Have you seen the film Memento? The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce: A Novel in Four Vintages doesn't revolve around someone afflicted with short-term memory loss, but it does employ a reverse storytelling technique and isn't jolly. Life sucked for Leonard in the movie; and despite his cheeriness about feeling life will turn out well, Wilberforce, the novel's off-kilter narrator, displays the depths of his own "loserness" upfront in act or "vintage" number one.
Paul Torday's second novel -- his first was, of course, the charmingly quirky Salmon Fishing in the Yemen -- kicks off in 2006 and works back, in four "vintages," to 2002. Basically, Wilberforce (in normal chronology) degenerates from a socially challenged workaholic software company owner who avoids alcohol to a man drinking himself to death on multiple bottles of select but questionable vintage a day. He accomplishes this in those few years by finding his way to Francis Black's not exactly prospering wine shop, Caerlyon Hall, one evening after work. Gradually he becomes a regular there and even acquires a few other friends, including a woman, Catherine, he gradually desires to marry, and a man who stands in his way. Under Francis' tutelage, Wilberforce becomes a wine connoisseur of sorts, and then Francis, an older man in poor health, prevails upon Wilberforce to take on responsibility for his considerable, debt-ridden wine cellar when the time comes. Why would Wilberforce take on such a life-altering commitment? Therein lies the crux of the matter....
Torday scored winningly with his satire, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Alfred, luckless sod he was in many ways, grew in awareness and love during his incredible adventure. Wilberforce, however, is no Alfred. He -- and I give nothing away that isn't made plain in the first section of the book -- is a doomed man. The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce: A Novel in Four Vintages deals with themes of inevitability: Is our genetic inheritance insurmountable? Are we but the puppets of fate? Both Alfred and Wilberforce are diffident, socially handicapped men, but Torday doesn't stuff Alfred into a funnel that leads only to the refuse pile; Wilberforce he does.
Reading The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce: A Novel in Four Vintages could appear a thankless endeavor at times: why bother with a story being told so that each revelation unfolds before its underpinnings? But, as in the acclaimed Memento, Torday's exercise in backward story structure pays off. His character study feeds the curiosity about how and why Wilberforce reaches each stage of his undoing. Torday, in effect, puts the rind peels back on the orange, until on the last page Wilberforce is a man who can say in optimistic sincerity that he thinks life will turn out well for him.
Still, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was the more enjoyable book of the two. Torday's third novel, The Girl on the Landing, is expected in early 2009. I await it with cautious eagerness, hoping for continued ingeniousness and less morbidity than displayed in The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce: A Novel in Four Vintages.