Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Eerie Mystery (And Flying Fun) of A Nightmare

I’ve fallen behind a bit in reviewing the titles from our ongoing literary clubs but I’ll try to remedy that in the next few days. That will mean catching up on: 1) Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers (last month’s Notting Hill Napoleon selection); 2) Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth (the latest in Vital Signs Ministries’ Book It! program) and 3) G.K. Chesterton’s classic novel, The Man Who Was Thursday which was the most recent book explored by the Omaha Chesterton Society.

And since it’s Thursday (just barely), I’ll start with the appropriate title.

The Man Who Was Thursday is a very unusual book, one that even some of Chesterton’s warmest fans find inexplicable, frustrating and even a bit alarming. Therefore, a patient, probing discussion of the novel with people who know and love Chesterton well (like the one we enjoyed at our last OCS gathering) can be an extremely illuminating and comforting thing. Thankfully, ours certainly was, providing both a wonderful time for those who were there and a great example of why you should have been there too!

Now, I don’t want to give any of the surprises of the novel away here (and those surprises are really something too) but there are a few things which I can mention that I think will help unlock some of the most mystifying puzzles of the novel.

First of all, it’s crucial to note that The Man Who Was Thursday has a subtitle that you ignore at your peril. That subtitle? A Nightmare. Accepting that idea right at the beginning of your reading will be a big boost in your understanding of the novel. For instance, you will not be so quick to insist on clearly defined and rational connections within the book. You’ll be more reserved in jumping to conclusions. Instead, you’ll let Chesterton lead you through Thursday’s mysterious and surreal plot, revealing the story in his own way and in his own time. Remembering the subtitle will also make you more aware of the superb artistry of Chesterton’s novel, especially the dream-like characters, conflicts and chase scenes.

The Man Who Was Thursday is most definitely a story with a moral – several of them actually. But Chesterton’s philosophy is revealed in a much different style than he used in a newspaper article, apologetic essay or public debate. And it is from a lack of appreciation for the peculiar rules of such novels of fantasy that result in so many scratching their heads over The Man Who Was Thursday. Too many readers forget that Chesterton was as remarkably skilled a poet and artist as he was a polemicist. And, as great as his passion was for communicating essential truths, he utilized all the various tools at his disposal.

Thursday cannot be read in the same way as Orthodoxy or The Everlasting Man. It is a novel, a poetic flight of fancy, almost a hallucinatory nightmare – but one that yet makes powerful points about idealism, honor, bravery, sacrifice, justice, man’s need for fellowship and, yes, even man’s need for God.

I would even extend the argument by saying that the very elusiveness in The Man Who Was Thursday is a Chestertonian way to underscore man’s need of divine revelation. In other words, man can earnestly, even sacrificially search for answers about creation and about his own significance “under the sun,” but that quest will be ineffective unless God Himself, moved by His own mercy and love, reveals Himself to man. Thus, it is in the novel’s perplexity that Chesterton reveals the answer to the ultimate, critical questions. But what else should one expect from the master of paradox?

However, let me assure those of you who have yet to read The Man Who Was Thursday that the novel stands as one of the world’s favorites among G.K. Chesterton’s achievements not because of its philosophical weight. No, it is probably more in spite of it! And that is because the novel is such rollicking fun! The mystery is riveting; the witty and profound observations are classic G.K.C.; the chase scenes are, respectively, every bit as terrifying and intoxicating as in one’s own dreams; and the unexpected, dramatic conclusion is as provocative as just about any book, of any genre, that you’ll ever read.

So, please be assured that The Man Who Was Thursday is a terrific novel for a beginner and even better when read the second or twentieth time around. It is grander still when discussed by such friends as we’ve formed in our Omaha Chesterton Society.

That last line, it should be no surprise, is intended as an unapologetic promotion for those of you in the Omaha area because the next meeting of the Omaha Chesterton Society is Monday, June 11th where we will be discussing (and reading aloud) selections of G.K. Chesterton’s poetry. More details about that later but suffice it for now to urge you to get your copy of Collected Poems (Volume 10 in the Ignatius Press series) and set the date aside. See you there!