistency, and associated values like depth, three-dimensionality and so on; in comes the new pragmatism of a surface excitement intended to take over from form and content altogether. (Hence, by the way, the affinity that the whole group of writers to which Mr Moorcock belongs feel for the 1 890s.) And there is a tremendous surface excitement here: dialogue worthy of the great Hollywood sophisticated comedies—from which it occasionally borrows—and scenery which changes too fast to become boring.

But there is a quality of atrocious boredom about these books after all; and it is from this that their edgy fascination derives. In a children's game of cowboys and Indians, being 'dead' means that you have to lie down, count to forty and carry on. At first sight this seems a considerable improvement on adult arrangements but it does

tend to undermine the point of the activity. We need death in order to live fully. Jerry's denial of death, both emotionally and physically, makes life worthless. His main objective, it seems, is to cease to exist without dying; and he has no idea how to go about it. He merely continues to substitute one costume for another.

It may seem that I am making very heavy weather of simple entertainment. One can see Mr Moorcock as a gifted populariser of avant-garde techniques—the point of transition at which a new routine enters the repertoire. It is certainly true that he is a populariser rather than an original artist : a magpie of ansehauungen who beautifully represents our culture's current eclecticism. But what concerns me is the actual nature of the trinkets that he assembles. A populariser is a bringer of news; and Mr Moorcock brings news of massive alienation. Jerry Cornelius has a penchant for burning libraries.

Available information makes it very clear that we have to decide once and for all whether burning libraries is a good thing or not, and why. On the one hand, there is the increasing sterility and automatism of the old culture, including the old notion of identity.

On the other hand. there is the new sterility and automatism of a Jerry Cornelius, who can afford the destruction of culture because he is already a savage who burns libraries without knowing what is in them. If these are the only alteitnatives then the outlook is certainly bleak.

77w Final Programme is a parody of mutuality. Jerry 'found that he didn't need to eat much, because he could liveoff other people's energy just as well'. Miss Brunner, his principal ally arid opponent, literally absorbs others, leaving their empty clothing and a sparkle in her eye. Neither she nor Jerry can establish a lasting ascendancy over t he other : their power isevenly matched. For them (and for Mr Moorcock?) the only solution is the final programme: a computer-managed mutual absorption into a single, hermaphroditic being, 'Cornelius Brunner.' A neat restatement of an ancient mythic theme which subtly distorts it into power politics. Mr Moorcock can only be so wrong because he is so nearly right: he knows all the themes of transcendence, but seems not to grasp their meaning. The 'sixties and 'seventies have seen the resurfacing of many archetypes, from which Mr Moorcock distils a tasty archetype stew.

He is right : the novels do tend towards the condition of muzak. Even the end of the world begins to pall when there are eight alternative versions in a single novel. To recapitulate the conditions of our suffering in an endless melisma of formal variations, an endless permutation of pseudo-insurrections, this is muzak. Perhaps one day a different message will crackle out of the loudspeakers, inflaming the supermarket shoppers.

But I do not think that Michael Moorcock will provide it.