18 May 2011

"Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover": An Object-Lesson

Remember that trip to Rennes I blogged about a while back? Remember how I said I bought some books while I was there, because it's a student town and there was a really cool second-hand book shop there?

Well, damn and blast if I didn't just get attacked with an old saw by one of those books.

The creature in question is The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce, by Mr. Paul Torday. Did you click on the link? Did you see that cover? Did you, too, think it might be kind of a Peter Mayle-ish deal, only in England? Did you read the blurb (which does absolutely nothing to dispel the illusion)? Did you see all the nice reviews from regular newspapers, not even especially literary ones, talking about how wonderful and poignant the book was? Okay, I'm not sure how much of this information, beyond the cover, actually appears on the Amazon page, but usually, if the Telegraph calls something a "good read," they mean, "suitable for your Grandma, and light and sweet enough for you to read on the train."

The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce is not something I'd give to my Grandma. I wouldn't even give it to my mom. I wouldn't give it to anyone, for that matter, out of whom I didn't want to depress the Hell.

Because, at the beginning of the novel, we find Wilberforce, stumbling from a taxi and into a very expensive restaurant, buying and drinking all of two bottles of wine -- each of which cost 3000 pounds. He has, we discover in short order, already drunk three bottles of wine that day, and is eventually forced from the restaurant, or would have been had he not fallen into a three-day coma. (It gets worse and more awkward and more embarrassing from there.)

The novel, told in reverse chronological order (with sections titled "2006," "2004," "2003" and "2002"), is not an easy, nor a pleasant, nor even an enjoyable read. I couldn't finish the thing, mostly because -- as an inveterate end-reader -- I soon discovered that there would be no closure on the most recent part of the narrative. This annoyed me, and I almost stopped reading right then (i.e. around page 5). But I stuck it out -- for another two hundred pages, anyway -- and now, I'm annoyed.

Because the problem with The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce is not that it offers no solutions, no resolution and no ending. The problem with The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce is that it's just so well written, so compelling in its voice and its narrative structure -- for the earlier part of the book, anyway -- that it was very difficult to put down. The first one hundred and fifty pages were ridiculously well-crafted. The narrator was so unstable and so unusual in the accuracy of his tone -- half whinging, half conspiratorial -- that the book might have been carried at least that far on the strength of that voice alone.

Unfortunately, the book flagged as the narrative went further into Wilberforce's past, and the reverse-chronological structure, it rapidly becomes apparent, was unnecessary. Maintaining the completely delusional voice of the first part of the book throughout its length would have been difficult, certainly, but Mr. Torday proved himself quite equal to the task in the most difficult part of the book -- i.e. the opening section -- that I feel annoyingly certain he could have kept it up. Revealing Wilberforce's through his degrading memory would have been far more interesting than showing us a train wreck in reverse. If Mr. Torday was truly wedded to the reverse-chronology thing, though, he really needed some kind of epilogue, afterward or whatever to tie up that most recent "vintage."

But seriously, also, don't judge this one by its cover.

In other reading news, I finished Richard III yesterday, and realized -- not for the first time -- that I read everything like fantasy. I really kept expecting Daenerys Targaryen to show up with some dragons, which I guess stands to reason since George R.R. Martin pulled from the Wars of the Roses, right down to -- if Shakespeare is to be believed -- the names.

Other than that, though, not much interesting. My distance learning courses are finished, and I am free to do nothing, except when I'm at work.

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