My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What does optimism look like? What would be the result of a life lived in absolute goodness and innocence? Do you have to be blind and stupid (or intolerably dull) to imagine the world is an unspeakably good place and behave accordingly? This is the paradox of reading Chesterton. These are the questions that Chesterton, in all his blustering bigness, wrestles with in every one of his writings. And we shade our eyes, and we laugh or we sigh, and we ask ourselves: was he serious? And we hope desperately that he was.
I can’t do Chesterton justice. He’s a wonderful, frustrating, bigger-than-life character who himself belongs in a fairy tale (and, fittingly enough, Neil Gaiman puts him there in The Sandman). He has inspired and exasperated generations of Catholic apologists. He was a columnist, a journalist, a writer of pseudo-fantastic tales, a Christian apologist, and author of the greatest long-form modern poem in the English language. He is C.S. Lewis with a bit more swagger. He’s hard to swallow, wonderful to read, and always painfully refreshing.
Chesterton believes that the world is good. Unflinchingly, undeniably good. You can find his apologetics in Orthodoxy, but you can find his philosophy distilled to the best effect in his novel Manalive, one of my all-time favorite books. Manalive—for reasons I still don’t understand—is not as well known as The Man Who Was Thursday or even The Napoleon of Notting Hill. But if you want Chesterton at his brightest, if you want to know what all the fuss is about, start here. It’s not all smooth going, especially if you’re not up to speed on late-Victorian literary forms (because no one outside of Masterpiece Theatre really talks like this, do they?). Much of the story is told through letters and nested flashbacks, and the characters spend most of the duration of the novel in a single room. It’s short though, and it would make a fine play.
I maintain that it’s a great book. I’ve read most (all?) of Chesterton’s novels, and I think this is the best elucidation of what he was trying to convince people of regarding the nature of reality. Perhaps not the most compelling plot, but still fun to read and (once you get used to it) laugh out loud funny.
The plot is fairly straightforward. A group of world-weary adults are living together in a boarding house in London called Beacon Hill. An old acquaintance of one of them shows up and with his madcap antics convinces them that they’re not really living and that they should spend more time climbing trees, playing games, and having picnics on the roof. The boarding house is transformed into a place where anything is possible—where its inhabitants realize that anything always was possible—and, among other things, they pair off and start planning weddings. Innocent Smith, the newcomer, is the model of Chestertonian Christianity: very much alive and very much convinced of the goodness of the world. This is Chesterton at his best: making you stand on your head to see that the world was a magical place all along.
But what’s this? Smith attacks a visitor to the boarding house in the process of planning an elopement with one of the boarders. New information comes to the surface. It turns out Smith has attempted murder before. He’s a criminal. A thief. And, apparently, a polygamist, abducting unfortunate girls all over the country. An inquest is held. The boarders, so recently enchanted by Smith’s antics, decide to investigate the matter themselves, and through a series of eye-witness accounts and flashbacks that form the second half of the novel, each of the charges against Smith—attempted murder, robbery, marital abandonment, and polygamy—are examined in turn. Is Smith a villain, or is he simply the exemplar of true goodness and innocence that seems madness in the eyes of the world?
If you know Chesterton, you know the answer. All of Chesterton’s paradoxes are trotted out and displayed in the life of Innocent Smith. Smith shoots at people, but only because he’s sure he’ll miss and to show them the value of life. He breaks into houses, but only his own, because it’s by climbing through a window or down a chimney that you can see what is yours from a new perspective. He leaves home, but only to find it again for the first time. He courts his wife again and again under different guises, because only marriage is the true, unending romantic adventure. He refuses to settle into a life of dull contentedness; he continually shocks himself into true life, into true awareness and appreciation of his world, his home, and his family, by a sort of constant cartwheeling of innocent amazement.
Does it work, we ask along with the other characters in the novel. Is it possible that being so perfectly good and perfectly innocent will result in such exuberant happiness? Well, Chesterton asks us through the lips of one of his characters, how many of us have ever tried it? Smith in this novel is Chesterton’s challenge to world-weariness and ennui, which were always for him among the greatest sins. But does it work? I can suspend disbelieve in a novel. I can, as through the wide, bright windows of Beacon House, look out for a time on Chesterton’s world of sunlight and dizzying clouds. I can try to believe the world is as good as he says it is.
But I doubt. This is my Chestertonian paradox, and I don’t know enough about Chesterton’s biography to answer it. Manalive was written before the Great War, which killed the optimism of millions of lesser men than he. (For some reason I have it in my head that Chesterton was a war correspondent during the Boer War, but I can’t find a citation that establishes that right now. If so, it would mean he had experienced some fairly gruesome things firsthand.) Did it kill his? Probably not, but what about a kid dying of cancer? What about all the rotten, shitty realities of the world that make Chesterton’s radical optimism seem ludicrously naïve?
I love Chesterton. I think he’s right. I hope he’s right, and maybe that’s what it comes down to: hope and choice, choosing to believe the world is better at the core than we can sometimes perceive or conceive. And if you can take that from a dead, sometime overtly racist, Catholic white guy, read this book.
Our books become the windows through which we see our world. You might find Borges and Wolfe (who modeled my favorite character in literature, Patera Silk, after Chesterton’s famous priest-detective Father Brown) sitting on the sill of Chesterton’s stories. And the view through these windows is indeed bright. That’s certainly worth something, since so many of ours have become broken or are looking out onto grisly, post-apocalyptic scenes. Read Chesterton to try to believe the world is that good, and then go out into it to see for yourself. I can’t promise he’s right, but I hope to God he is.