Given the circumstances, I should probably have written this review before reading the book. Time’s Arrow is a life backwards, but not in the Benjamin Button sense; rather, the book begins with our protagonist’s death in the late 20th Century, and tracks backwards through time to end at his birth some 70 years previous. Counterpoint to this is our narrator, a kind of psychological hitch-hiker. Basically, the narrator is a character living inside the protagonist (but can neither exert control or influence) and who’s forced to experience events backwards. Thus, to our narrator, the world is a baffling and irrational construct which begins with death (“I moved forward, out of the blackest sleep”) and ends with birth – the terrifying entry into the mother’s womb.
Got it? I’m finding the premise surprisingly difficult to explain. Imagine watching a film backwards while somebody describes the action as if it were playing forwards and you’ll have some idea of this book’s narrative throughline. Although the concept is initially baffling, the novel’s opening 50 pages (or so) carry with them a persuasive sense of comedy that lightens the tone and makes the longer-than-average time it takes to acclimatise to the novel’s style more endurable. For example, moments of otherwise mundane experience are lifted into the sphere of the comedic by our narrator’s bizarre inverse chronological perspective: as our narrator sees it, a visit to the doctor consists of an immediate consultation followed by an unexplained hour-long wait in a holding area. Sex is a strange, tufted and clumsy process, the ultimate goal of which is, clearly, to be taken to dinner in a nice restaurant; where food is regurgitated onto cutlery before cooled in ovens and taken to stores where it is exchanged for money etc. etc. These amusing descriptions are augmented by reverse dialogue (much harder to follow than you’d think) which is equal parts funny and frustrating – a conflict that probably explains the novel’s paucity of direct speech. More irritating is Amis’ characteristic tonal smuggishness; whether he’s bombarding the reader with very unusual words (more, it seems, to show-off his learning and belittle his audience than to elucidate or enlighten) or making naff nudge-nudge-wink-wink asides to the reader when, for example, the narrator explains that all relationships begin with horrific arguments and end with awkward “hellos” at parties; too much of the novel’s opening is redolent of some smart-ass joke that Amis doesn’t want the reader in-on.
But emerging from the somewhat clumsy and inchoate first 50 pages is a steadily spreading darkness, a kind of sinister shadow that creeps over and into the narrative, first with occasional negative abstract nouns (‘regret’, ‘deceit’, ‘loss’, ‘exile’) and later with more horrific and grotesque manifestations (nightmares, arguments, violence). Yep, our protagonist harbours an appalling secret about his past (or his future? haha etc./*yawn*), which is only gradually revealed as both reader and narrator journey back through time.
To fast-forward: lots of incidental things happen to our protagonist (of ever changing name) as he becomes younger and younger until we reach the real crux of both the book and his mysterious identity. This aforementioned tonal gloom gets darker and darker until eventually we discover the truth that’s casting its shadow over the text: our protagonist was a Nazi doctor who administered thousands of phenol injections to German Jews in Auschwitz. Of course our narrator can’t discern any sense of horror or crime from the actions of the holocaust; to him it’s all backwards, and so it’s a beautiful and selfless act of creation. As such, the book’s linguistic register is altered to become fittingly biblical: “Our purpose? To dream a race. To make a people from the weather. From thunder and from lightning. With gas, with electricity, with shit, with fire.”
[A note on where I stand re: the aestheticisation of the holocaust]: I’ve always been uncomfortable with artistic representations of the holocaust (especially in literature), not because I adhere to any outré political or moral stringencies, but because I find the numbers and sheer horror involved to be utterly ungraspable. It’s so radically alien to our everyday experience, and six million murders is such an unknowably huge number, that, rather than horror, I’m often beset with a sense of disinterest when I read about it – and this is probably the complete opposite of the intended effect of any piece of holocaust art. I can’t make sense of it (if sense there is to be made). At the same time, however, I don’t hold to an Adornian idiolect of ‘No art out of Auschwitz’ – (a concept I remember an eccentric university lecturer trying to push onto me over and over again). So for me the holocaust isn’t beyond representation, it’s just… difficult.
But Time’s Arrow’s backwards narrative, oddly enough, offers a relatively successful heuristic to the problems of describing the holocaust without simultaneously generating this sense of emotional disconnect. Everything we know about the holocaust becomes a reversal: murder to birth, pain to healing, starvation to growth, imprisonment to freedom; and there’s something undeniably beautiful about destruction that’s undone. For the narrator of Time’s Arrow, the holocaust isn’t a disgrace of history relegated to the past; instead, it never happened and never will. It’s strikingly reminiscent of a scene from Slaughterhouse 5 in which Billy Pilgrim watches old war films backwards.
Of course, the corollary to this interpretation is a more cynical reading that finds the cancelling of the holocaust to be a grossly offensive and dismissive literary act. My counter-point to this argument would be that Amis never asks the reader to ignore or forget the holocaust, rather, he gives us a celebration of the life and vibrancy that was lost, rather than yet-another bleak description of the act of massacre. It’s a bit like feeling grief through looking at photographs as opposed to grief through looking at gravestones. I found this book offers one of the few representations of the holocaust that really got to me with a kick-in-the-guts sense of emotion. The re-birth of a people is incredibly moving purely because it doesn’t wallow in the blatant horror that’s already seared into the minds of the reader from so many other sources.
In other aspects the book is… alright. Characterisation is somewhat lacking, as most of the people we meet are either foils for reverse chronology jokes “my wife gets younger every day” (literally) or cartoonish representations of Nazi evil. The narrator is the only persistent voice, and even his confusion and bewilderment regarding his temporal situation often feels abstract and disinterested, which creates an unnerving sense that he’s not at all real, but merely a funnel through which Amis can pipe his backwards narrative.
On a more pernickety level, the medium of the novel (reading left to right, top to bottom etc) creates problems for the time-in-reverse gimmick – such as: why isn’t the narrator speaking backwards? The aesthetic of the concept is imperfectly realised because it’s so often frustrated by the limits of the form; i.e. the book has to make some kind of sense.
So Time’s Arrow is a neat idea, but whereas the novel’s best bits come from the nature of the backwards narrative as a storytelling gimmick (the aforementioned holocaust in reverse), this is also the source of the book’s most major failings. Sadly you have to plough through a lot of dirt to get to this book’s diamonds. As good as this book is, if you do happen to be looking for an experimental anti-war novel that highlights the senselessness of massacre, you’re probably better sticking to Slaughterhouse 5.