the whispering swarm
Michael Moorcock mixes fantasy and fiction in this book which centres on a young writer called… Michael Moorcock.
Release Date: 30 July
480 pages | Hardback/ ebook Author: Michael Moorcock Publisher: Gollancz
Michael Moorcock writes like a good reporter, which is to say he has an eye for telling detail yet cuts superfluous description. So austere can his prose be that you could even argue, possibly with some justification, that he’s the least interesting stylist amongst major contemporary British novelists.
Except, of course, that Moorcock – whether you’re talking the extravagant Ladbroke Grove hipster of the ’ 60s or the marginally more sober, linen- suited big beard of today – has always been acutely aware of style. Even in those novels where it’s clearest he’s writing fast and for the money, there’s an aesthetic choice being made. With a Michael Moorcock novel of any stripe, you’re always both in the moment and, as in the best popular fiction, about to be taken somewhere else before you’ve had time to get bored.
There are plenty of clues as to where this approach sprang from in the opening section of The Whispering Swarm, his first major novel for a decade. That’s because this first instalment in a new trilogy is, in part, autobiographical. Here, we meet the teenage MM, a precocious editor and writer back when, it seems, you could make a reasonable living mixing journalism with scribbling Sexton Blake and Tarzan stories.
Much here is already familiar as we follow a career on an upward trajectory via “a profitable facility for reviving the pulp sword- and- sorcery story”, Cornelius, Behold The Man, New Worlds and such key friendships as that with Jack [ JG B] Allard, who gets the driest of affectionate jibes: “I eventually realised that the only fiction he liked was his own.”
Moorcock’s personal life is far less smooth. Following a series of sexual adventures, he decides to settle down, but his marriage is troubled. Then there’s his ability to access Alsacia, a magical realm hidden in the centre of London, where the order of the White Friars live, where time doesn’t move as it does in the mundane world, and where characters from history and fiction congregate.
Yet for all he sometimes doubts Alsacia even exists, it’s only here that Moorcock reliably finds sanctuary from the “whispering swarm” of voices that plague him. It’s here that he falls for adventurer and highway robber Molly Midnight. He learns too that he has an important role to play in ongoing battles in Alsacia. In the second half of the book, adventures imbued with the spirit of Alexandre Dumas follow.
It all makes for a considerable authorial balancing act as Moorcock ( the 21st century writer, that is, rather than the character) weaves together events in the mundane world of his own past and his fantastical realm. And if the transitions between the two worlds sometimes jar, that’s presumably intentional, a way perhaps to convey what it’s like to be a working writer who unapologetically produces both literary fiction and, as a freelancer ever mindful of the need to put food on the table for his children, crowd- pleasing genre work.
Whether the novel is entirely successful is harder to gauge. That’s because there’s an underlying sense that, as the first offering in a trilogy, it’s just one part of a personal reckoning (“These are the years of looking back and taking assessment,” Moorcock recently told SFX) and we’ll only know how successfully the author has divvied up his own actions when we see what follows.
In the meantime, The Whispering Swarm is a fantastically entertaining standalone. More importantly, it suggests that Moorcock’s ambitious attempt to fuse together elements of autobiography, literary fiction and fantasy – or, as Moorcock himself has put it, “true fiction and fictitious truth” – will ultimately be successful. Welcome back Mr Moorcock; nobody else quite has your style.
Moorcock weaves his own world and a fantastical realm