The best way that I've found to describe this book is that it feels like you're reading a car chase. In a good way. No, the whole book is not a car chase (though there is a car chase at one point), but it's a fantastic thriller that had me riveted as it raced through twists and turns in the plot, which featured poets, anarchy, and the question of what makes reality.
G.K. Chesterton published this book in 1908 and it opens on the meeting of two poets in turn of the century London -- Lucian Gregory and Gabriel Syme. Gregory loses his temper when Syme suggests that Gregory is not a true anarchist. So to prove his commitment to anarchy, Gregory extracts a vow of silence from Syme and then takes him to a secret meeting of anarchists... only to find (after Syme requests a similar promise from Gregory) that Syme is part of a secret anti-anarchy group of Scotland Yard. The two are at an impasse, unable to expose the other, and so Gregory is completely at a loss when Syme gives a rousing speech at the meeting and the secret agent is elected to serve as the local representative (called "Thursday") on the worldwide Central Council of Anarchists. And this is only the beginning as Syme joins the Council and meets its president, Sunday, who comes to represent all that Syme is battling against in this world.
Wikipedia will tell you that Adam Gopnik ran a piece in The New Yorker which described this book as "one of the hidden hinges of twentieth-century writing, the place where, before our eyes, the nonsense-fantastical tradition of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear pivots and becomes the nightmare-fantastical tradition of Kafka and Borges." Even 101 years later, I could feel that this was that missing literary link that finally made me understand how the jump to writing and appreciating Kafka's work was made possible. That tradition of literature was never my focus, and I feel that had I been asked to read this before Kafka in school, I could have found a more coherent place for it in the sequence of literary styles. I had always been dissatisfied with explanations of how Kafka brought forth such a surreal narrative, fully-formed in its own unique style, a man suddenly made insect. I knew there must have been some premonitory clue, and here I feel as though I've stumbled upon something that makes that a little clearer. Though it seems amusing to use the term "clarity" here, as the simultaneous trust in and distrust of reality is what makes it all terrifying/fascinating.
Oh, and it might be narcissistic, but I'm always going to have a small affinity for a book that treats redheads with respect. There's a fantastic line that you can bet I'll remember: "My red hair, like red flames, shall burn up the world." Awesome. And I'll leave you with an early paragraph where Syme is speaking with Gregory's sister that I particularly enjoyed:
He stared and talked at the girl's red hair and amused face for what seemed to be a few minutes; and then, feeling that the groups in such a place should mix, rose to his feet. To his astonishment, he discovered the whole garden empty. Everyone had gone long ago, and he went himself with a rather hurried apology. He left with a sense of champagne in his head, which he could not afterwards explain. In the wild events which were to follow, this girl had no part at all; he never saw her again until all his tale was over. And yet, in some indescribable way, she kept recurring like a motive in music through all his mad adventures afterwards, and the glory of her strange hair ran like a red thread through those dark and ill-drawn tapestries of the night. For what followed was so improbable that it might well have been a dream.