This book was… weird. To some degree “weird” has lost all meaning as a descriptor — I don’t even mean the revival of the term to describe fiction, I mean that to most readers, most anything even slightly off the beaten narrative path is weird. “I read The Life of Pi, it was so weird!” It was pretty bizarre, I’ll grant you that, but I dunno about weird; that kind of postmodernism is pretty run-of-the-mill these days. “Memento is such a weird movie!” Not really. “I love Cloud Atlas! So off-kilter!” I like Cloud Atlas, but no.
… that being said, The Man Who Was Thursday is really weird. It reads like a Twilight Zone episode penned in 1908; I lie, it reads like a Twilight Zone episode, full stop. The book has the feel of an 1960s-70s allegorical sci-fi story written by Harlan Ellison or Philip K. Dick and inexplicably expanded to novel length, all except for how it veers off into Christian allegory at the end, which just serves to make it weirder. I think I’m defining weirdness here as dissimilarity to other work, unclassifiability, difficulty in drawing comparisons — which is funny, because like I just said, if it’d been written in 1965, I wouldn’t find it all that weird. Actually, I’d find it to be ho-hum conservative polemic. But what was ho-hum in 1965 was decidedly not so ho-hum in 1908, and I’m not that interested in Chesterton’s politics. I’m more interested in the existence — and relative obscurity! — of such a strange, strange book.
I say relative obscurity because I don’t know any laypeople who’ve read it; really, if something is from before 1915 and is not assigned in classes, the chances that laypeople will read it are very slim. It hasn’t made it into the canon, is what I mean. I can see why. It’s odd, not profound. Then again, a lot of not-terribly-profound things have made it into the canon, so on some level it’s also just a stroke of bad fortune for Chesterton that he’s no longer famous for writing anything longer than a quote. He was a very quoteable man. I think I know more people who can quote him at length than who know what “G.K.” stands for. The Man Who Was Thursday reads like the meandering, self-indulgent idfic of a smart person; I’m taking ‘idfic’ here from fandom to mean just whatever-a-person-felt-like-writing, which people normally associate with porn or adventure fluff or political proselytization. But actually, I think writers’ self-indulgence runs more often to jerking themselves in intellectual circles, like Chesterton here: he takes every description as an opportunity to make an observation about something, not necessarily sociopolitical, but something. The Kindle version is overflowing with highlighted text: true to his heavily quoted self, Chesterton loves being pithy. The novel is a bunch of pith strung together with strange metaphysics and possibly accidental science fiction. It’s predictable, which fails to detract from how bizarre it is; you can see everything coming and still find yourself going, “but why did you write this?? What am I even reading?”
I recommend it. It’s not often I read something so truly peculiar I spend time trying to dissect what makes it so exceptionally weird. It’s a fairly quick read, funny in bits, and at least when it’s didactic it’s more entertaining than Lewis — and it’s some really weird shit.