The Life & Times of a Jerry Cornelius Fan
GAVIN SMITH ON MICHAEL MOORCOCK
More than thirty years before Cersei and Jaime made incest cool Jerry Cornelius fell in love with his sister, Catherine. Named for a greengrocer in Notting Hill Gate, Jerry Cornelius was the bi-sexual, occasionally hermaphroditic, shape shifting, physicist, rock guitarist and assassin hero (well protagonist, in fact sometimes he just spent books lying in a coffin) created by Michael Moorcock. Moorcock is an author responsible for a much higher percentage of all that is interesting in genre fiction than many would be prepared to admit.
Cornelius starred in four novels: The Final Programme (which was released as a film the year I was born, synchronicity is only interesting if you decide it is), A Cure For Cancer, The English Assassin and the Condition of Muzak. He has appeared in numerous short stories and was considered an open source character for writers connected with the New Worlds magazine that Moorcock edited. An intimidating list of authors have written stories about the character, including the likes of M. John Harrison, Norman Spinrad and Brian Aldiss.
Much has been written of the importance of Jerry Cornelius as a character, the importance of the Cornelius quartet to the history of genre fiction, and the apparently casual genius of Michael Moorcock. This isn't about that. This is about a reader's, and a fan's, relationship to the character. Jerry's place in a personal mythology.
Michael Moorcock has the distinction of being my most shoplifted author, and I can think of no better accolade from the very petty crime of my youth. (Don't look at me like that, I got caught, punished, had to give the books back and then bought them at a later date. At least with shoplifting there's risk and consequences!) But I was never sure I got the Cornelius novels. I understood the chaos time landscapes they existed in, warping and molding for a scene and then slipping through the fingers to become something else but I always felt I was missing something. I mean, I loved the character, what's not to love? Guitarist, scientist, assassin; Jerry is geek wish fulfillment, which is perhaps the point. Assuming there's something as conventional as a point.
I first discovered Jerry as a ten year old desperate for science fiction and pickings were slim in the 80's. He mystified me. Then as a student in the misunderstood city of Hull in the mid-90's I started to appreciate the stories more. I particularly liked the way Cornelius seemed to be able to slip into almost any fiction and not be out of place. It was the nineties however, and the likes of Austin Powers and the Avengers (the one with Patrick Steed, not Captain America) remake were trying to drag him down into cliché. But he's slippier than that and slightly too earnest in his revolutionary zeal, despite the pose of languid irony, to become simple parody. Well that kind of parody anyway. He is after all Pierrot, not Harlequin.
I did, however, succumb to the trap of a halcyon past. I unfairly locked Cornelius up in time, something of a joke for a time traveller. He was the symbol of the foreign country that was the 60's and 70's, as much a fantasy construct as any second world. He typified the era for me: the hope and disappointment, the soft love and radicalism of the 60s, giving away to the harder politics and harder rock of the 70's. The as-advertised, self-fulfilling prophesy of a failed revolution. A revolution that, believe it or not, seemed possible to reignite in the 90s.
I had imprisoned Cornelius. I had missed the point. Assuming there was something as mundane as a point. In Moorcock's introduction to the Cornelius Quartet collection he says: "Associated with the 60's and 70's he has been equally at home in all the following decades." But I struggled with the idea of him jamming with Tool, grunge was too miserable, the likes of Rage Against the Machine too angry and earnest, and Brit-Pop beneath contempt. Perhaps the dance scene, the last great underground music scene? I couldn't see Jerry navigating the ouroboros of our post-modern warfare, more absurd than anything in the Cornelius stories. Though I suspect he would have enjoyed modern physics.
Each time I read the stories they mean something different to me. It was only this time around, in my forties, probably a sell out to my student self, (and an alien to the ten year old me) I was able to understand that Jerry had slipped out of the prison I had created. After all, you can't imprison an immortal shape shifter forever. And he's been seen! Like Elvis sightings minus the seedy tabloid glamour. Cornelius seemed to follow Bowie's pattern. He was sick with the malaise of the decade when I saw him in film in the 80s. I was pretty sure I caught a glimpse of him/her in the 90s, he/she was camouflaged amongst the comics. I didn't see him in the zeroes but then perhaps I was looking in the wrong place. Had he joined his alter ego, Elric, in Manga or Anime and I'd missed it? Or maybe he was moving through computer games, which seem destined to be the dominant media-form of the early 21st century.
The teens? Perhaps it's time for SFF to generate something more than mere characters; a new icon, a new symbol. After all, every era needs its failed messiah, and what's more messianic than a second coming? At least right up until we learn how to save ourselves, or put less faith in fiction/products. Or perhaps I have missed the point and reduced him to a cypher for a possible, but seemingly ever out of reach, revolution.
Each time I read the stories they mean something different to me, because each time I read the stories I bring new meaning, my own. In this he is perhaps no different to any other fictional character other than his personal importance to me during one of the most formative times of my life. It was, however, what Moorcock designed him for:
"Part of my original intention with the Jerry Cornelius stories was to 'liberate' the narrative; to leave it open to the reader's interpretation as much as possible - to involve the reader in such a way as to bring their own imagination into play."
Cornelius can be aspirational, a geek renaissance man. Or cautionary, exposed at the end of the Condition of Muzak as a fantasist, perhaps the moral is that we should spend more time doing and less time dreaming. Or maybe he's just a fictional character. Even if he is standing right behind you with a needle gun in his hand...
(This was written listening to the Doors, David Bowie, Pink Floyd and of course Hawkwind.)