Do you ever have books on your TBR list that you know next to nothing about? I’ve had The Man Who Was Thursday on my list for years, for the sole reason that it’s G.K. Chesterton’s most famous novel, and I’ve wanted to read more Chesterton (aside from Orthodoxy and some of the Father Brown stories, which I’ve already read). I had the vague notion that it involved spies, but that’s all I knew.
At first, it did seem like a typical spy novel. In the opening chapters, a London man named Gabriel Syme finds himself going undercover in an organization of anarchists. Each of the men on the governing council of the anarchist group (yes, the anarchists believe in some sort of order) has taken on the name of a day of the week, and Syme manages to worm his way onto the governing council as their new Thursday. Overseeing the group is the mysterious Sunday, a man whose very presence instills in Syme a sense of dread and fear.
For quite a while the story moves along much in the way that I expected. There are double-crosses, dynamite plots, and secret identities revealed. Eventually, though, the story gets more a more surreal, and I realized that the subtitle “A Nightmare” is as significant as the main title.
To say that the novel develops a nightmarish quality is not to say that it’s scary. I think perhaps most nightmares are only scary to the person who dreams them. And Syme seems to be living a nightmare in which nothing is what it seems. Locations and identities shift in unexpected ways, just as they do in dreams.
Chesterton was a Christian, and the nightmare he concocted is infused with Biblical imagery. This is not, however, a straightforward Christian allegory—or if it is, it’s too subtle for me. I could just about wrap my brain about some of the ideas Chesterton was getting at, but the story would always move on before I could quite get there. This is a disadvantage of audio. I listened to several sections multiple times, but I would have liked to just ponder specific paragraphs, which is not a viable option with audiobooks, especially in an audiobook with long tracks, like this one. Most tracks were around 10 minutes, and there were several times when I wanted to backtrack when I was 8 minutes in, just to listen to a paragraph or two again. If I’d had the book in print, I could have pondered individual moments as much as I wanted.
On balance, though, I did enjoy the book. I enjoyed how twisty it was and how it took me places that I didn’t expect (although one particular series of twists became obvious to me before it did to Syme). There are some wonderfully surreal bits toward the end that I just enjoyed as word pictures, even if I didn’t understand what Chesterton was doing.
The audio production, read by Simon Vance, was well done, with the exception of the overlong tracks. I do think I would have liked this more in print, which would have allowed me to think through the images and ideas a bit more. I pretty sure that there are some interesting ideas buried in there, but I’ll need another turn with it—in print—before I find those ideas.