Time’s Arrow – Martin Amis

Time’s Arrow is a smart book. It’s really really smart, and it knows that it’s smart. It knows that you know it’s smart. Okay, that’s settled.

So, is it any good?

Well, let’s take a look, shall we? Hm? Eh? Yeah.

The first thing you’re gonna notice about Time’s Arrow is that it’s backwards. This is the story of a man with a passenger inside, a sort of psychic doppelganger born at the moment of death and traveling back through the life of its host until birth snuffs him out once again. Now, that’s a hell of a gimmick, the sort of thing that a lot of people might attempt and fail to carry off. The great triumph of Time’s Arrow is that Amis commits to the conceit one hundred percent, and never fails to convince the reader that this is really happening. It’s so expertly done that you start to lose your grip on reality after immersing yourself in the book for too long. You’ll put it down and stand up and start to panic for a moment, realizing that, for an instant, you’re not quite sure how the world really works.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, any piece of prose that can cast a spell that convincing, that enchanting, is beyond a doubt successful. If you’re at all interested at this point, I would recommend that you stop reading this review right now and go find the book. Don’t read anything else about it, don’t read the back of the book, don’t read the dust jacket, just plunge in. Because this story has a big gnarly surprise waiting knotted in the middle. Unfortunately, by the nature of publishing, this surprise must be spoiled to sell that the thing. I do feel, however, that the piece would work better if you allow it to take you unawares.

If you really gotta know what the spoiler is, or have already read the book, read on to see what I think about the actual story.

Okay. Still here?

Time’s Arrow is about the Holocaust. The vehicle whose life our doppelganger protagonist mirrors is that of a former Nazi doctor who escaped detection and lived out his life in the American medical profession, haunted by the memories of what he had seen and done. The nifty thing about the book is that our main character does not know this. It knows what its host feels, but it cannot see his memories. And so the book builds and builds, prompted on by dark dreams and fearful dysfunction, and always lurking on the horizon is the mysterious and evil past of the man, and grim future for his passenger.

But there’s more going on here than just running the film backward just because it’s a neat trick. There is a reason. Time’s Arrow, more than anything, is an attempt to make sense of a senseless event. An attempt to understand something so hideous and foul that it exists beyond our comprehension. Now, in order to work, the book relies, somewhat tenuously, upon the continuing ignorance of our doppelganger. Throughout the story it gains a skewed understanding of the world. Doctors are evil, because – from its perspective – people who are feeling well come to see doctors and leave sick. Pimps are good because they distributed money to prostitutes and ask for nothing in return. Litter is carefully distributed by government workers and haphazardly cleaned up again throughout the day by pedestrians. It’s fun to read, and it does make you think. It could go on in this way as a social satire without tackling the Holocaust and still be a pretty compelling work. Our protagonist’s stubborn ignorance, however implausible, does pay off once we’ve rewound the clock all the way back to Auschwitz. At last, the world makes sense. At last, he is doing good.

The doppelganger looks on proudly as its host carefully and steadily works to craft an entire race of people, drawing their bodies from the fire and sucking out the various gasses or injections to restore them to life. Their families carefully reassembled on the ramps of trucks and train platforms, they are sent out into the world to make a place for themselves.

This is chilling, grim stuff, made all the more disconcerting by how sensible it seems to our ignorant protagonist. Only in a world running backwards could such a thing make any kind of sense.

And that, at the most basic form, is the point of the book.

Thing is, I didn’t really need a book to tell me that.

In the end, I’m of two minds on this one. It feels a touch longer than it should be, but it also feels at times as though it’s simply skimming the surface of the story, as though it needed to be either longer or shorter. I’m also not sure the Holocaust material is necessary, oddly enough given that it’s the entire reason for the book existing. I almost feel that the first half of the book could have worked well enough on its own as a sort of ironic satire. But maybe taking out that sense of looming menace would have cut the legs out from under the thing… I don’t know.

It feels like a novel on the cusp of greatness, but not entirely realized. It was a trip, and it’s got some killer prose… I guess I’d recommend it. It’s unique, I’ll give it that, and it does pack a punch at times. And yet…

It’s a success, and a feast for the mind, but there is a lingering aftertaste of failure.

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