Jerry Cornelius – Agent Provocateur

1054357I first encountered Michael Moorcock’s pansexual rock’n’roll secret agent messiah Jerry Cornelius at the tender age of 14. By then I had become steeped in Moorcock’s work thanks largely to the Elric books, which represented a wonderful antidote to the army of Tolkien clones (and to no small degree Tolkien himself) littering the sci-fi/fantasy shelves of my local bookstore. After years of devouring tome after tome of rote wish-fulfillment fantasy of questionable depth or nuance, here was something I could fall for: Elric, an anti-social albino freak – an outcast even among his own kind, the Melniboneans…a degenerate race of sorcerer-kings and demon worshipers. Elric consumed drugs to sustain his weakened frame, slept with his cousin, and wielded an intelligent, soul-draining sword which had sinister motives of its’ own. This was no Bilbo Baggins, that was for sure.

Of course, Elric is but a small corner of Moorcock’s oeuvre – even if one were to merely look at the Eternal Champion books. Moorcock has been roundly dismissed for his fantasy work, which many view as an attempt to piss in the pool of pulp fantasy and as such is merely a reactionary thumb of the nose to literature he deems beneath him. I think this is a bit uncharitable, but it I’ll spill no more (virtual) ink in his defense on that account here.

Whatever else one might say about Moorcock’s Eternal Champion stories, there is surely one weird permutation which lies apart from the rest – that, of course, is Jerry Cornelius. My first exposure to Cornelius was through the single-volume compilation of the first four Jerry Cornelius books; dubbed The Cornelius Chronicles, the bright orange paperback collects The Final Programme, A Cure for Cancer, The English Assassin, and The Condition of Muzak in one handy tome. I’m not sure what possessed me to purchase it other than a desire to read pretty much anything with Moorcock’s name on it. Whatever the reason, I bought it, read it, and was thoroughly confused.

This was unlike anything else I’d ever read by Moorcock, and practically unlike anything I’d ever read period. The first book, The Final Programme, was clearly inspired by the early Elric stories (particularly The Stealer of Souls, which saw publication in 1961, four years before the first Cornelius story). The three stories which followed, however, were very much their own thing. Surreal and defying all logic, characters who died in earlier stories reappeared without explanation. Jerry himself would shift into new forms – in the second book Cornelius is a sort of negative version of the himself, jet-black skin and ivory-white hair. The books take place in late 60’s / early 70’s England and Europe but these are clearly not the England and Europe we know. England has become a proxy state in the Cold War, with both Israel and the United States occupying and fighting over portions of it. Jerry Cornelius also takes Elric’s androgyny and sexual proclivities and dials them up to 11. Jerry’s love affair is not with his cousin but his sister, and he seems to have few barriers regarding who he will sleep with or why, taking lovers of both genders at whim.

Yeah, you could say that as a young teenager my mind was pretty thoroughly blown.

That said, I didn’t really get Jerry Cornelius. He was steeped in a lot of cultural touchstones I wouldn’t grokk for another decade. I simply didn’t have the context to appreciate him. Which didn’t prevent me from touting Cornelius as an important influence on my young mind. And if I couldn’t directly get Cornelius I could certainly see the effect Cornelius had on various other creators, chief among them being Grant Morrison…who would go on to influence my life in similar ways.

Later I would come to appreciate the British new wave science fiction movement, counting authors such as J.G. Ballard as fundamental groundwork for interests I would develop as the years passed.

But it always nagged me that I didn’t fully appreciate Jerry Cornelius the way I should have. I picked up subsequent volumes of Moorcock’s Cornelius work – and enjoyed them. But I’ve long wanted to re-visit those first four books with a fresh mind steeped in several decades of appreciation for Moorcock and the context in which the stories were written.

Not long after re-locating to the Seattle area I picked up another copy of The Cornelius Chronicles – the very same book that turned me on to Mr. Cornelius to begin with. And a couple months later I found a copy The New Nature of the Catastrophe, a collection of Cornelius stories that emerged from the circle of authors who ran with Moorcock’s offer to use Cornelius in tales of their own. So – it seems like this is as good a time as any to dive back into Mr. Cornelius’ strange world and re-acquaint myself.

Next: The Final Programme (including a comparison between the book and the film)

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