Jerry Cornelius: His Lives and His Times. Book Review

by Michael Moorcock
Gollancz, p/b, 384pp, £9.99
Reviewed by Mike Chinn

There’s a period in all nascent genre writers’ lives where they inevitably try on an influential author’s clothes and struts around in ’em for a while. For writers of horror and the weird, it takes the form of Lovecraftian Mythos pastiches; back in the day, in the world of SF, it was Jerry Cornelius stories. I’ve written at least four pieces of Cornelius fiction (even submitting one to New Worlds and receiving a hand-written rejection from Moorcock himself: for years the star of my rejection slip folder). Luckily for posterity only one survives.

This collection is the latest to bring together Moorcock-authored Cornelius short stories (collecting all of those written by such diverse hands as M John Harrison and JG Ballard would fill at least another volume), re-edited and brought up to date. I hesitate to say it’s definitive, since I can think of at least one piece that’s missing, but it’s more than representative.

For those unfamiliar with Jerry and his mad company of cohorts, he is at once both unique and an everyman; saviour and antichrist; ruthless killer and brooding lover. Able to drift through Time and the Multiverse at will (and sometimes accidentally), he is involved in perpetual war (an embodiment of the Prince Lobkowitz quote), changing sides and identifying features as frequently as his companions. A contradiction (swastika cufflinks and a gold Star of David at his throat). Perpetually disappointed (he has died at least eight times to his certain knowledge). A symbol of our changing times.

The earliest of the stories dates back to 1968, the latest as recent as 2011. That’s some lineage. And in common with any long-lived literary figure, he hasn’t aged one bit. Still dressed in his black car coat, needle gun in one pocket, vibragun in the other. Driving around in an old Duesenberg (when he’s not behind the wheel of an early marque Rolls-Royce) he’s the ghost of a more optimistic age looking over our shoulders, not impressed with what he sees.

Besides the regular cast (which has grown over the years) – Miss Brunner, Shakey Mo, Major Nye, Frank and Catherine Cornelius, Jerry’s mother, Major Nye, Una Persson, Doctor Hira, Bishop Beesley and daughter Trixie, Captain Maxwell – it’s not unknown for characters from the author’s other works to have an uncredited, walk-on part. Mrs Persson has a crossover life of her own: also appearing in the Oswald Bastable novels, and thinly-disguised in Gloriana and alongside Elric of Melniboné.

There’s a style to all Cornelius fiction – one adopted by anyone who’s ever written within the particular universe: obscure, witty and obtuse. Dialogue is littered with deliberate misunderstandings, in-jokes and references to events and other media forms (such as Jerry quoting a Clint Eastwood line from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). Meaning lies in the interstices. The narrative is often peppered with relevant newspaper and magazine quotes. Subject matter runs from the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, to the liberation of Romania, to the death and legacy of the Princess of Wales, and the state of literature in Britain. The world is destroyed again and again. Jerry cycles between catastrophes on his old bike (who needs a TARDIS?). Captain Maxwell falls overboard and drowns whilst Miss Brunner turns from shrewish computer programmer into a mad old baroness. Familiar faces from both Left and Right are skewered (in effigy). And trying to give a succinct description of this collection is like nailing jelly to the wall. It needs to be experienced – it’s the only way to be sure.

There are internal illustrations from Mal Dean (who did spot illoes for the Cornelius novels The Final Programme and A Cure for Cancer), David Britton and Harry Douthwaite. And of course there are the usual Michael Moorcock Collection introductions from both John Clute and Moorcock.

A survivor from the era of New Wave SF, Jerry Cornelius soldiers on eternally. I urge anyone who hasn’t dipped into his off-kilter, trippy world to do so immediately.