Time’s Arrow – Martin Amis

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.

Tomcat

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The 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction

The more astute among my readers (that’s both of you: hi mum!) may have noticed that the past four novels I’ve written about (One, Two, Three, Four), all have something in common.  No, they weren’t written by Katie Price under the assumed pen-names of Tom McCarthy and Andrea Levy*; nor were they rescued from imminent pulping by an action-hero Judy Finnegan** (Mr and Mrs Madeley, anyone?).  The unifying factor is: they’ve all been longlisted (is that a verb??) for this year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction.

 “What a coincidence!”, I hear you cry; yet be not so amazed, for the action was deliberate.  I’ve set myself the daunting, un-called for and ostensibly pointless task of reading the entire 2010 Booker Prize longlist before the winner is announced on October 12th.  Return here on October the 11th to read my final thoughts on the nominees, as well as my pre-award show gossip and predictions.  Expect it to be an immoderate furore of well-meaning platitudes and civilised propriety.  Unless Peter Carey arrives at the ceremony drunk and naked, tearing pages out  of Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal and throwing them into the air like so much literary confetti as he declares himself the King of Booker, wearing The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas as a crown.  Don’t look at me that way! It’s possible…Stranger things have happened…

 

The Man Booker Prize, along with the Pulitzer and the Nobel, forms part of the ‘big three’ of literary awards.  It’s a single, annual prize awarded to a full-length novel, in English, written by a citizen of the British Commonwealth (I believe Irish authors are eligible as well).  Despite the patriarchal impression given by its title, both men and women are permitted to enter.  The prefix ‘Man’ is a rider added in 2002 when the Man investment group began to sponsor the prize.

Publishers may enter two novels from their imprint for consideration each year, and books by previous winners are automatically considered.  Judges also reserve the right to ‘call in’ novels which they personally believe are attention-worthy, whether their publishers have entered them into the competition or not.  This year’s most talked-about ‘call in’ is Room by Emma Donoghue, which was requested by the judges before it had even been published; such was the novel’s pre-release hype.

 This year’s booker prize, however, has already become the subject of controversy (that is, if you can call the petty exchanges of bibliophilic dorks ‘controversial’).  The literary press has spent more time discussing what hasn’t been nominated than what has.  And it does strike me as odd that the brilliant Solar by Ian McEwan has been looked-over (surely it couldn’t have been over-looked?) and rejected by the selection committee.  Similarly, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman didn’t make the cut; neither did The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis.  All three are wonderful, accomplished novels; superior, in my opinion, to some of the nominees I’ve thus far encountered.

Perhaps you can infer more from the judges’ omissions than from their inclusions?  These three rejected novels are loaded with risqué, contentious subject matter (global warming, atheism, trans-gender), and it would be easy to accuse the judges of ‘playing it safe’ with their nominations: are they afraid to give the award to a novel that might see them accused of having some kind of agenda? 

Unfortunately for the judges, excluding a book from the longlist is just as much a loaded act of volition as including one.  Maybe they’re deliberately courting controversy by disregarding the more acclaimed books, in a bid to reverse the waning public interest of recent years.  Maybe they’re afraid that nominating Pullman will see them accused of committing to an atheist point of view?  Facile as such concerns may be. 

My greatest fear, however, is that none of these explanations is the correct one; maybe the judges are such terrible arbiters of literary taste that they genuinely  believe Trespass  by Rose Tremain is better than Solar by Ian McEwan.  In which case, they have my pity; subjective as my argument may be.

On the topic of ideal nominations, I would also like to have seen Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds long-listed.  I see no reason why science-fiction should be so disregarded by the Booker judges.  Perhaps giving the nod to a sci-fi novel may challenge the established notion that science-fiction is an esoteric and clichéd genre that lacks depth and literary significance.  Terminal World is insightful, original and very accomplished, and its nomination would only have been a force for good, I feel.

 

Finally, I’d like to make some notes about why I’m doing this.  I’ve always been curious about literary awards.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t let the judges of such prizes dictate to me my taste in books; but I’m intrigued by the influence such people seem to have over the reading public.  It’s easy to rail against institutions like the Booker prize and accuse such awards of being reductive and popularist.  Yet as I perpetually fail to pin-down and understand my own taste in books, maybe I’ll be helped by gauging the responses of other people: looking outward rather than inwards, for once.

 Last year’s winner Wolf Hall enjoyed a frenzied rise in sales and popular attention once it won, and surely it can only be a good thing that Hilary Mantel’s masterwork finally got the attention it deserves, after spending so many months bothering the lower-regions of the bestsellers list.

I’m also intrigued by all the conspiracy theories that surround the award.  It’s even been suggested by the conservative right of the literary world that, in recent years, the amount of ‘minority’ fiction (gay writing, black writing, Afghan writing etc) nominated and awarded the prize is massively disproportionate to the out-put and quality of the niche that produces it, and that a miss-guided agenda of political correctness is fuelling the engines of the judges.  I’ve not read widely enough to make any comment on this, but it interests me nonetheless.

So, I thought that the only way to make an informed and balanced judgement on the Booker prize would be to do exactly what the judges are doing: read every novel on the longlist and decide for myself which is ‘best’.  I’ve already taken issue with the omission of some of my favourite books of the year, and perhaps my frustration at this will be sated by the process of reading the other nominees.  Also, I like a challenge and it’s nice to have some direction to my reading, for once.

 

It’s also going to be difficult.  Not least because my reading technique is that of subvocalisation; by which I mean that when I read, I imagine the full sound and spacing of words, correct to grammar and rhythm.  I can’t help it; it’s how I’ve always read.  I read in my imagination at the same speed I would read aloud to an audience; hence, for me, books are broadcast in ‘real time’, as it were.

What I’m trying to say is: I’m a slow reader.  Sub-vocal, internalised reading has its advantages: apparently it’s more conducive to analysis and understanding, it’s just damn slow.

But thus far, I’m on target to finish just before the award is announced.  I don’t want to jinx my mission, but I should be successful; pending any major life-changes or disruptive incidents. 

I hope that you enjoy (and have enjoyed) my rolling book-by-book reviews of the nominees. As always, comments and criticism are welcome.  Many thanks for reading.

Tomcat.

*It was, at one point, rumoured that Katie Price’s latest ‘novel’ was being considered for nomination; even though her books are actually written by somebody called Rebecca Farnworth.  Thankfully, this rumour turned out to be un-founded.  I may have to check my sources, but isn’t Jordan winning the Booker prize one of the harbingers of the apocalypse?

**After being named ‘the most powerful people in publishing’ by various sources in recent years, it is constantly rumoured that Richard and Judy are going to become judges of the booker prize.  Apparently, it’s only a matter of time.  God help us.  This, of course, would only fuel the miss-guided notion that quantity of sales is equal to quality of product. Which it isn’t – otherwise more people would be talking about ‘The Wire’ and fewer people would talk about ‘Glee’.