It's easy enough to separate fiction from fact in the semi-autobiographical novel The Whispering Swarm. Fantasy grandmaster Michael Moorcock centers his latest dense, fevered story on Alsacia (also called the Sanctuary), a secret London enclave where historical figures mingle with literary ones.
An average night might see 17th century German prince Rupert of the Rhine drinking and swapping stories with the Three Musketeers, while British highwayman Dick Turpin and American showman Buffalo Bill Cody look on from their corners of the bar. Time and death are meaningless in the Sanctuary, which can only be found at certain times, by certain people. That pulpy idea reaches back to the classic, historically inspired science fiction of Moorcock's British youth. It's also familiar from his Eternal Champion conceit, which ties decades of his diverse novels into one all-encompassing cosmic crossover mythos.
But separating fact from fiction in The Whispering Swarm is much more complicated. Moorcock puts himself at center stage in the book, under his own name, and he devotes a sizeable percentage of its nearly 500 pages to laying out his actual history.
As a result, untangling what's real and what isn't in The Whispering Swarm becomes almost as complicated as untangling Moorcock's motives in writing it. It's simultaneously a personal, intimate book and a frustratingly opaque and sprawling one, a mea culpa for bad behavior and a justification for it. Neither a satisfying biography nor a fully satisfying fantasy, it sways back and forth between poles, perpetually losing one narrow, deeply explored focus to seize on another.
Like Moorcock-as-author, Michael Moorcock the Whispering Swarm character grows up in London in the 1940s, takes over a boutique magazine at age 16, moves into music, and helps launch science fiction's New Wave with the seminal publication New Worlds. He creates the indelible fantasy hero Elric of Melniboné, boosts authors like J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick, becomes a celebrated author, marries and has children. But fictional-Moorcock also periodically slips off to the Alsacia, to a second life as lover of vivacious red-haired bandit Molly Midnight. She inspires many of the stories that help make him famous as he rises through a burgeoning, drug-steeped London literary scene.
Moorcock's double life sounds like a natural metaphor for a fantasy writer who did actually split time between family, a band, and a career inventing highly influential worlds. But The Whispering Swarm reads less as a symbolic autobiography than as a distracted, discursive fantasy epic with a claustrophobic interest in its lead character's career progress and day-to-day moods. As it obsessively circles Moorcock's complicated feelings about juggling a wife and a maybe-magical mistress, the book jumps from self-justification to guilt to smug pride to selfish vitriol, sometimes within a few paragraphs.
The inconstancy of emotion and depth of navel-gazing (though it's rarely clear whether this is Moorcock's real navel, or an imaginary one) will be familiar to anyone who's endured a difficult and complicated relationship. But the microscope Moorcock focuses on his inner and outer landscapes doesn't extend to the world around him. Even as he's touting the vast importance of his children or his lovers, he seems indifferent to their feelings, at least compared to his own.
It's difficult to understand who Moorcock is writing for here. His legion of fans may appreciate his account of post-Blitz London, or his insight into a long-gone Fleet Street he remembers in nostalgic rhapsody. But he gives those fans almost no insight into the writing that made him one of Britain's most famous genre novelists: He's purposefully vague and generic about his best-known work. Newer readers may appreciate the book's more imaginative elements, except that the Alsacia segments are so often bogged down in fictional-Moorcock's mundane attempts to write the place off as a drug hallucination, or unpack it as an occult phenomenon.
The Whispering Swarm is the first of a new trilogy, and as such, it doesn't have many answers about that phenomenon, either in terms of how fictional-Moorcock should interpret his adventures, or in terms of why a fantasy novel should be so concerned with deflating and defeating its own escapism. At 75, Moorcock has plenty more history to look back on. But as he navigates his chosen intersection between the real and the imagined, it's worth hoping that the rest of the series will come to more comfortable, less cloistered terms with that divide. Every author straddles a line between fact and fiction, but few seem so uncertain whether to highlight it, obscure it, or walk away from it entirely.