Oh no, they’ll tell you, they don’t read fantasy. They have no idea where the fantasy section is at the library, let alone where to find Westeros or Xanth, or how to get into Mordor – doesn’t one simply walk? Oh sure, they read the Harry Potter books, but when it comes to their own reading they consider themselves firmly in the muggle camp.
In the wake of an ominously brilliant sunset, poets Gabriel Syme and Lucian Gregory engage in a dialogue on merits of anarchy and order on a London park bench, and then retire to a pub to continue their discussion over some surprisingly luxurious food. Suddenly the bottom literally drops out beneath them, and the anarchist Gregory initiates Syme into a secret subterranean cabal – an anarchist council. Detective Syme swiftly and ingeniously turns the tables on his host, getting himself elected to the board – a weird group of phantasmagoric bogeymen right out of a James Ensor painting – where he is dubbed Thursday, according to their curious argot. (In 1908, “anarchism” was no joke, just as “terrorism” is not today. One has only to read Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, published the previous year, or Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines to get a sense of how pervasive the threat of anarchism was felt to be at this time; three world leaders had been assassinated by self-proclaimed anarchists, including an American president).
Thus commences a headlong intercontinental chase something in the vein of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, conducted via car, balloon, horse and elephant, as the other days of the week are unmasked – all except the anarchist’s president Sunday, the enigmatic prime mover behind these obscure doings. In the end the joke may be on us, or then again not. Chesterton once wrote “The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange.” The Man Who Was Thursday achieves this; for all its playfulness, he gestures towards an ultimate mystery lying at the back of things that is all too real and ineffable.
Chesterton had a healthy respect for the pull of a good story; another of my favorite quotes of his (from an essay entitled In Defense of Penny Dreadfuls) is “Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.” What I enjoy most about the world of this strange and wonderful book is that for all its hints at the works of Kafka, Walser, and Borges to come, it never stops being an adventure. I love books that do that. Creating a world that is almost but not quite our own, in many ways it prefigures the magical realism and urban fantasy of today. It is quite a trip.
Authors such as Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez are well known for their wonderful stories rich in metaphor and infused with a sense of magic. The titles below are similar in style, but are written by authors from cultures other than those of Central and South America.
The Cloud Atlas by Liam Callanan. Louis Belk remembers his bomb disposal assignment in Alaska during World War II and the ethereal Japanese balloon bombs he was sent to find and disable. He finds instead a lovely and mysterious landscape rich with culture and impossible to leave.