on April 13, 1999
From beginning to end, Amis has managed to sustain a wonderful conceit: the inversion of time. The idea isn't original but this execution is complete and nearly perfect. Yes, the story somewhat pays homage to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five but it is a weak parallel. Slaughterhouse-Five is a book where time is treated non-linearly and yet the narrative follows more or less the conventional marching forward. A better example really is T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone where a major character lives backwards in time. Merlin comes from the future, converges towards the age of young King Arthur and sweeps past into the past.
In Time's Arrow, the narrator from the very first words "I moved forward, out of the blackest sleep, ..." experiences time inverted. From death to birth, the narrator must learn of the past by experiencing the world - he is naive as to the events of the past - day-by-day inside Tod's body (growing younger). Tod is the Nazi war criminal whose secret life unfolds - backwards. Oddly, the narrator appears naive has he is forced to speculate on the past based only on his knowledge of the present and future. He does not know the past. And he is often wrong, just as we are in predicting the future.
Perhaps the most puzzingly aspect of the novel is the identity of the narrator. The narrator may be the protagonist or may be not ...It is ambiguous. Certainly, the narrator "rides" in the head of Tod Friendly (and his aliases) but he experiences the world mechanically like a closed circuit security camera. The narrator can only see and smell and hear what Tod sees and smells and hears. The narrator can not experience the thoughts or emotions of Tod. Strange but very rewarding. The narrator does see Tod's dreams. All very disorienting.
But the de-familiarization of this backwards world has a peculiar effect on the re-telling of the atrocities of Auschwitz. Simply, narrator cuts through this horrifyingly familiar world of evil and allows the reader to ponder it as new - just as the naive narrator encounters it all for the first time.
In short, this is a great book not because of its virtuosity in creating an inverted world, but by opening up a new possibility in literature. Why not tell stories backwards? Knowing what we know now, can we predict the past? Funnily enough, the world of science - geology, biology - is all too familiar with this novelty. It is only in literature where time must march forward.
on January 11, 2007
At the moment of Dr Tod T. Friendly's death, a consciousness is born and then witnesses the doctor's entire life - lived backwards. The voice trails the doctor through his early retirement, his last years of work and degenerating relationships, then back through his heyday as a surgeon, his life in New York, various name changes, and then back via ship to postwar Europe. At first nothing seems to make sense for the narrating consciousness: people are talking and walking backwards; relationships begin with tearful meetings and slapped faces and end with coy moments in hospital corridors; mysterious, coded letters emerge from the flames of the fireplace; and the doctor and his colleagues work passionately at making healthy people sick, or wounding them and throwing them into ambulances to be taken back onto the streets. But finally, when we follow the good doctor back to his time at Auschwitz, life begins to make sense at last. There, he and his colleagues are doing something wonderful: they are creating the Jewish race. Pulling smoke and ashes from the sky, assembling the debris into human beings, bringing them to life with gas, letting them work their way into health, then uniting them with family members and sending them off by train to flourish in the towns and cities of Europe... What at first seems like a rather trivial exercise in literary game-playing - the conceit of narrating a life lived backwards - becomes, in fact, the device which enables Amis to deliver one of the most effective and affecting condemnations of the Holocaust without writing a single word against it. By showing it in reverse - by inverting its objectives, its sequence and its consequences - Amis renders the Nazi program in all its grotesque obscenity. The camps are plainly revealed as the sickening inversion, the opposite, of everything good in the world: love, decency, creativity, freedom. Many have noted that these places, these crimes, have an existential meaning beyond politics or shock or pity. They have become symbols of our own inturned nihilism. As Peter Handke has explained, the idea of the camps is so compelling for us because in them the whole of life's demonic undertow has found, at last, its specific image. Amis draws it clearly - he shows us how and why Handke's statement is true, and that makes this bold and striking novel essential reading.
on January 9, 1997
In Time's Arrow, British novelist Martin Amis begins with the death of Dr. Tod Friendly and then traces his life--backwards--into his sinister past. Though the outlandish premise of time running backwards wears thin at times, the story Amis tells is compelling enough to keep the reader interested until the very end...or beginning.
¶Make no mistake, this book is weird. Amis maintains the backwards motif scrupulously, with dialogues printed in reverse order (Amis' one concession to the reader is to render the individual sentences forward) and every event described backwards. For instance: to eat,
"You select a soiled dish, collect some scraps from the garbage, and settle down for a short wait. Various items get gulped up into my mouth, and after skillful massage with tongue and teeth I transfer them to the plate for additional sculpture with knife and fork and spoon."
¶The narrator is not Tod himself, exactly, but a sort of secondary consciousness, a spectator who is independent from Tod's thoughts but hostage inside his body. Amis never explains the peculiar identity of his narrator, who views the reverse unfolding of Tod's life as a forward-moving story.
¶Amis uses the backwards perspective to showcase his powers of description. The narrator's ingenious explanations of everyday processes reversed, like eating, are pearls of smart, funny writing. His adept usage of the gleefully oblivious narrator results in delicious irony, as in this exposition on taxis:
"This business with the yellow cabs, it sure looks like an unimprovable deal. They're always there when you need one, even in the rain or when the theaters are closing. They pay you up front, no questions asked. They always know where you're going. They're great. No wonder we stand there, for hours on end, waving goodbye, or saluting--saluting this fine service. The streets are full of people with their arms raised, drenched and weary, thanking the yellow cabs."
By looking at the world backwards, Amis offers uncommon but resonant observations on the way it functions. Following a story told backwards is a formidable challenge for the reader, though; it makes the head spin at first. Only after much reading do the rhythms of this world of reverse causation start to make sense.
¶It becomes clear early in the book that something is seriously wrong with Tod's life. Ominous signs are everywhere; Tod's many relationships with women, dysfunctional backwards or forwards, suggest he has serious emotional problems. Shortly before (after?) his death, one girlfriend harasses him about "his secret." The readers move onward, conscious that they are getting ever closer to the answers in Tod's past. Amis' structuring of the story to provide suspense through foreshadowing (or after-shadowing?) is masterful. By reversing causality, he turns all principles of literary development on their head. We see the endings first and anticipate the beginnings; we seek the causes of events, not their results.
¶Why tell a story backwards? The text suggests a few answers early on. Recounting a life backwards invites the reader to ask where the life is going. At times, it seems that Amis' message is that the life does not make any progress. The end of Friendly's life is decidedly inauspicious; did he accomplish anything? Through the ultimate futility of all Friendly's personal relations, Amis hints that run either way, life lacks real direction:
"I have noticed in the past, of course, that most conversations would make much better sense if you ran them backward. But with this man-woman stuff, you could run them anyway you liked--and still get no further forward."
¶The more positive side of the reversal is that it highlights the good parts of life people are apt to miss going forward. Like the dead in Our Town, who recognize how precious and fleeting life is, the narrator rebukes Friendly for not enjoying his "improvement" in health as he gets younger. For better or worse, the reversal offers a new perspective on life and a new way of evaluating it.
¶The narrator moves with Tod through a series of identity changes, over into Europe, and ultimately to the darkness which haunts all that proceeds it: Tod (really named Odilo) works as a "doctor" at Auschwitz. The narrator describes the obscene murder and brutality which Tod oversees, but in the same cheerfully uncomprehending manner as before. For the narrator, the laws of reverse causation are in effect: the officers at the camp are creating a people, using fire and gas--dead men are taken from the pile outside, Tod extracts poisons from them with a syringe, and they come back to life. Suddenly, the accustomed irony of the narrator's descriptions has become unbearably bitter; for instance: "I saw the old Jew struggle to the surface of the deep latrine, how he splashed and struggled into life, and was hoisted out by the jubilant guards, his clothes cleansed by the mire." Amis achieves the desired effect: by describing the atrocities obliquely, through the upbeat, backwards narrator, the impact on the reader is more painful than it could be with a direct description.
¶Now we understand the primary significance of the book's backwardness. The Holocaust was the ultimate repudiation and reversal of human morality. Its world of gas chambers and crematoriums was obscenely wrong, still inconceivable to most people even today. For the narrator, of course, it was the only world which made sense--a happy world, dedicated to feeding the Jews, joining their families together, giving them property, rights, and even life. Only in a backwards world where taking is giving, where destruction is creation can the Holocaust make sense.
¶Now the puzzle of Tod's later life all fits together; even his assumed name acquires a new significance, if one knows that "Tod" is German for death. "Tod Friendly" represents the two phases of his life: the German years occupied with death, followed by the desperate friendliness he offered as atonement. But Amis makes clear that the "Friendly" years can never erase his sins; he is tied to them by the unbreakable line of time. And though following a story backwards can border on tedious at moments, Amis' sharp writing, intriguing story line, and disturbing study of the Holocaust keep the reader following the trail of the arrow.
on November 5, 1999
When I first picked up this book, I was worried that the whole "backwards time thing" would be just another literary gimmick with no depth. Then I started reading it -- and found myself sitting around the house unable to remember whether I was supposed to tie my shoes or put them on first... and a friend of mine said, when she read it, that she "would wake up in the middle of the night having to consciously think about which direction time was going."
To my mind, this psychological/temporal craziness makes a certain kind of unthinkability real (in literary form) -- and thus makes the mindset of Nazi (or any) atrocity real in a way that conventional wisdom, with its constant labelling of all atrocity as committed by some "evil other," could never do.
The fact that one would have to so maul the basic temporality of existence just to get into the head of the committer of atrocity and have it make any sense at all is incredibly powerful.
What's more, the incredible horrific irony of many of the actual medical scenes breaks down (at least in this reader) any possibility of "desensitization to violence." All I had to do was think of dead Jews piled in a room, then filled with the "life-giving Zyklon-B" and shipped back to idyllic homelands, to shock me into feeling the true horror of genocidal politics.
on November 1, 1999
Time's Arrow describes the life of a Nazi before, during and after World War II. The story is told backwards (hence the title), so the book begins with the death of the main character (living a country doctor'life in the US), commences with all the horror stories of the concentration camps in wratime Germany and ends with birth. The remarkable aspect of the story is that it is indeed told backwards: it's not just a set of chapters put in reverse order, but it is told by a spectator withijn the main character, who experiences everything in reverse order. For everyone interested in the human aspects of World War II, and for everyone who can enjoy a highly original book, this is a book you should not miss.
It is perhaps Martin Amis greatest misfortune that in decade plus since he wrote Time's Arrow telling tales backwards has become so in vogue. Following the film Memento, movies and novels both have grasped on to the device, sometimes using it well where it fits, more often just relying on it to make a story seem more clever than it is. Yet few tales better suit the backwards telling of a tale than Time's Arrow, which begins at the death of an American doctor, Todd Friendly, where an errant spirit enters him at death and proceeds to live his life in reverse. Some reviewers oddly complain that there is not enough explanation as to the why of this premise -- as if most modern stories suffer from lack of explosition! -- but that is far from the point.
Amis here tackles one of the Herculean tasks of writing -- finding a wholly original way to examine perhaps the most over examined topic of the second half of the 20th century. Guided only by Dr. Friendly's "second spirit" we live the whole of his life in reverse as the narrator tries to understand a world where people derive sustenance from toilets and garbage pails regurgitate at meals, and eventually return perfectly formed food to the super market. So to Amis explores the perverse notion of Nazism, the taking of ash and teeth to build human beings, first molding them in ovens, then applying gas to return them to life, slowly tending them back towards health, eventually sending them off into the world with possessions and dignity gifted to them by their creators.
Obviously by its nature the novel must dwell on this single device. Not only does Amis use it to the fullest, but to his credit he understands that it cannot take him past 200 pages, so he keeps the tale mercifully short, rarely belaboring his premise. As one can see, some loved this novel, others hated it. At less than 180 pages, any reader can pick it up and judge for themselves.
on December 6, 2006
Tod Friendly, a doctor living in the US, dies. Somehow an alter ego of Dr. Friendly is born during his death and proceeds to live his life backwards. He watches people walk backwards and talk backwards as he lives Friendly's life in reverse all the way back to his birth. We find out that the good doctor hides a horrible secret in his past-He was a Holocaust Doctor who experimented on Jews and others at Auschwitz during World War 2.
Amis uses this unique approach and it works well until the very end which I thought got a little too mystical for me. It is a short book (I agree with others who say that any longer and the backwards-in-time trick would've been a bit much) that is at time hilarious and powerful. Reading the section about his experimentations on the prisoners in Aushwitz was horrible, and the irony of the whole situation (since the doctor's alter ego is watching it backward, he believes that many Jews were actually brought to life by the death camp) is not lost at all. I highly recommend it.
on April 22, 2000
In fact, you may want to back up towards this book, shielding your eyes from the back cover and any glowing comments in the first few pages. Also, stop reading all reviews! Otherwise you may well diminish your enjoyment of the book and rob it of some of its force. Once you become accustomed to what others have unfortunately called the book's "gimmick," be prepared for a story that acts like involuntary invasive surgery, by turns numbing and shocking your heart. If you don't feel this book, then you aren't chewing your food properly. Open up...
on December 18, 2014
I found this book hard to get into at first, but liked it more and more as time when on (or back... Heh.).
It's a very odd book, for sure. The narrator seems to switch between seeing how time happens in reverse, but then switching to perceiving time as moving forward and taking what he sees literally, depending on his emotional needs, dictated by what he's witnessing. It's overall a very cool effect, if difficult to explain. I'm impressed, though. I've certainly never read anything like it before. I like it enough to where I've decided to order a few more Amis books, this being the first of his I've ever read.
on March 17, 2006
One reviewer said "the backwards novel as a literary trick is a bit cheap, and using the Holocaust is possibly cheaper"
I think this misses the point. The backwards novel is used entirely because the Holocaust is the subject, not just randomly alongside it as another trick.
The editorial review above nails it. How can you make sense of the Holocaust? Only backwards. How can Amis sneak the horror of the Holocaust past your baggage of knowledge about it? Backwards.
What was getting better is getting worse, what was getting worse is getting better. That is the new perspective that lets us see again, as if for the first time.