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A Calculated Chaos–Chesterton’s Manalive

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)Having been quite pleased by The Man Who Was Thursday a couple of years ago, I eagerly attacked another Chesterton novel, Manalive. Unfortunately, when I read Thursday, I really did not read. Instead, I consumed a Librivox recording of the novel. The audiobooks at Librivox range from the very good to the unlistenable. I endured the reader of Manalive for perhaps five minutes before determining that I could not tolerate this voice for the duration.

Somehow, this little tale of non-readership seems to fit with the novel in question. Manalive seems to be a combination of Dead Poets’ Society and The Screwtape Letters. In fact, the light-hearted nature of Chesterton’s work, the same sort of feel that one gets from Screwtape, might be the highest recommendation for this book. Chesterton seems to be holding the sanctimonious but supposedly unfettered types that populate the pseudo-Transcendentalist works up to a close and unforgiving inspection, arriving at the conclusion that the truly emancipated, the truly alive person is the one who has been liberated from the burden of sin.

This novel revolves around the arrival at a London boarding house of Innocent Smith, a man who may or may not be a school friend of one of the other lodgers. Smith turns the house on its head, much to the delight of virtually all the inhabitants. However, his hijinks do not please everyone, and Smith is put on trial, accused of being insane and dangerous.

The bulk of the novel relates in a “tell don’t show” fashion the accusations and explanations for many of Innocent Smith’s past misdeeds. As it turns out, we discover that he only shoots pistols in the general direction of people in order to make them feel more alive. He runs off with a series of women who mysteriously disappear, but in fact he is really running off with his wife who, each time she is “won,” drops her false identity. His history of house-breaking and burglary involves him breaking into his own home.

The chaos that Innocent Smith brings wherever he goes is clearly well considered. Granted, Chesterton’s premise is rather forced, but my real impatience with this novel lies with its rather glacial pace. Once the trial of Innocent Smith has begun and before the book has reached its midpoint, the point that Chesterton seeks to make emerges clearly. Imagine that The Sixth Sense had revealed its twist ending half-way through the film and then proceeded to make and re-make the point for the next forty minutes.

Have I missed the charm or depth of this book? Perhaps. If so, let me know what I should have seen.


Posted in English Literature, Realism.

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