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I am not particularly a fan of Martin Amis, I think he has enough admirers already, but I do appreciate his ability as a writer. When I first read this book I did so with a kind of dismissive attitude because for me the idea of writing or describing a life backwards had already been done on numerous occasions. I remember reading in particular a short story by J.G. Ballard from one of his collections about the events surrounding an individual's life - from the grave to the cradle so to speak. I also believe Harold Pinter used the technique to the same effect in his 1970's stage play "Betrayal". Time's Arrow is another such exercise in backward fiction, it is the story of man's life backwards, that is, the reader experiences time passing in reverse, as the main character heads towards childhood.
The story is set in the USA and tells the story of Tod T Friendly, a medical surgeon. I will not be spoiling the plot if I tell you that Mr Friendly dies in the beginning of a heart attack, for it is the dark secret towards the middle of his life that shadows Amis's witty prose and which is the real focus of the novel. It is nice to read this book without knowing what this dark secret is and if you intend to do so, make sure you avoid reading other reviews on the internet as many unforgivingly give away the whole point of the story.
Amis uses a particular literary technique as if telling the story from the perspective of someone else being inside Tod's head. We the reader are then able to share in this hidden narrator's puzzled observations of a life in reverse gear. You could say it's a type of inner voice that is able to observe and follow Tod's life as he lives it. Some passages suggest that this inner narrator is Tod's own conscience, but it might be nothing more than a literary device that enables Amis to effectively fill his passages with his playful penchant for humorous remarks and witty asides.
This backward tale should make you giggle along the way. Amis sprinkles each page with plenty of dry wit and little observational jokes - his descriptions of getting his car repaired, eating a meal, defecating and having sex will bring a smile or a grimace to your face. The book will also force you to look at things from a different perspective, especially the way morality is turned on its head or the way in which so much beauty in the world starts off as shit for example. How odd it is to witness all relationships starting off in tempestuous bitter arguments and then slowly transforming into pleasant romances - love at last sight you might say. Meanwhile Tod's work as a doctor defies our rational thinking as he heals wounds with knives, implants tumours, stuffs aborted foetuses back into the wombs of screaming Mothers and always makes sure his patients are sick and poorly before he takes away their pills and sends them home. And as each day passes by, Tod himself feels younger and healthier, his body grows stronger and his infirmities and ailments subside.
Although not a difficult book to read, I wouldn't say it is easy, especially when it comes to episodes of dialogue, then you really do have to read the book backwards in order to understand exactly what is being said. Of course you have to suspend your own logic a lot of the time as such a backward world is simply impossible. But Amis's acute observations and descriptive dexterity will keep you turning the pages. At times you might feel that Amis has simply used the backwards literary device as a means by which to attach his metaphorical observations and to impress us with his skilful turn of prose. The book's humour has also been criticised for making light of a serious subject (Tod's dark secret), but it can not be denied that Time's Arrow is an impressive exercise of a very creative imagination.
You know those stories that start at the end, and then go back to the start and fill in how the character got there to start at the end, if you see what I mean? Clever aren't they? Well, in comparison to Time's Arrow, no, they're not clever at all. They're the baby version, playing around the feet of the great master - Amis. Here, in his typically smart-arse clever way, he tells a story backwards the whole way through, with a conscious inner 'soul' being born at the death of an old man, and travelling with him as his wrinkles tighten up, his back straightens, and he heads towards his inevitable birth.
The story is one of Tod Friendly - an old man who apparently nicks things off kids and regurgitates food for cash. Our narrator is inside him, seeing all he sees, living Tod's life with him in real time from death to birth, but unable to change anything, or to understand a lot of what goes on - disgusted at how Tod mutilates his patients and sends them out into the world, bewildered by the women in his life who arrive in a whirl of tears and gradually move further away to acquaintances and nothings. Tod's life is one where everything heralds from the dustbin or the lavatory (and Amis manages to elaborate on that repeatedly, making certain that no reader can escape a vivid mental image of a great big turd leaping up from the toilet bowl and reinserting itself). But however bizarre this sounds, it works.
I'm not a great fan of such heavy devices in writing, they mostly end up feeling contrived after a couple of pages, and ultimately ruining the story. Not so here. It takes a few pages to get into this reverse universe, but once in everything is eaily understood. Many transactions work just as smoothly this way round if we suspend our 'forwards' notions. Everyday occurences take on a grotesque and comical appearance. Tod running away from a lover's husband turns into a beautifully funny scene of him running down the road taking off his trousers, and leaping into bed with the woman as her husband turns the lights out for them.
But there's more to this book than a novel approach, it actually plays with some very serious subject matter. The essence of which is spoilt on the back cover where you are told Tod has Nazi war connections. As you progress it becomes more and more obvious that these memories torture him. But played backwards, those are the noble, good parts of his life. What is Amis trying to say here? Is he just trying to shock us and our modern attitudes to the holocaust - one of our great taboos - by making it a clean thing in a world of filth and incomprehension? With the rebounding of the arrow is he voicing a belief that our lives are set, played out by time with no human free-will or choice? I think his vision was to give us a different angle on all these things. It certainly makes you think, and that's no bad thing. And despite the unrelenting 'backwards' device, it's a very readable book.
Can you imagine how confusing it would be if I wrote this review backwards? You know, started at the end and told you my conclusion first? You wouldn't know what I was concluding about would you? And then, once you'd read the conclusion, the rest of the opinion would become steadily more anti-climactic wouldn't it? Or would it? Perhaps it would make a change and you'd think it was great. Er.......or then, perhaps you wouldn't. Perhaps you'd find it boring. Perhaps you'd just get all confused by the odd narrative and run away, far far away - that's probably what I'd do. And now you're wondering what on earth I'm drivelling on about. I don't blame you. Sorry - I was just wondering you see because somehow I have to tell you about this book, Time's Arrow, which is all about time running backwards. Or backwards to the way you and I see it run anyway, everything is reversed. It's all a*se about the proverbial face if you don't mind me being rude - so I wondered what a backwards review would be like. Don't worry, I'm not going to do it though, I hope you weren't getting excited or anything - oh I know, I know I should be so lucky, huh? Best I just get on with it don't you think? Tod T Friendly begins his existence moments after his death. He died of a heart attack and his life began. His topsy turvy, upside down, back to front life. The first thing he sees are the doctors armed with the cardio-resucitation equipment that failed to save him. Tod is old, very old. His first weeks and months alive are full of confusion. He?s in hospital, his mind wanders and he's confined to his bed. But somewhere inside him exists our narrator - Tod's soul, or spirit, if you like. These two do not always sit easily together, our narrator feels separate - he knows he's inside Tod but Tod is blissfully unaware of anything existing within him. Tod is so old it's not surpr
ising he's confused but Tod's soul is confused because he can see it's all going the wrong way. He knows what way time SHOULD be running. Tod isn't worried but Tod's soul is. Tod has no backwards (or should it be forwards?) memory but his soul does; confused, unclear, dreamlike memories they may be, but that soul knows there is trouble ahead. Tod likes to look up into the night sky at the stars and constellations but his soul doesn't. Something there is linked to the dreams that Tod has, or nightmares rather, and although Tod doesn't recognise a connection his soul does. Tod's nightmares are peopled with children and a ghostly, evil, terrifying figure that is somewhere between a doctor and the devil. He has a secret but he doesn't know it - our narrator does, but doesn't know what it is. What he does know is that it's a terrible secret. Gradually life goes on and Tod gets younger. This world is an odd one - like I said, time is reversed. Imagine eating, imagine cooking the food you'll eat - in fact there isn't much cooking - you just get those scraps right out of the rubbish and off you go. In Tod's world most things spring from the rubbish, or from the incinerator, or I'm afraid, from the bathroom - much is rather gross in fact. His visits to the bathroom are unpleasant, and you can consider THAT one for yourselves - I'm certainly not describing it here, sorry. Suffice it to say that our narrator dreads those morning ablutions and what generally comes after. It's not nice for him, although Tod seems to take it in his stride, an unavoidable evil you might say, but a hum-drum, daily one. Tod goes shopping, but it's to give things back and receive money. Eventually, as he gets younger he has love affairs that start with tears and rows and end on platonic notes - the wrong way round you see. He goes to work; he's a doctor, but it's to create injuries, not cure t
hem. And here lies the rub between Tod and his curiously separate inner being - the person inside Tod hates doctors and everything about them. Why? Well, clearly doctoring in this world is not a happy profession, not for those who can see that things are back to front anyhow - but it's more than that. Something about doctors chills our narrator and makes him feel an awful dread. And why, as we slowly trace Tod?s backwards life, does he need to change identity, moving from city to city and country to country? Much as I'd like to, and much as part of me feels I ought, I'm not telling you any more. I'd just give it all away and there really is an awful lot to give away - you'll just have to trust me on that. There's a big point to this little book, it's not a comedy by any means. And little book it is too, coming in at well under two hundred pages. Martin Amis' Time's Arrow is written in an easy, conversational way - the narrator inside Tod talks straight at you and so it's an accessible, effortless read. Yet it's clever too - Amis has a wide vocabulary and a precise way of using it. I'm not sure how he marries these two things - it's hard to make difficult words easy to read - but somehow he does. Time's Arrow will make you laugh because of the witty, acute, sometimes nasty observation about a world going the wrong way, but at the same time you will find that the book also gives you a nagging sense of foreboding, just like the one its narrator has. And you really, really DO find yourself wanting to know how a life, how Tod's life, will work out in this odd, backwards place. What IS that terrrible secret that Tod doesn?t even know he has? What DO those stars hold in that black night sky? It has to be a good book if it makes you laugh and worry at the same time, doesn't it? My favourite books from many authors are often the early ones. They may not be the masterpi
eces that all those early ones aspired to and worked towards and they are not the darlings of the lit-crit world, or the subjects of admiring undergraduate dissertations. They're rough sometimes and they have flaws. They aren't the seven volumes and thousands of pages of esoteric perfection that is Proust's Temps Perdu. They aren't a final expression and culmination of a talent but what they have is an energy and raw freshness that often get lost along the authorial career path. So they may not receive universal acclaim and the plaudits of the most learned but they are often, in my amateur opinion, a darn sight more accessible and oh, so much more entertaining. But I think Time's Arrow gives the lie to my little theory - it's not an early book. Yet it feels like one - I don't think Amis had lost any of that freshness when he wrote it. I like the pyrotechnic way with words that he has. I like the dry wit, the nasty humour AND the way Amis has of showing it off. He's not a modest writer by any means. And yes - the usual cliché - I think you do always want to turn the page. However, I should warn you that many people, even his own father, Kingsley (yes, THAT Kingsley Amis) find that Amis junior does nothing but trivialise his big themes with all that cleverness. In fact (oh dear, avoid the spoiler Jill) Time's Arrow in particular has been criticised for trivialising something of enormous significance. I don't think those critics are right and I don't think the book trivialises anything either. I just think you should read it. It's good, very good, and all will only become clear if you do. You'll see what I mean, I promise, but I'm not saying another thing. Go get the book. Are you glad I didn't write this backwards? Heehee, just wondering!
In this novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a man's life is portrayed backwards, from death to birth, as are some of the scenes