Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Mention Gilbert Keith Chesterton to most people nowadays, and they'll probably know him as the author of the Father Brown mysteries and not much else (unless you're mentioning him to Roman Catholics, who might know him for a lot of excellent apologetics for their faith). Unless that person was me, for I have mostly thought of him as that guy who wrote that epic poem about "the last knight of Europe" and the Battle of Lepanto, and I'd have said, "oh, he wrote prose, too?"

So he's kind of like the elephant encountered by all of those blind men who could never agree on what kind of creature they were meant to describe, which is of course hilarious because G.K. Chesterton was himself a pretty large and imposing figure of a man, much like the enigmatic driving force of The Man Who was Thursday, a fantastic allegorical thriller/detective story that (REMEMBER THE VERY BLOG DESCRIPTION TEXT ABOVE SAYS "WARE SPOILERS" SO, YOU KNOW, NO BITCHING) pits a small army of secret policemen against another small army of not-so-secret anarchists, only to eventually lob a bomb of a revelation into the reader's lap that there's actually just the one small army, yuck yuck yuck.

I say yuck yuck yuck as if to mock the story's attempts at humor, but those attempts are actually quite successful. Each plot twist and reveal is skillfully done even as the broad slapstick silliness of each ramps up the broad slapstick silliness of the whole. But where humor usually relieves tension in a scene or story, Chesterton's humor, here, actually manages to make the tension "worse" -- scare quotes here because the worsening of the tension is just so damned enjoyable, whether the reader has yet figured out the final punchline of the joke or not.

I suspect that nowadays, most readers will have anticipated that punchline by at least halfway, if not a quarter of the way, through the story, but as I often maintain (especially when people complain about spoilers), a story that relies solely on surprise for its ultimate effectiveness is not really much of a story. Citizen Kane is still enjoyable if you first heard the secret of Rosebud decades before you actually got to see the film; ditto The Man Who Was Thursday if you've figured out who Sunday "really" is early in the reading.

I put "really" in scare quotes because, of course, Sunday (the characters' names are all their day-of-the-week code names within the anarchist society, the governing board of which meets in glorious public view the better to make the public and the police assume they're just a bunch of ridiculous dilettantes) has an allegorical identity quite beyond his dual role within the world of the story, though both within and without the story, he is the puppetmaster, and seeing him as that and no more is just fine. Seeing him as God, as some chose to do, has about as much impact on the enjoyability of the work as seeing Aslan as Jesus does for the Chronicles of Narnia. Well, aren't you clever.

Regardless of whether one is the kind of reader who seeks to decode literature, who, I suspect, might not like this work quite as much as the kind of reader who is happy to enjoy a surface narrative and maybe idly speculate a little about its Deeper Significance does, The Man Who Was Thursday has quite a lot to offer, quite apart from the slapstick humor of its plot twists and reveals. There are some exquisitely intense scenes when the protagonist provocateur might be about to have his cover blown; there are some genuinely thrilling chase scenes that, as I said before, are even more exciting because they are also funny as hell.

It's a classic for a reason.

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