Thursday, December 30, 2010

G.K. Chesterson – The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)

"We deny the snobbish English assumption that the uneducated are the dangerous criminals. We remember the Roman Emperors. We remember the great poisoning princes of the Renaissance. We say that the most dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral people, and my heart goes out to them."

There are more than a few ways we might read G.K. Chesterson’s The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s at once a fantastical adventure story, a hard-boiled detective narrative of virtue gone down the rabbit hole, a didactic treatise on the nature of governmental philosophy and a more-than-disconcerting meditation on the terrifying power of the uncanny. Moreover, it’s a novel about unreality, about dreams and visions and politics and rogue hot air balloons. It’s about class, and God, and Europe, and our unknowable human future. It’s about the Devil, and deception, and storytelling, and the death of reason, and it’s about 100 pages long.

If this sounds hyperbolic, that’s because hyperbole is the only sufficient way to discuss a book that’s 20 feet tall. I mean it: this thing shoots fireballs from its twin cannon arms whilst performing stunning pirouettes against the icy moons of Jupiter. It’s deafening, a very gorgeous sort of racket. It’s your beloved, rosy-cheeked Grandpa tucking you in with a Bible story before crushing your windpipe with his bare hands.

More, still: it reads like Lewis Carroll dropping bunk acid with Jorge Luis Borges at church. It’s like a robot that’s a little too lifelike. The Man Who Was Thursday is like an episode of Dragnet where Joe Friday investigates a crime at the jaws of Hell only to realize he’s been at a carnival the entire time. This strange little book – more than the sum of its parts, more than a detective novel or an exercise in philosophical navel-gazing – is a celebration of the nonsensical, and an illumination of the all-too-real. Read it immediately.

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