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Life begins at death
Time's Arrow - Martin Amis
Member Name: melee679
Time's Arrow - Martin Amis
Date: 25/01/05, updated on 01/02/05 (1973 review reads)
Advantages: good writing
Disadvantages: too clever-clogsy at points
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.