Of all the books I have ever read, only two have made me go back straight to the beginning after finishing it the first time. The man who was Thursday; a nightmare is one of those two, which is strange, because this is actually a rather irritating book, from a writer whose favourite trick is turning an apparently logical storyline into a scene from a very Christian Lord of the rings as imagined by Lewis Carroll.
On the surface the plot is quite simple; Syme, a policeman, infiltrates an anarchist organisation devoted to the destruction of pretty much everything. But the problem (and the charm) of the book is the number of levels it works on; noir adventure story, Christian allegory, psychological thriller, dream and exploration of turn-of-the-century pessimism. Personally I treasure my ignorance of turn-of-the-century pessimism, but it seems to be a mixture of doubt, paranoia and existential dread, which mostly characterises the atmosphere of Symes bizarre adventures.
In most books where the writing is ambiguous and has all sorts of hidden meanings, the levels are consistent all through the book; but the thing about Thursday is that the story changes quality; when I started reading this book it seemed to be a surreal sort of noir story, a Hitchcock-style thriller directed by David Lynch. Here is one scene where the hero is infiltrating the anarchist inner circle:
At first an instinct had told Syme that this was the man he was meant to meet…the man remained more still than was natural if a stranger had come so close. He was as motionless as a waxwork and got on the nerves somewhat in the same way. Syme looked again and again at the pale dignified and delicate face, and the face still looked blankly across the river Then he took out of his pocket the note… Then the man smiled, and his smile was a shock, for it was all on one side, going up in the right cheek and down in the left.
There was, rationally speaking, nothing to scare anyone about this. Many people have this nervous trick of a crooked smile, and in many it is even attractive. But in all Symes circumstances, with the dark dawn and the deadly errand and the loneliness on the great dripping stones there was something unnerving in it. There was the silent river and the silent man, the man of even classic face. And there was the last nightmare touch that his smile suddenly went wrong.
The noir atmosphere is perfectly done; the atmosphere is genuinely menacing, and the organisation Syme infiltrates is depicted as almost diabolical. There is also a strain of black humour which mostly comes out in the dialogue, although some may find it a little clunky for their tastes:
“Now listen to me. I like you. The consequence is that it would annoy me for just about two and a half minutes if I heard that you had died in torments. Well if you ever tell the police or any human soul about us I shall have that two and a half minutes of discomfort. On your discomfort I shall not dwell…time is flying. I must go off at once; I have to take a chair at a humanitarian meeting”
This whole atmosphere is gradually dissolved as the book progresses; the humour remains in a different form, but the logic of the book disintegrates at the adventures get increasingly surreal and impossible: a decrepit old man moves impossibly fast; a character removes his face piece by piece; the atmosphere of paranoia and deceit intensifies and changes.
Here lies the central problem of the book, which is also the point of the book: as the plot shifts from “thriller” to “nightmare” and eventually to “religious allegory” something is lost, just as much as something is gained. But without the shift in emphasis the book would just be a thriller among thrillers, and the end would be completely different. I cant say anything about the end without spoiling it, except that it raises the central ideas of the book to grand, Christian, philosophical levels and makes the adventure elements seem almost irrelevant in comparison. The ending is in fact so sophisticated that it actually requires an endnote to explain the ideas a little.
G.K.Chesterton has achieved a puzzler of a book that is something of a unsung masterpiece. This book has something for fans of Christian philosophy; it has something for fans of surrealism it has something for fans of noir adventure; but the fact is that for me the elements he so carefully deconstructs are my favourites. What comes afterwards is like the first parts of the book, perfect of its type, clever and occasionally witty; but I always grind my teeth when the Christian allegory comes to the forefront and the book sheds all pretence of being anything else. It is lucky for Chesterton that he is dead; if he were alive I would seek the man out, get his autograph and tell him how brilliant his work is: I would then throw something at his head.