I have seen this book described variously as ‘hilarious’ and ‘uproarious’. I think those reviewers need to get out a bit more. Amusing, maybe, this ‘melodramatic sort of moonshine’ as Chesterton accurately described it is an odd piece of work. It is true that there is a clue in the subtitle ‘A Nightmare’, but this seems to me to have been added as an afterthought in much the same way others have used the ‘and he woke up and realised it was all a dream’ device.
What starts as a fairly straightforward thriller (police infiltrating an Anarchist cell) and an astute observation on the absurd directions a surveillance society can take us, soon becomes a metaphysical investigation of faith and human behaviour. One cannot read Chesterton without this happening at some point, so he cannot be criticised for it. It does seem to me, however, that by presenting this as a dream or a dark fantasy, he is sidestepping the opportunity for something more substantial. But that, too, is Chesterton’s way and why, ultimately I find his work unsatisfying. Contrasting serious themes with a comic storyline can be remarkably effective, but I always feel that Chesterton misses the mark. There is a feeling of flippancy rather than a true understanding of the comic; a feeling of ennui, with the author losing interest before he finishes.
To this I must add, that Chesterton is a sloppy writer. I cannot, for example, imagine the opening sentence of this work getting past a modern editor. Mind you, having seen some pretty dire openings of books that are claimed as modern literature, I should perhaps revise that and say that Chesterton’s opening sentence wouldn’t have got past me if I was an editor. It is clumsy, just as a number of other sentences and passages are clumsy. Potentially beautiful, but spoiled by laziness – first drafts that should have been worked at.
For all this criticism, it is a book that should be read. As should Chesterton’s other work. He may not be the perfect stylist and he may miss the mark, but his work does fizz with ideas and throws out sharp, often barbed, observations that stick and worry and make you think. Nor is he afraid of being surreal, of creating fantastic structures that so closely resemble the real world that we are compelled to stop and wonder which is which. For this alone, he is worth reading.