The Cornelius Chronicles

I suppose the time has come in the Michael Moorcock series to look at some of the Jerry Cornelius books.

I didn’t really enjoy these books that much. However, if you realize going into them (and I didn’t), that Moorcock is doing his version of Commedia dell’Arte, they will be a lot more understandable.

However, I really can’t recommend them.

Raw Feed (1999): The Cornelius Chronicles, Michael Moorcock, 1977.Cornelius Chronicles

The Repossession of Jerry Cornelius”, John Clute — While I find Clute’s entries very useful in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (the shorter format curbs his excesses), I find his book reviews less than useful with his self-confessed fondness for obscure words and extended metaphors. I don’t know if Moorcock commissioned this introduction to the omnibus or if Clute’s opinions on these four novels bear any resemblance to the books. From what I gather, Clute (a resident of London where this piece was written and where Moorcock was born and lived a number of years and has written about) views these novels as a metaphor for city life in London from 1965 to 1977, the span of years in which these novels were written.  (And, to a lesser extent, a comment on the contemporary scene in Europe and worldwide.) I don’t agree with Clute’s sociological observation that life in the city is theatrical and involves putting on personas to perform on the metro stage (at least no more than personas are adapted in any social setting). It also seems that Clute is hinting that The Condition of Muzak, the fourth novel in the series, may imply that the previous three books are the daydreams of loser Jerry Cornelius.

The Final Programme — I enjoyed this novel (and certainly found it more enjoyable than Moorcock’s The Black Corridor and The Distant Suns) but found it oddly structured.  It’s light and airy, the dialogue archly ironic and droll, and easy to read, but I never got the feeling of building up to a climax. In fact, since I had seen a film adaptation of this novel, I expected the final ending of Jerry Cornelius (a sometimes callous and ruthless figure given to incest with his sister and, like Moorcock’s Elric, vampirically feeding off others – albeit with no instrumentality like Stormbringer) and merging with Miss Brunner to become a hermaphrodite. However, despite all the talk of a new world emerging, the cycle of time perhaps being broken, and millions following “Cornelius Brunner” into the sea to their deaths (and plague breaking out all over Europe), I never got the sense of a new order (or, at the very least, a significant new order) emerging.  The idea of a dream being used to create a new social order is something in many of the Eternal Champion stories, but I couldn’t tell if Cornelius was an agent of Law or Chaos, or just the new. I’ve seen it claimed that Cornelius was a proto-cyberpunk hero. I doubt that he had much influence and, if he did, it probably was the importance of contemporary popular culture, an international setting, trade and brand names (Moorcock probably was inspired by Ian Fleming in this since the James Bond series, partially parodied here, was big on brand names), and fashion (meticulously described here). Cornelius probably has his place amongst sf characters (this omnibus if frequently cited in lists of classic sf.) because it so stridently (and was probably the first to do so) tries to capture its time and the portents that seemed to be in the air of the very influential sixties’ London.

A Cure for Cancer — This novel starts with a list of acknowledgments for the source of quotes used (this is probably the only sf novel that mentions Herbert W. Armstrong and The Plain Truth) and the note: “This book has an unconventional structure.” I think it would be more accurate to say it has almost no structure or, more precisely, almost nothing in the way of a comprehensible plot. It seems to involve Jerry Cornelius tampering with cycles of time (a feature of the nearly contemporaneous The Dancers At the End of Time ) in order to gather enough energy together to briefly resurrect his sister Catherine. We never really understand the aims of the organization Cornelius ostensibly works for (it seems to be preparing enough people to survive the tampering with the multiverse at story’s end) nor the goals of his opposition. (Bishop Beesly seems to want to impose an antiquated moral order on a changing world.) If you want to interpret the novel that way, Cornelius is, again, an Eternal Champion whose efforts favor Chaos in order to bring on a new, but not totally chaotic, world. Jerry seems at home with entropy and, in a certain sense, its agent. He, in one scene, destroys a stack of 78 records [that would be 78 RPM records, not records from 1978] for no reason. At novels end, there is a wintery scene reflecting, in part, a bit of the heat death of the universe. The relationship between this Jerry Cornelius book and the proceeding The Final Programme is puzzling. Here Cornelius is a black man inhabiting a world that fought a different World War One than ours and, in a Vietnam-like scenario. (If this novel can said to be about anything, it is Vietnam.) The longest chapter in the novel, “Gallagher to Form Label in Thrust Overseas by MCA”, seems to be a commentary on America’s conduct in Vietnam. America and Israel are fighting a war with each other in Europe. Catherine Cornelius is also dead, killed by Jerry. On the other hand, Frank Cornelius (he and Jerry are almost as murderous towards one another as in The Final Programme) alive. He is allied with others in a vaguely explained opposition to his brother. Like the first book (this one even owes more to Alfred Bester with its typographic experiments), it was quick and easy to read but ultimately very disappointing in terms of a comprehensible story. J. G. Ballard seems to have been the inspiration (and perhaps John Brunner) for the quotes of articles and ads. Evidently, Moorcock thought the illustrations, since they were reprinted in this paperback edition (an unusual step), integral to the story though I didn’t think they added much. Illustrations were also part of Bester’s later Golem 100.

The English Assassin — I confess to being utterly baffled by this book and unable to provide a coherent plot description.  It features (and the first book in the series, The Final Programme does too) even more characters from Moorcock’s Oswald Bastable books (a series started after the Cornelius books, 1971 to be exact, and concluding after it in 1981 – The Dancers at the End of Time series was also written about the time of the Cornelius books). Those crossover characters are the lovely, interesting, bisexual Una Persson (revolutionary and singer); physicist Hira, the Beesleys; Marke, and Nyes. Apart from the references to a continuing cast of character, particularly Catherine Cornelius with whom he has an incestuous affair, there is little to link this book to the preceding Jerry Cornelius books. Most of the chapters feature odd melanges of alternate histories (usually with references to real musicians and pieces of music) that are not often consistent with other chapters. Every so often are chapters listed as “Alternate Apocalypse” which may be ends of the world as imagined by Cornelius. Indeed, for most of this novel, Jerry is an off-stage character (except the one notable scene where he sabotages a peace conference packed with characters from his series and real people). Most of the novel’s events involve carting Cornelius’ body around, rescuing it, or reviving it. A theme of miserable children – or, more particularly, killed children — winds its way through the book in the form of excerpted newspaper articles. A memoir (I have no idea if it is a creation of Moorcock’s or not) by Maurice Lescoq talking about his childhood also emphasizes this theme. Perhaps, just as children are largely at the mercy of adults, we are to see Jerry as like a child largely at the mercy of others. I certainly didn’t have a bad time reading this. I just am not sure what I read.

The Condition of Muzak — Well, this novel was more comprehensible than its two predecessors – A Cure for Cancer and The English Assassin. While I’m not sure what the ultimate meaning or point of the novel was, I think I have some clue as to what Moorcock attempted here.  (I also cheated a bit before doing this entry, and looked up an interview with Moorcok and information on Commedia dell’Arte, English Patomime, and the characters Pierrot, Harlequin and Columbine in Harlequin dramas.) The title of the novel is a play or a quote from one Pater that “All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music.” By substituting “Muzak” – the industrial, functional, bland version of music – music to work by and not listen to – for “music”, Moorcock seems to suggest a couple of things. Pater’s quote goes on to remark that, unlike all other arts, the subject and form of music can not be separated. If this novel (and Moorcock makes a few references to Charles St. Ives, whose music, I understand, is chaotic in parts), seems disjointed, a series of chaotic adventures in which Jerry Cornelius participate in quickly depicted wars (mostly of colonial liberation) and political struggles in various alternate timetracks, it is because, in Moorcock’s mind, that is precisely the state of the world in 1977, the chaos of form echoes chaos of subject. Major Nye, at one point, remarks that Jerry is a mythic symbol of his time, a man utterly at home and happy in what, to others, is a terrifying urban environment. To Jerry, technology is not to be understood or employed usefully, it’s to use to an aesthetic end, an extension of self, a fashion statement (and many chapter headings, especially in the second part of the novel, deal with military technology). Jerry is a mythic figure bringing chaos wherever he goes, thwarting the various schemes and political plans of Bishop Beesly and Mrs. Brunner who always have some grand theory of human nature and political order and plans to bring it about. (Appendix I at novel’s end has a list of mock quotes from 1900 to 1968 documenting appearances of one Jerry Cornelius – usually as revolutionary, assassin, or spy but sometimes as businessman, victim, or killer). The novel has allusions to characters and events from, the first Cornelius novel, The Final Programme. The last part of the novel explicitly alludes to pantomime plays with Una Persson as the Harlequin (and, seemingly, Jerry at times), Jerry as Pierrot, and Catherine Cornelius as Columbine. Evidently pantomime plays started out a bit like Cinderella and then, after some transforming event, became slapstick with Pierrot getting the girl. The transforming event in this plot is easy to spot – it’s the Reunion Party where seemingly every character (at least those around at the time of composition) from Moorcock’s multiverse puts in an appearance. However, the slapstick aspects of Jerry’s cross-time adventures are prevalent in the first half of the novel. Evidently, Commedia d’ll Arte feature many plots with the same characters which is, of course, a very good description of Moorcock’s multiverse, and Moorcock has explicitly acknowledged the inspiration. I’m not really sure, apart from that general fact, what the Harlequin stories have to do with Jerry, especially since he sleeps with lover-sister-Columbine Catherine throughout the series. Of course, as revealed in this novel (and mentioned in John Clute’s introduction to this omnibus edition), all the books may be the daydreams of a poor teenager in London, a would-be rock star named Jerry Cornelius who’s trying to get a gig for his band. The City of the Future of one Jerry may just be the fantasy of this Jerry Cornelius when he stumbles into a successful acting career. Perhaps the collapsing options of life as we move away from youth reflect Jerry’s lessened time jaunts. Or, maybe, all these versions of Jerry exist in the multiverse. In an odd and, in thematic terms, inexplicable turn, the novel reveals at the end that practically all the characters – whether forces of Chaos or Order – in this novel are seemingly related (perhaps a vast joke on certain Robert Heinlein time travel stories?) in a very complicated (complicated by lots of incest) family tree I didn’t even try to follow. I also could not figure out the symbolism of the vulgar, annoying, opportunistic Mrs. Cornelius.


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