I suppose sometimes we'd all like to go backwards to fix things, even when we can't...
Time's Arrow by Martin Amis
Literature (1991 - 165 pp.)
***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***
(Of course, the book spoils itself on the back dust jacket…)
Sometimes a book is reviewed dozens of times, and the reviews say all you meant to say. Your review feels meaningless as a result.
Other times, a book is reviewed dozens of times, and the reviews are completely silent on what you want to say.
The narrative structure has been covered. Backwards conversations that read cogently each way are the closest Martin Amis gets to literary virtuosity. The rest is either novelty or kitsch.
The most interesting aspect of Time’s Arrow is the idea that, as life falls apart, we can somehow track back to that critical moment when we could have fixed it. What if I hadn’t taken out that loan? What if I’d dated that one girl instead of that one other girl? What if I’d flown to Oslo when I had the chance?*
Life presents us with choices all the time. In Time’s Arrow, though, the reader can’t look back. The reader has to experience the life of a deceased German doctor who performed experiments in Auschwitz during World War II in reverse, narrated by a spirit or soul who follows along with the reader and is shocked by the protagonist's life events. Memories are of the future, and new experiences are of the past.
Obvious gimmick aside, along with the more literal interpretations of backwards (such as the oft-cited everything being made of shit), Time’s Arrow makes the ideas of past and future unsettling. One of the book’s famous lines is when the narrator, who is an observer inside the protagonist’s** head, realizes he can never commit suicide no matter how horrible World War II gets. The future has already happened. Our narrator can never look back and wonder what could have been, because it’s already been decided. The railroading of time leads to few opportunities for regret.
Amis is praised for the research he put into Time’s Arrow, most notably his reading on the psychology of Holocaust doctors. The Auschwitz scenes capture the intense mental anguish the narrator feels upon seeing the protagonist’s actions, along with prosaic but no less gut-punching phrases like “It was I, Odilo Unverdorben, who personally removed the pellets of Zyklon B and entrusted them to the pharmacist in his white coat.” Recall when reading this passage that the story happens in reverse.
This leads to the great disappointment of the book, which no other review I’ve read has ever caught. The beginning of the book, or end of the protagonist’s life, happens in 1998,** when the protagonist dies at 81. From 1998-1946, Time’s Arrow follows his life back through senior citizenship, middle age, and then that period people apparently experience in their 30s when they philander constantly. Auschwitz, which all the book’s promotional materials place at the forefront of the book’s importance, doesn’t happen until three quarters of the way through.
One mirrored set of questions remains. It’s the set of questions I slogged through monologues on a retired German-American doctor to see answered.
To the reader and the narrator, where did it all lead? To the historian and the protagonist, where did it all begin?
The protagonist is 22 when World War II begins.*** He is a medical school graduate with a wife by the time he starts participating in the Holocaust. The period of his life from 1939-1917 only lasts about twelve pages. All those memories – or new experiences – of life as a young adult, adolescent and then child in interwar Germany are barely mentioned. They are so formative to the protagonist as a person, yet they are pre-empted by his later life.
Our protagonist is from Solingen, a medium-sized city in Northwestern Germany. After the bizarre backwards rollercoaster ride that goes from waking up in a dead senior’s body through New York City, Portugal, Poland and Germany, shouldn’t there be more wonder at the place where his life started – and ends? Aside from half a paragraph on famous knives and scissors, all Amis can scrounge for information on a city of over 100,000 residents is: “Finally, modest Solingen harbours a proud secret. I’m the only one who happens to know what that secret is. It’s this: Solingen is the birthplace of Adolph Eichmann.” A city where our young protagonist grew up, and where our weary narrator is rewarded for his stunning patience, is reduced to this?
Time’s Arrow is a fun read. It just feels front-heavy and back-light.
And then, to quote from the time when the protagonist assumes the name of John Young during middle age, over a third into the book: “Thank God. He’s out. Like a baby.”
Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 3
*In 2011, in what is still my only ever foray to the Newark, NJ airport, I passed a gate where a plane was about to depart for Oslo. I was carrying my passport, too. My ticket was to Ithaca, NY, where I did go. I probably couldn’t have boarded that Oslo flight at the extreme last minute, but it’s always fun to wonder…
**The protagonist’s name changes so often I simply call him “the protagonist”.
***Time’s Arrow was released in 1991. Why Amis added to the already confusing timeline by placing the start of the book seven years into the future, I’ll never know. I got to this date by adding 81 to the protagonist’s birthdate of 1917. If I’ve made an error here, let me know.