February 8, 2008

The CCLaP 100: "The Man Who Was Thursday," by GK Chesterton

(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

The Man Who Was Thursday, by GK Chesterton
The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908)
By GK Chesterton
Book #4 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
Part detective tale, part absurdist comedy, The Man Who Was Thursday tells the story of poet and intellectual Gabriel Syme, living in the bohemian London neighborhood of Saffron Park at the beginning of the 20th century. Ah, but what most people don't know is that Gabriel is an undercover anti-anarchist cop as well, a "philosopher cop" who opposes the actions of blue-collar terrorists purely on ideological grounds. After striking up a friendship with Lucian Gregory, the only other political poet in Saffron Park, the other man lets Gabriel in on his little secret -- that he is actually part of a very serious underground anarchist cell himself, one that hides itself precisely by going around loudly announcing its violent intentions in public, fooling the rest of society into thinking they're a group of harmless cranky eggheads.

Through a series of surreal clandestine meetings, then, Gabriel eventually enfolds himself into the group, even convincing them to eventually elect him their cell's leader; this then gets him saddled with the code name "Thursday," matching as it does the code names of the other six cells in their particular terrorist network. Ah, but as the plot thickens and the cloak-and-dagger action increases, both Gabriel and we readers learn something ironic and funny about the whole situation; turns out that there are actually more undercover cops in the anarchist cell than there are actual anarchists, all of them recruited into Scotland Yard by the same shadowy authority figure, and that they've been spending the majority of their time chasing each other instead of the actual criminals.

(WARNING: The next paragraph reveals important information about the end of the book.)

In fact, by the end of the story we realize that not a single member of the terrorist cell is a terrorist at all; that the entire thing was cooked up by the aforementioned Lucian, all the way down to the mysterious Scotland Yard official who recruited them all, specifically to prove to Gabriel the contention of their very first argument, that he is a "serious" anarchist who shouldn't be underestimated. In what can only be called a bizarre and nonsensical ending, then, the group chases the main leader "Sunday" across the city via elephant, hot-air balloon and other strange transportation, where eventually they are led into the English countryside and a highly symbolic, costume-laden confrontation inside a large private estate. Was it all a dream, when all is said and done? After all, Chesterton did give the book the subtitle "A Nightmare," and for the rest of his career complained about how many people didn't bother to notice.

The argument for it being a classic:
The biggest argument for this being a classic, I think, is that it's a great example of a small but very important time in Western literary history; the transitionary period between Romanticism and the Modern era, that is, or the years between 1900 and World War I. It was these two decades, historians argue, where such things as abstract poetry were embraced for the first time, dreamlike narratives, modern psychological theories and a lot more; sure, it wasn't until the Jazz Age when such groups as the Dadaists and Surrealists made abstract art really famous, but it was the bold experimenters of the generation before them who really set those events in motion. At the same time, though, fans say that Chesterton's work is a unique creature unto itself, and that this is also a major reason to continue reading and enjoying him; he not only laid the groundwork for a lot of modern complex "weird" literature, his fans argue (for example, Neil Gaiman is a big fan, and even based his Sandman character "Fiddler's Green" on Chesterton himself), but was also a master of smart, black humor, arresting visual images, and the notion of vast secret worlds existing among us in plain sight.

And then finally, its fans argue, this book is also a nice record of a period of history becoming more obscure by the day -- the period right before the rise of organized labor, where working conditions had become so bad and with so few legitimate avenues to complain, a whole generation of poor liberal immigrants ended up taking matters into their own hands, creating a wave of domestic violence and public terror that rarely gets talked about in this country anymore. It was an issue that divided this country when it originally occurred; Thursday, its fans argue, captures the zeitgeist of that issue nicely, even if the story itself is a symbolic one that in reality has little to actually do with anarchist terrorists.

The argument against:
The main argument against this being a classic is one used a lot -- that it is simply too obscure to deserve the label, a historically important and personally entertaining book to be sure but not one that you can legitimately say that all people should read before they die. And indeed, if you look at the long-term reputation Chesterton has earned over the decades, you'll see that the thing which makes him so well-loved in certain circles is the same thing making so few of his books "classics" in the traditional sense; that he was a quirky writer, one who employed a self-satisfied writing style sure to turn a lot of people off, delving into philosophical topics on random whims and sometimes digressing into pure abstraction. I don't think anyone would argue with the idea that Chesterton still has a modern audience who will love him, even a hundred years after this book was first published; it's just that this is a niche crowd, just like it was when Chesterton was alive, making Thursday still relevant but not exactly a classic.

My verdict:
After reading the book now myself, I'm still a bit on the fence about whether it should be considered a classic. On the one hand, its critics are definitely right, that this is an unusual book that requires a certain specific type of sense of humor to really enjoy (think Monty Python), and that its ending devolves into the kind of "Twin Peaks" unexplainable weirdness that makes some people even to this day shrug and throw their hands in the air when it comes to the subject of Modernist literature. But then again, isn't it important that we understand this period of history in order to understand the much more important period that came afterwards? This is why the great transitionary periods of the arts always get short shrift -- that even as they are important for bridging two major periods of human culture together, the works actually made in those interregnums are often clunky and full of basic problems.

On the one hand, a book like Thursday can be safely skipped by most general readers, in that its main strength was in laying the groundwork for the mature modern authors who came afterwards; there'd be no James Joyce, after all, without the Chestertons who got a general audience ready for them. On the other hand, though, this arguably then makes Chesterton as historically important a writer as Joyce himself, and certainly books that are easier to understand and contain a lot more sly humor. I guess, then, that I will puss out this week and not declare a general answer at all, but rather two specific ones: that Thursday should be considered a classic by those who read older books more for the historical sense of continuance they provide, but not by those who read older books just for random pleasure. In either case, though, it's definitely a fun and fast little novel that I recommend just for sheer entertainment, especially to those who enjoy other projects that combine fantastical genre elements with witty pessimistic humor.

Is it a classic? Kinda

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: The Ripley Trilogy, by Patricia Highsmith
In two Fridays: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain
In three Fridays: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
In four Fridays: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne

Read even more: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:17 PM, February 8, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |