Kingsley Amis once complained about his son’s writing style, saying it was “Breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, [and] drawing attention to himself.” This is most certainly the case with one of Martin Amis’ most famous novels, Time’s Arrow. In it, Amis uses a whole load of po-mo techniques to describe something that few authors (especially outside of Germany, or ones that aren’t Jewish) dare to write about – Nazi concentration camps in World War 2.
Time’s Arrow is the story of the life of one Doctor Tod T. Friendly, a doctor in America, who has just come back from the dead. Unusual, you may think, but here’s where the fun begins. The entire novel is told backwards – so while we learn about the life of Doctor Friendly, we learn about it from his death to his life. Narrated by an external force that has a connection with the Doctor (a soul? a spirit? a ghost?), we see him grow younger, make his way down the promotions ladder, make his patients sick, and journey across all of America, before finally escaping from Germany.
This hook – the backwards telling of the story – is not just some flashy way for Amis to make his novel stand out from all the others. It does actually serve a purpose. And a very grim one at that. One of the big themes of the book is Tod’s life as a doctor, and the work that they do for the public. When he works in a big American hospital, he tears people apart, and they leave the hospital worse than when the came in. When he works in Auschwitz, however, people leave better than they came in. In fact, Tod is bringing them back to life. This twisted logic actually makes a lot of scary sense when you are reading the novel, and it is terrifying. The backwardsness of the novel also allows Amis to reference unknown events that have had an effect on Tod without having to resort to awkward flashbacks – everything is coming, anyway. As you come crashing to the end of the novel, everything that has happened begins to make perfect sense, as finally discover everything about him.
The other important part of the novel is the narrator. While we never truly know what it is, his (or, I suppose, her) observations about Tod’s life are brilliant. It takes him a while to realise that he is experiencing Tod’s life backwards, but when he does, he takes great pleasure in it. The narrator is very Martin Amis – dry, cynical and sarcastic, and does not always like what Tod does. With the use of this extra level of storytelling, we never truly find out about Tod himself – how he feels about the things he has done, or whether he truly feels regret for all of his terrible crimes.
Martin Amis may not always be the most popular author in the world – recent comments by him about Islamic extremists would indicate that his is not popular right now – but he certainly shows how good he is here. Despite the possibility of flashiness and shallowness (as is often the case with many po-mo novels that are famous because they are different), Time’s Arrow is a book that deserves to be read simply because it is a great read.