Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Man Who Was Thursday

Speaking of Ed, as I did in the comments of the last post, it was he who recommended this book to me back in the day, and I've read it several times in the past ten years, each time more aware how deeply flawed it is, and each time more enamored of it. I assigned it to the Weird Stories class this week, and yesterday a student stopped me in the hall for the sole purpose of informing me, quite soberly, that "That book's fucked up."

Tell me about it. G. K. Chesterton is best known for his delightful Father Brown mysteries, and this novel shares their deft plotting and quotable wit. The book is quite short--120 pages in my cheapo Dover edition--and tells the story of a policeman who infiltrates a secret cabal of anarchists, each named after a day of the week. He discovers their assassination plot, and through his efforts to foil it discovers that all the other anarchists are also underdcover policemen, except for their leader, the impossibly large and terrifying Sunday. Who Sunday turns out to be is...well...

I don't think I've ever read another book that changes its tack so drastically in its final pages. Up until, say, page 100, the novel is a smart, energetic, ironic romp, free of any fealty to representational reality, and fueled by politics, philosophy, and action. In the end, it turns into some kind of vague allegory, slathered all over with outre Christian iconography.

Some of my students hated the ending. I don't blame them. But the older I get, the more I love flawed books, not in spite of their flaws, but because of them. And this book is definitely flawed. The ending is so surprising, so ambitious, so--as one approving student put it--audacious, that I'm willing to forgive Chesterton entirely for writing a book that it was probably impossible to finish in a fully satisfying manner. It reminds me quite powerfully of "Fall Out," the enigmatic final episode of The Prisoner, and if Patrick McGoohan has never read this book, I'll eat my hat.

The very end--the last page, in fact--is strangely sentimental, a kind of vision of heaven. And in spite of myself, it never fails to move me. Gabriel Syme, the book's protagonist, announces at some point that "The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it." I beg to differ with him: in this case, it's missing the mark that's rare and strange, and strangely inspiring. This year is TMWWT's centenary--celebrate by picking up a copy.


Mr. Saflo said...

This is one of those books I have to embarrassingly admit to loving without really knowing why. I fear there might be sentimental reasons involved; reading it on a flight to and in London, the wonderful Penguin edition with the chicken-brothy portrait on the cover and matching yellowed pages, et cetera. I do remember enjoying it on an almost thriller-novel level. Someday, maybe after getting a fancy reading comprehension upgrade, I'll go back and read it again.

Anonymous said...

Yeah...I was a little embarrassed at having to defend the ending in class. It doesn't work, there's really no arguing that it does. But I love the way it fails.

Sentimental favorite, to be sure.

AC said...

I just went out and picked it up at the library over lunch. I'm about halfway in (don't tell my boss) and it really is a lot of fun. The squeaky anarchist at the election meeting cracks me up: "I'm not meek!" "Down with love!" It's like a Monty Python sketch.

It's odd how you went right from a post about the prevalence of atheists in writing to a post about your unreasonable affection for a book full of sentimental, vaguely Christian allegory. Did you do that on purpose?

Anonymous said...

No, I didn't, honestly!

It's funny, I'm a huge fan of Flannery O'Connor's novels, too. I like them better than her stories, which "work" so damned well...the novels are these big messy things full of vague allegory, Christian imagery, and wandering semi-plots. They're meaner than the stories, too, if you can believe that.

I mean, she was a super-Christian, and I ought to find that alienating. But it's the worldview that animates her fiction, and as such, it's fascinating to me. Same with complain about it would be like watching tropical fish and being annoyed that they don't float through the air.

AC said...

I'm not sure what you mean by a "super-Christian", but I like her novels better than her stories too.

Although I have to admit that the first couple of times I read it, I liked Wise Blood more for the Jesus Built My Hotrod connection than for its own merits.