What a mass of contradictions this book is. Or, to be more precise, what a mass of contradictions this 10-year-old long-form form essay is. Typical of UK cultural critic Paul Morley’s form, The Awfully Big Adventure is as much deliberate conundrum as self-confession, an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink treatise that was originally written after Michael Jackson’s death in late June 2009... A salutary tale about how delusion and a combined sense of entitlement and influence can persuade people to do things they would never rightly dream of, The Awfully Big Adventure isn’t the book you’ll want for a straight run through of the Michael Jackson story. Those enthusiastic, however, for a meandering, sometimes ostentatious overview of the man’s life and death will find much to occupy (and frustrate) them.
This book, which I loved, which I whizzed through, and which left my mind buzzing with ideas, is about Michael Jackson, but it’s also about what will happen to Michael Jackson in the future. It’s about the process we go through when we decide what to think of a famous person. [...] “Ultimately,” he tells us, “it is the dark, afflicted side of him that actually seemed to eat into his face and mind ... that fascinates me more than the music.” He wonders about the rumours. Did the tip of his nose actually fall off, “to be stood on by a member of his dance troupe who thought he had stood on a snail”. In the end, the seediness of his death seemed inevitable. The afterlife continues.
Morley could have mentioned, but does not, how Jackson’s moves lent themselves to what became gifs in the digital age: curt, staccato metonyms. He doesn’t quite spend long enough on how this vitiligo-afflicted child-man began dissolving binary certainties – a very 2019 state of affairs. His book dwells on the cognitive dissonance, pre-Leaving Neverland, of loving the art but being troubled by the man, without being able to say that this very state of cognitive dissonance is exactly how we live now on so many levels.
The piece started life in a magazine a decade ago and is reissued in expanded form to prepare us for the tenth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death in June. Much of the prose reads like a clumsy translation of a pretentious French cultural historian who has made a good living writing about Pokémon. It’s the kind of thing you can get away with as a talking head on TV, when everyone is so distracted by your stubble and your cool leather jacket that they don’t pay attention to what you are saying. On a page, though, the words become fog.
This book is an expanded version of an essay that appeared in an arts journal named Loops shortly after Jackson’s death, though the author has had a full decade in which to flesh it out and construct an argument. Alas, the gift of time has brought little in the way of clarity. To put it simply – and simple really isn’t in Morley’s repertoire – there are moments here where, despite repeated readings, I haven’t a clue what he’s on about... there is little shape or structure. With the exception of some fairly straightforward passages about the making of the albums Off the Wall and Thriller, the book is largely made up of winding thoughts, fractured reflections and the same questions asked over and over. Regular syntax doesn’t figure; there are sentences here that go on for over a page.