It seems as if someone at Penguin Publishing — a company I deeply adore for their black volumes that make my bookcase so alluring — has made a grave error.
When I received The Man Who Was Thursday I was sent the entire six book series of “Great Books for Boys” which included The Man Who Was Thursday along with titles such as The Lost World (Doyle, not Crichton), The Prisoner of Zenda, and The Riddle of the Sands. All priced modestly at $10, these editions are clad in quite attractive nostalgia-pulp covers which, apparently, were meant to evoke the similarly pulpy material within. For goodness sake, when was the last time anything intended for “Boys” did not look like it had been rammed into some blender with a baseball card collection, a copy of The Goonies, and John Knowles debatable masterwork A Separate Peace?
This would be fine and I might even consider commending those consummate literati gatekeepers Penguin except for one key oversight. Relegating The Man Who Was Thursday to the company of swashbuckling pap and Robinson Crusoe knockoffs is tragically sinful. Yes, there are law officers in the novel and some action but these features certainly cannot be categorically damning of their works to the ranks of Young Adult Fiction. After all, we do not throw The Yiddish Policemen’s Union at our children’s feet and tell them to go. Pearls before swine (I am sure your little one has a very high reading level indeed for a fifth grader).
So very much of the dynamic theological and ethical concerns which The Man Who Was Thursday entertains would be missed by a “young adult” that the novel would be an entirely different affair. And yes, I am keenly aware that similar entities such as the Narnia saga or Shrek operate on a sliding scale and encourage revisitation as one matures to find entirely new dimensions to their childhood favorites. However, The Man Who Was Thursday’s conflict of mytho-philosophy is not simply another strata of the book’s meaning, this wrestling with angels is the book — absolutely.
G.K. Chesterton’s masterpiece tells the story of Gabriel Syme, an undercover police officer charged with the task of infiltrating an anarchist cell. After being elected to the elite council of seven, each code-named a different day of the week, Syme (Thursday) discovers that there are other undercover officers in the governing body as well. This escalates into madcap intrigue which threatens to consume all logical emplotment before the novel veers sharply into a theological fever dream somewhere between Dante’s Paradiso and Pan’s Labyrinth.
All of this is done with the utmost care and exemplary craft seamlessly transitioning between rather quotidian adventure and intoxicating and unnerving conflations of myth and philosophy. The Man Who Was Thursday features some of the most compelling storytelling I have ever encountered, and the manner in which it dribbles its interrogation of ipseity and religion into the ear of the content reader is perfect. Not “almost perfect” or “virtually perfect” (shudder) but “perfect”.
The title page proclaims as the book’s subtitle that it is “A Nightmare”. If only every night could torment this beautifully. I would avoid saying that the novel feature’s terribly normative philosophy but rather encourages a dialogue on what identity actually constitutes and how the architecture of good and evil has been hewn from the mythic past of the cultural consciousness.
Thus, I have no reservation in lambasting anyone who believes that The Man Who Was Thursday belongs to any B-canon such as that of “Great Books for Boys”. In fact, I would suggest that “Boys” be forbidden to read The Man Who Was Thursday until their religious philosophy teeth have been well cut by Lewis, Kierkegaard, and Chesterton himself (see: Orthodoxy, Heretics). This book resonates such a precise and unique frequency that anything but a readied ear will probably just hear noise (and the listener will be dumber for it).