Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis was first published in 1991. It has been sitting on my to-be-read mountain since the 2002, I believe. It came up in a discussion back in 2001 with a particular Professor for Ancient Philosophy from K. U. Leuven. Its seventeen years later and I certainly don’t remember what the conversation was. I’m participating in a Keyword Challenge this year – I’m using it to read a lot of books that have been getting fat, old, and lazy on the stacks for a long time. In February the word was “Arrow” (likely for St. Valentine’s Day) but I thought of this lurker-of-shelves.
The novel is famous for being a narrative told in reverse. Time goes backwards from our normal way of perceiving it. Therefore, the novel begins at the end of the main character’s life. The story is narrated by…. a narrator. The Narrator speaks as if he is separate and distinct from the physical character whose story he tells.
Is it a war we are fighting, a war against health, against life and love? My condition is a torn condition. Every day, the dispensing of existence. I see the face of suffering. Its face is fierce and distant and ancient.
There’s probably a straightforward explanation for the impossible weariness I feel. A perfectly straightforward explanation. It is a mortal weariness. Maybe I’m tired of being human, if human is what I am. I’m tired of being human. – pg. 93
So, the story is about a German doctor who participates in the Holocaust activities in Auschwitz. He escapes to Western Europe after the war ends and he then continues to America. He continues working in his profession but with new identities. In the style of this novel, though, all of this is told in reverse. We meet Tod Friendly at the end of his life and follow along as he gets younger, moves to NYC, moves to Western Europe, enters the war, partakes in atrocities, goes to med school, etc.
Telling a story in reverse is really not completely unique. I think a lot of reader-reviewers of this novel bring up works by Philip K. Dick (Counter-Clock World – 1967) and Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five – 1969). I have not read either work, but I am told these are earlier examples, or have samples in them, of reverse chronology. Amis, in this novel’s afterword, tells us that he came up with the idea and it was given more motivation after reading a book given him by a friend.
I think one is supposed to not so much “enjoy” this novel as be impressed with the temporal reversal. And then the juxtaposition throughout of love vs. heinous crime surely has some literary value. Throughout the novel, the Narrator puzzles over the main character’s love affairs and relationships. The relationships are never very successful and seem to be fraught with unhappiness or recklessness. As much as segments of the main character’s life are referenced via names and places, the Narrator and reader compartmentalize these segments based on the love interest(s). Irene, Rosa, Herta, et al.
The psychological ramifications of the main character’s wartime actions are mused over by the Narrator, but confusedly. Since we are going backward in time, the Narrator does not know why there exist these ramifications at all. And the main character goes to lengths to keep a part of himself/his past hidden from other characters. There are scenes and hints that there has been something of a realization of the horrors committed, but nothing more definite can be said. Obviously, the main character is a damaged character, but the reader does not feel any sympathy for him. A forlorn sorrow, maybe.
The interesting parts come into play with the little things. For example, since it all occurs in reverse, a bowel movement changes direction in this story. Instead of paying people for goods and services, we take money from them. Walking and driving is done in reverse – without looking – no wonder the Narrator is amazed by this. Especially, the medical profession seems bizarre – they shove bullets in people, pull stitches out, break bones – all the healing and curative actions in reverse.
The dualism of the Narrator and the main character is problematic. Is this a soul that has been added to whatever is the main character? Is the Narrator a conscience? Is the Narrator the psychological split caused by the main character’s mental traumas? Is the Narrator just a vague storytelling device? It is not worked out thoroughly and none of these answers fit perfectly, which only exacerbates my annoyance with this novel.
Even if appreciative of the effort, I struggled to get through this. Maybe I’m too stuck in my timelines. I was bored, annoyed, I honestly wanted to hit fast-forward (rewind??!) a lot. And Freud….everything in the bedroom, the womb, the oven. Sometimes I wonder how we ever did a blessed thing before Freud told us why we did it. Germans. There is a heavy-hand of Freud in here, I am not even sure it is all intentional by the author.
This isn’t a good review. I feel only a little bad about that because it’s not a great book. It is a decent piece of literary effort designed to be read for experiment and exercise. And the shocking brutality in parts of it just feels superimposed on an already tedious conceit.
Recommended with reservations. For strong readers, for those who are looking for a sort of edgy quirky read. For readers who need a book to fill a category re: Holocaust or German doctors. Niche reading at best.