Sunday, January 6, 2013

Review: THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY by GK Chesterton

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1908

Genre: spy/thriller

Topics: religion, reality, politics

Review by heidenkind:

Gregory is an anarchist poet living in London. But then some guy named Gabriel Syme shows up who's ALSO an anarchist poet. Naturally Gregory is threatened by Syme, who is not only honing in on his market but probably better at both poetry and anarchy. So, to prove that he's the REAL anarchist poet, Gregory invites Syme to a meeting of anarchists, where he expects to be elected as the regional anarchist representative, known as Thursday. That's when the twists begin.

The Man Who Was Thursday is seriously one of my favorite reads of the year. Have you ever seen Dark City with Rufus Sewell, or read The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry? Well, The Man Who Was Thursday is kind of like that, BUT BETTER. Wikipedia calls it a "metaphysical thriller" and I TOTALLY agree with that description (even if it's slightly anachronistic). The novel has the same sensibility as metaphysical paintings by Giorgio de Chirico, from labyrinthine streets to mysterious towers and creepy figures like the man in The Child's Brain, whom I can totally picture as Sunday. Have I mentioned that I wrote my master's thesis on Giorgio de Chirico? Well, I did; and as a result I've read a lot of surrealist novels in my time, including de Chirico's own Hebdomeros. All of those books were strange, and some of them were nonsensical; but none of them were entertaining or as clever as The Man Who Was Thursday. I have a feeling de Chirico could only wish he'd been able to write a book as a good as this (fortunately he created a lot of awesome paintings, instead).

the child's brain
"The Child's Brain" by Giorgio de Chirico (title probably changed by Andre Breton, the first owner). 1917. National Museum, Stockholm.

All of this probably makes The Man Who Was Thursday sound really inaccessible and difficult to understand. It isn't. When the novel starts out, it seems like a very typical spy thriller. Syme is completely unlikable and Gregory is surprisingly sympathetic. Then everything gets turned on its head: Syme becomes AWESOME (seriously, he may be one of my favorite fictional characters of all time), and the story completely sucks you in. Still, I was only at about the halfway point before I started wondering to myself, "Is this a dream?" (The subtitle of the novel is kind of a hint that it is, but GK Chesterton is clever about twisting the meaning of the word so you're not sure.) By that point I was invested in the characters and the world and willing to go along with whatever Chesterton tossed my way.

Plus, The Man Who Was Thursday is FUNNY. There are lots of laugh-out-loud scenes, my favorite being the duel between Syme and a French anarchist. The anarchists are honestly kind of silly and hilarious. And interspersed with fun adventure are moments that are very creepy and uncanny. It's all woven together in a way that's interesting and clever and entertaining.

Probably the only thing I could say against The Man Who Was Thursday is that there is literally one woman in the entire book. But for some reason that didn't really bother me as much as it has with other books, maybe because the book is curiously asexual--I'm not sure I ever thought of the characters as "men," just characters--or perhaps because the world of novel is so fully realized that I feel like having the expectation for female characters would be nonsensical in the context of the story.

I'm still not entirely sure what the ending of The Man Who Was Thursday was supposed to mean, probably because I don't really know enough about the novel's contemporary context. Or maybe the meaning is supposed to be completely ambiguous. Either way, I enjoyed the hell out of this book and I think other people will too, especially if you like spy stories or mysteries that are slightly strange or uncanny.

Download The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton at Project Gutenberg|Librivox