What an odd book this was! G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is going to be tough to write about. The plot is bizarre, and describing what happens even a little way into the book is more of a spoiler than I want to give. There have been interesting discussions going on at various blogs about spoilers, and my feeling (at the moment) is that some books are more easily “spoiled” than others. The back cover of my edition of the book has the right idea when it says only this about the plot:
G.K. Chesterton’s surreal masterpiece is a psychological thriller that centers on seven anarchists in turn-of-the-century London who call themselves by the names of the days of the week. Chesterton explores the meanings of their disguised identities in what is a fascinating mystery, and, ultimately, a spellbinding allegory.
The description goes on, but the rest of it is focused on ideas rather than plot. But those ideas are the other thing that make this book difficult to write about, because … huh? What exactly is going on on the level of ideas is a bit of a puzzle. The book does move into the area of allegory, or, actually, probably not allegory in the strict sense of the term but more like fable or parable. Chesterton clearly has something to say about anarchy and government, about violence and order, about good and evil, and, ultimately, about the value of suffering (I think this is key to understanding the very strange final scene). It starts off as a political thriller pitting police against anarchists, but it ends up in religious or quasi-religious, mystical territory. By the time you get there, you feel as though you’ve gone on a long journey, even though the book is quite short.
But I’m making the book sound serious, when it’s really quite funny, until the very end when the seriousness takes over. It has a witty tone and a kind of joy in the absurd that makes it a pleasure to read. The novel begins with two poets at a party in a London suburb, one who claims to be an anarchist, and the other who claims to be a poet of law and order. The two of them spar over the nature of poetry and their political beliefs until one of them is goaded into proving he is serious about his anarchy, and the other into admitting that he is a police officer. The relationship gets a little crazy from there. But everything is described so briskly, and the main character, Syme, gets to be so clever and witty, that the craziness is fun. It’s enjoyable to follow all the plot twists and turns, to watch the characters undergo dangerous trials and perform amazing feats, and all the while keep their cool and get some good lines in. Obviously, this is not a realistic novel and it does not try to be; it’s more of an amusing romp that also has something serious to say.
So, obviously, I think there’s a lot to enjoy here. This is the kind of book where it’s good to know a little bit about the tone and the feel of the novel, but best to discover the plot on your own. Chesterton takes you on a long, crazy journey, and although I’m not entirely sure where we ended up, it was fun traveling there anyway.