Monday, November 28, 2011

G.K. Chesterton: And Then I Woke Up

I read a lot this weekend, which is My Kind Of Weekend. I finished Kate Chopin's The Awakening (which had a satisfyingly unsettling tragic ending and it's a shame Chopin only wrote the one novel), read fifty pages or so of Lydia Davis short stories (uneven in both length and quality but when she's good, Ms Davis is great), and read the entirety of G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (a nightmare). This is the only Chesteron I've ever read, and I am now chary of picking up anything else by him, though possibly TMWWT is an anomaly.

The thing about this book is that the first two thirds of it are pretty great, but the ending (despite Chesterton's warning in the subtitle) is a cheat, I think. Here's the story, in brief: a "philosopher detective" from Scotland Yard infiltrates a worldwide anarchist organization, getting elected by the local anarchist branch to a seat on the president's council. There are seven members of the council, and the council members go by the names of the days of the week. Our hero is Thursday, hence the title of the book. The president of the anarchists, a Moriarty-like arch criminal, takes the name of Sunday. They are planning, as a first step toward world anarchy, to blow up the President of France and the Czar of Russia (the novel was written in 1908). Intrigue and hilarity ensues, including various unmaskings to reveal surprise secret identities, flight across the Channel and pursuit by an anarchist army, a duel fought with swords and oh, so much more. There is a lot of funny metafictional stuff about police work and detection and the ongoing discussion of who would really benefit from the pulling down of government is very lively and possibly timely as well ("The poor will resent that they are governed wrongly, but the rich will resent that they are governed at all").

Chesterton is funny and the wordplay is very very good, harking back to the comedies of Shakespeare. The protagonist's riffing about which words should be included in a secret code is priceless, as he argues in favor of terms that are poetic and have a beautiful sound, rather than for words that might actually apply to the case at hand. There's a later bit where he plans a dialogue between himself and an enemy, writing down the 43 verbal exchanges he assumes will come to pass. Alas, at the crisis moment he is forced to improvise.

So this is all great stuff, and plotwise Chesterton turns the spy story on its head and his reader has no idea why anything is happening or who Sunday really is or how the story will all work out and things build to a fever pitch and then...[SPOILER]...we are presented with a fairy tale Christian allegory centered around the week of Creation (hence the days of the week trope) and we learn that the whole thing was a dream and on the last page of the novel, the protagonist wakes up. I cry foul, I do. Deus ex machina most foul. Horrible, horrible, most horrible. You get the idea. But before someone tells me that Chesterton had the right to craft whatever story he wanted to, I will say that the most foulness was that the last chapter was not well written. Had not Chesterton lost all his sense of fun and playful language, I might accept his bait-and-switch. But he did, so I don't.

Right now I'm reading Shakespeare. There is no bad Shakespeare.

4 comments:

  1. YAY! You read The Awakening! That makes me super happy. Satisfyingly unsettling is the best way to end a book, no? If you liked The Awakening, she does have a lot of short stories you can check out, but her novella is my favorite.

    Also, I finished The Last Guest yesterday. I read most of it in one day while I was sick on the couch. It really was a lovely way to spend my day! I enjoyed it immensely and will need to send you an email soon. :)

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  2. I really liked The Awakening. I think we have some of her short stories on the shelf already.

    Hurrah for immense enjoyment of TLG! I'm working on a pitch letter, so write to me and tell me if anything in the book was stupid! I already know that I had "Mrs Pullman" where it should be "Mrs Taylor" on page 34.

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  3. I'd be curious to hear more of your thoughts on Lydia Davis. To be totally honest, I find her work really boring, but I haven't read much of her stuff -- just a handful of stories over the years. I have the collected stories, but I haven't been able to get myself to make the plunge into it yet.

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  4. Ms Smith,

    I have a sort of love/sleep relationship with the works of Lydia Davis. Sometimes it seems like she can send off to NOON or Paris Review whatever little notes she's made to herself and they'll publish it as a story and people will cheer Davis as an innovator when all she's done is gotten someone to print one of her stray thoughts that she couldn't work into a proper story. On the other hand, some of her longer actual stories are moving and beautiful, quixotic and open-ended. I wish I had my collection with me; I'd give you page numbers to look at. Maybe later.

    I'm about 3/4 of the way through the collection and while a good deal of it just gets a "huh" or a wry smile from me, I'm still glad to be reading it. Though there's no way I could read the collection straight through. I've been working on it since the spring, or maybe even since last November.

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