Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Book 6: Time’s Arrow

By Martin Amis (1991)

This is probably my third Martin Amis book. I was curious about Time’s Arrow mainly because it’s known as his “backwards” novel. Using Memento-style reverse chronology isn’t exactly an original literary device, as writers such as JG Ballard and Philip K Dick (faves amongst you 50-bookers) have used this gimmick in earlier works. But unlike them, this backwards novel was short-listed for the Booker prize.

As I’ve been meaning to read this book for several years, I had mostly forgotten what the premise was about, which was a good thing. The original title was supposed to be “The Nature of the Offense” and the story begins with the awakening of an old man in a U.S. hospital surrounded by doctors. From there, the reader quickly grasps that the novel is starting from the protagonist’s death and moving backwards in time, and soon learns that this man has been harboring a terrible and long buried secret. As the story regresses through the man’s life, he becomes younger and younger, goes through a couple of identity changes, returns to Europe, WWII is ending... or is it just beginning? And the reverse structure of the book begins to make sense.

Amis takes full advantage of the backwards device to reveal his crafty talents and show off his usual detached and savage irony. He even has a bit of fun sometimes:

The other guy stared at us, with raised, churning face. Then he did some shouting and strode out of there – though he paused, and thoughtfully dimmed the lights, as he left the room. We heard his boots on the stairs. The lady clutched me.
“My husband!” she explained.

Also interestingly was how Amis used the protagonist’s detached soul as the 3rd person narrator for the entire novel except for one section: when we finally arrive at where the nature of the offense took place. Only then does the novel switch to the 1st person. Once the protagonist reaches his younger state of innocence does the novel return to his detached and passive “inner soul” as narrator.

Amis can be known as a cold, pretentious and meta-fictional English writer, but the books I’ve read, like "London Fields" and "Other People: A Mystery", have always managed to surprise me in its twists and provoke some critical thoughts out of me. "Time’s Arrow" has definitely been one of the more interesting reads I’ve had in the past couple of years.


Olman Feelyus said...

I've become so lazy these days that a book like this, in the way you've described it, sounds like I might not get around to it. Even if it becomes thought-provoking and rich by the time you're done, if it's sort of dry and distant along the way, it's not holding my attention. The narrative structure does sound very effective, of making the guilt more real to the reader by switching the perspective at the last (or first) moment. Nice review.

beemused said...

In this book, the moments of ironic thought-provoking richness and the novelty of experiencing an unfamiliar structure overcomes the dry distantness that's part of Amis' style. Another plus is that Time's Arrow is tight and short.