The Cornelius Quartet by Michael Moorcock

by Matthew Wolf-Meyer


Existential Action

It would be impossible to deny the profound influences that Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels have had, not only on the genres of science fiction and fantasy, but also popular music, cinema, and television. Or it might simply be that Moorcock was so perfectly in tune with the advent of postmodernism that he anticipated in his writing, in his mood, what was to come, and all the material that seems to derive from The Cornelius Quartet, in actuality, derives from the zeitgeist instead. In reading the collection, for the reader at the cusp of the 21st century, it acts as a historical piece, positing the genealogical influence of a series of more contemporary works, from Bryan Talbot’s graphic novel Heart of Empire to David Bowie’s album Outside; Jerry Cornelius is that common source for much of contemporary postmodern (British) popular art.

Jerry Cornelius, the protagonist of the quartet of novels that comprise this collection (and others besides), is a perfectly uninteresting antihero, a virtual cipher of a character, and his adventures are prolonged studies in existential action: He is an inconsequential character (despite what he might believe), enacting inconsequential quests, invariably returning his world to a stability that he himself removed it from. Each novel is a cycle of this digression and restoration; the four novels act to establish—in a rather arduous manner—this Orobouros-universe wherein sanity resides in balance.

cover art

The Cornelius Quartet

Michael Moorcock

(Four Walls Eight Windows)

It’s worth noting that Jerry Cornelius was a shared character of sorts—Moorcock invented him, but allowed other authors and artists to employ Cornelius in their works. As such, Cornelius began as a sort of tabula rasa, and through the artistic influences of the creators at hand, evolved to mirror the zeitgeist of the era. There are a number of other Cornelius stories (the Quartet is only the first of them, there being other anthologies collected, but remaining out-of-print), but these are the foundational ones, situating the character and his universe for the later manipulation by other authors.

The Final Program, the first in the series, establishes the characters and their milieu: Jerry Cornelius, the anti-hero protagonist—a postmodern James Bond; Frank Cornelius, Jerry’s brother and born antagonist, who is seemingly immortal; Catherine Cornelius, Jerry’s sister who is also the object of his sexual affections, and a cast of second string characters, more transparent than the foundational love triangle. Frank plots to blow up the world, Jerry works to stop him, and in the space between action sequences, Jerry parties. Sex, drugs, and violence are really the cornerstones of Jerry’s adventures, and while they might have been satirical at the time, now they simply seem prescient (and dated as such).

The second novel in the collection, A Cure for Cancer, which begins Moorcock’s experimentations with narrative form, seems the most dated. Simply put, A Cure for Cancer is hypermedia before its time, and now that hypermedia exists, the text, tied to the printed page, seems more historical than artistic. What would make the novel come alive again is to have it transferred to the web, linked together to take advantage of the form, for in the end A Cure for Cancer is more about the form than the content of that form, which is markedly like its predecessor.

The English Assassin, the third in the sequence, marks a turn in Moorcock’s prose, while also concretizing the “hypermedia” nature of the narrative that Moorcock employs from the second novel onward. Cornelius spends the majority of the novel either unconscious or unspeaking, and as such the focus turns to some of the secondary characters, including Jerry and Frank’s rather boorish mother. If anything, the novel is actually complemented by the fact that Cornelius is no longer the focus of the reader’s attention, although he remains the focus of all the characters’ attention. However, because the reader expects to be entertained by Cornelius, it can play some games with anticipation.

Completing the quartet is The Condition of Muzak, which, as Moorcock mentions in his introduction, “reflects the structure of the overall tetralogy.” Characters reappear, Jerry remains the same, and while it shares in the more compelling prose of the third in the series, it seems too little too late. If anything, The Condition of Muzak might be read first, and if the reader feels so compelled, the other novels could be read leisurely. The third and fourth novels in the sequence do mark a departure in many senses, but, due to the earlier novels’ deliberate nihilism, are unable to eschew the contagion of such altogether.

Cornelius, outside of inconsequential physical characteristics, remains the same throughout the series, reborn after the calamities of each novel, as are the cast of supporting characters, who, outside of the ubiquitous Frank Cornelius, are more caricatures than characters, simply one-dimensional figures that act to prolong the action of each novel. The women are indistinguishable—even Jerry’s lusted-after sister—and the men are either henchmen or villains. And amid them all is Jerry, a rather uninteresting and unengaging antihero.

In all honesty, I cannot recommend reading The Cornelius Quartet for pleasure—it is simply too dated, too deeply cynical (for all of Cornelius’s cries of undying love for his sister), and Moorcock’s successors, quite simply, do it better. But, of course, for the sheer historicity of the piece, I would recommend it. I found myself, at a number of points, simply tired of Cornelius and his world, at which point the book would lie unread for weeks at a time—it takes a strong will to endure the cynicism and desolation of Jerry Cornelius’ world, and that’s something that I seem to lack.

There is very little joy in Cornelius, and, as such, he is a sort of negative investment. As a reader, one wants to sympathize with the protagonist, but Cornelius is such an anti-hero that it isn’t really possible. The only way to read The Cornelius Quartet, I find, is as a researcher—and for research, Cornelius is a rather useful tool, plugging into postmodern theory quite wonderfully and overlapping into the realm of hypermedia. Moorcock was ahead of his time in many ways, but the collection remains timely.

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