Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Man Who Was Thursday | A Nightmare?

The Man Who Was Thursday is The Prisoner. You know, the 60s cult TV show, where Patrick McGoohan is imprisoned in a Welsh town that looks a bit like Italy, chased by big white balloons and shouts a lot? The Man Who Was Thursday is a 1908 novel by GK Chesteron, all-round clever man, philosopher, poet, writer, and debater. The Man Who Was Thursday takes contemporary views on anarchy and writes a book about it. The subtitle of the book is "A Nightmare". Well, this review is here to question whether it is a nightmare to read (though this was never intended) or a Nightmare in terms of the events, and just how close to The Prisoner it is.

I'll start with a brief overview. It's difficult to say if there'll be spoilers, because the book is so complex that on occasion even the blurbs start off accurately and by the end of the book you're left questioning them. There's no ending, as such, at least not a conventional one, for the book - so it's difficult to spoil it. But there will be plot revelations (though really big ones I've left the names out of). And so I would highly advise you to read it first (it's only 170ish pages) and then you'll appreciate this review all the more.

The book has one of the most incredible concepts I've ever come across. The title is awesome, first of all. I don't know a writer (except a friend of mine who claims he 'writes' books) who wouldn't love to write a book with that title. The concept of an anarchist council, with seven members named after days of the week, is fantastic. The room with guns lined up against the walls, and a vast white bomb-shaped room in which the council meetings are held are brilliantly visual. The moment when the dining table plunges to an underground base is awesome. The introduction to the characters of Syme (which is a great name) and Gregory, with his fiery red hair (appropriate), is also brilliant, and Gregory is fantastically over the top. It's the introduction that kept me reading. It's the kind of literature I enjoy, with dramatic speeches that would now be considered as 'over the top' - but it's "wordy" and developed and complex, and I love that. Gregory is like Henry/Harry from Dorian Gray - he's over the top with extreme views, but he puts them across like a gentleman. Syme is a calm character, and he disputes everything Gregory says, making you automatically like Syme, and dislike Gregory. There's the assumption that these two characters also dislike each other - but that's muddied later on and confused. The other great concept is that Syme, who is really a Police Officer, cannot tell the world that Gregory is really an anarchist, and so has forced Gregory, whom he tells the truth to, to keep his mouth shut about the fact the anarchists have just voted an Officer to join. Syme infiltrates the anarchists brilliantly, leaving fiery-haired Gregory in a state, with no one listening to his protests. It's a really clever start to the book.

And though a good book, it feels less clever and more like a comedy as it progresses. From the moment that Syme goes to meet Sunday - the book sadly goes, not downhill, but into a realm of basically - the nightmare. Things become strange, surreal, incomprehensible to some degree, and events are confused and complex. I love confusing, complex, surreal and strange stories. But this book takes it a little bit too far. The premise is simple enough, with Sunday plotting some kind of anarchy in France, but the whole thing just starts to get a little less exciting. The concept doesn't seem to be carried through as the book progresses. And then the comedy starts (after a brief spell of cleverness I'll get to in a minute), with mad sword fights and chases in hansom cabs, and a whole town chasing the supposed 'anarchists', and then the elephant. Yeah. An elephant.

The brief spell of cleverness I mentioned is the revelation that in fact - some of the men, it later turns out all the bloody men, are Police Officers! All appointed by a mysterious figure in the dark (and the revelation of who he was I predicted from the moment it was mentioned). The initial revelations that there are other Police Officers is clever, but it soon gets repetitive. And though we are treated to some wonderful revelations and really good characterisation of the anarchists/Officers, the revelations lose their effect.

Then comes the town chases in France, and the mad stuff, and the cabs, and the sword fight (which is actually written really well, and the stuff with the train arriving is actually full of tension). And then they all discover they're officers and confront Sunday - who goes onto steal a cab then an elephant then a hot air ballooon. Yeah. An elephant. The lead up to the end of the book is great. With the men invited to some fancy dress ball, the mystery and surreality are reinstated, and it really is fascinating. The references to the days of the week and the Bible are also quite clever. But then comes the actual ending.

What. The. Hell? Weird stuff happens, someone comes back and repeats a dramatic revelation we had earlier on in the book, and then Thursday/Syme passes out after weird stuff happens. Sunday, according to Wikipedia, is questioning the worth of his disciples. Right - now the real spoilers are going to start.

I understand that this book is mainly allegorical, or teaching us a lesson. Whether it be to tell us that anarchy is bad, or explaining how anarchy is the embodiment of a battle between God and free will (that's the theology side of me talking), or just there 'cos Chesterton got bored (unlikely), the book is confusing. The ending is not conventional, nor does it make any sense in terms of the real world. But then really, the book doesn't. It is the Nightmare that it promises, though definitely not to read it. Mad stuff happens, the world descends into chaos - and the only thing we can truly understand is Chesteron's message. Which is... I don't know. Its anti-anarchy anyway. There are loads of interpretations and I'm not sure what mine is yet.

The ending, for a conventional reader, begs many questions. Who is Sunday? Why appoint the men to be police officers? Was, then, the Thursday election planned so a real anarchist could be found? What good would that be? Do the anarchists really count as investigators of policemen? Why are Syme and Gregory such good friends afterwards? What's the significance of the woman? Was this all a dream? Why steal a bloody elephant? Yes. An elephant.

The point is, if you want my interpretation (stick yours on a postcard please), then it was a dream. It was a dream, or a nightmare, and a version of events of what would happen if anarchy is allowed to take hold. Chesterton probably meant something along those lines, and how God and his disciples, those he appoints, are there to tackle anarchy and provide peace. Sunday therefore probably is God in this allegory. The novel runs somewhat like a dream or nightmare. Events that don't make sense put together, using people that Syme (presumably the dreamer) knew in real life, like Gregory (or did he meet him in the dream too?). It would have been wonderful if the events were real - but I believe they're there to show an example. Everyone has nightmares, with random and unconnected places. This novel runs just like that.

Therefore - GK Chesterton is a genius. He has written, not only an allegorical novel delivering a message, not only a "boy's adventure" novel as one critic described it, not only something that gets you thinking - but he's made sense of a nonsensical nightmare, only to make it nonsensical again for the reader. He has written a nightmare. Which is awesome. Read this book for enjoyment, or study would probably be a better way of getting your teeth into it. But it is a book every person who likes literature should read. Just to appreciate the skill, the range, the mix of genres that's used. You don't have to make sense of it.

And if you want my advice, don't try to.

And so one more thing. The Prisoner. There are undeniable similarities, though I've never seen anyone mention it. There's a fancy dress ball in the novel (like Dance of the Dead in The Prisoner), an old man who drinks milk (like Number 2 in A, B and C), there's a bomb-shaped room (which reminded me of Fall Out), a surreal man know one understands (Number 1). Sunday is similar to Leo McKern's Number 2 - and the court of anarchists themselves have gotta be compared to the court in Fall Out. There are, for me, clear similarities, in both tone and features. You should definitely watch The Prisoner if you've read this book. (But then you can compare anything to pretty much anything. You could, for example, also compare the novel to the Florence + The Machine songs 'Cosmic Love' and 'Blinding'. Very tenuous links, but they're there.)

And you should definitely read the book. Though of course if you've read this review, there'll be no surprises, and those are genuine joy within the novel.

It's difficult to rate a book that isn't conventional, so I won't. But I really did enjoy it. Enough to read it again one day to try and get my head around it.

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