Time's Arrow by Amis, Martin, 1991


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In Time's Arrow author Martin Amis explores one of those rarely used SF tropes, that of a life lived backwards through time. The only other novel that I am aware of in the whole of SF that has tackled this trope in such a full-on manner is Piers Anthony's Bearing an Hourglass, and while that book was at the very least the second-best of his Incarnations of Immortality series (first place going to On a Pale Horse), that is hardly saying much in the grand scheme of things. (See also Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5, where Vonnegut describes the bombers flying backwards over Dresden). But where Anthony's book fails due to a focus on the truly mundane and an overly convenient deus ex machina, Amis succeeds brilliantly by developing his story fully in congruence with the backward flow of time. Amis is a noteworthy mainstream writer of fiction, but the more of his stuff I read, the more I have come to realize that we may have an unsung hero of SF on our hands. That should hardly be surprising, as Amis was a SF reviewer for the U.K. Guardian newspaper and his father was the brilliant author Kingsley Amis; a mainstream writer who wrote in many genres including romance, horror, political/espionage thriller and science fiction, and who also wrote one of the first organized critical books on the use and meaning of SF (New Maps of Hell, review forthcoming).

The main character in Time's Arrow is the personified and fully conscious, conscience of a man named Tod T. Friendly, a broken-down old doctor who works in desperate places to help the needy, but who also fled after World War II from his first "medical" practice in the service of "Uncle Pepi," or Dr. Mengele, in his twins studies lab, and in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkeneau. The story begins at Friendly's death and progresses backwards through Friendly's life; everything in the novel occurs in reverse, save for (most of) the commentary of it's main character, Friendly's conscience (for purposes of clarity here I'll this unnamed entity "the passenger"). The passenger has it's own set of morals, separate from those of Friendly, and much more mature and robustly developed. As an innate part of Friendly's personality one might expect the passenger must have a full understanding of Friendly's history, but this is not the case. The passenger can interpret Friendly's emotions and gut reactions, but has little access to Friendly's mind or memory and cannot control his body. It does however have an inkling of who Friendly is, as it without thought refers to women as "Fraulien," remembers ghost-like images of Mengele in his lab coat and boots, and generally hates doctors. It also understands that it is living Friendly's life backwards, though in multiple places in the text it seems to forget that. In fact, the passenger goes through the book largely clueless about what is to happen, though one gets the impression that it should know. After all, this is the life of its host, and everything it is about to see has already occurred. There certainly is enough foreshadowing here that the passenger must have some inkling of what Friendly has been up to. But either through a real deficit of memory, or because the truth of it all is just so hard to face, the passenger is as much of a member of the audience of Friendly's life as the reader is.

The passenger's job in this story is to figure out the mystery of Tod's life - the life that Friendly has gone to great pains to hide - and it has many questions. For example, why is Tod so full of shame and fear? Why does he hide in his house and refuse to mingle with other people? Why does he burn every letter he receives, including the mysterious letters from the "Reverend Nicholas Kreditor" in New York City that arrive yearly and announces nothing more then the weather is fine there, and that he anticipates that it will continue to remain that way? What is the significance of Tod's dark trunk full of pictures of women? Why is he so kind to random children on the street? Why does Tod, a doctor, practice medicine in such off-the-grid places, like inner city clinics, or in his own seedy apartment performing abortions? Why does Friendly change names and move so frequently? The passenger spends many years observing and analyzing Tod and his life as he moves backwards through time, becoming younger and more vital. Friendly moves around, finding employment here and there as a doctor, bedding as many women as he can along the way. More often than not the passenger is disgusted over the manner that Friendly begins and ends those relationships, and because he is cheating on Irene (the one woman who would stay with him if he asked), but mostly because of who he is and what he does. Remember, the passenger knows he is moving backwards through time, but because of his point of view it sometimes becomes confused:

Mothers bring Tod their babies in the night. Tod discourages this - but he's usually pretty sympathetic. The mothers pay him in antibiotics, which often seems to be the cause of the babies' pain. You have to be cruel to be kind. The babies are no better when they leave, patiently raising hell all the way to the door. And the moms crack up completely: they go out of here wailing. It's understandable. I understand. I know how people disappear. Where do they disappear to? Don't ask that question. Never ask it. It's none of your business. The little children on the street, they get littler and littler. At some point it is thought necessary to confine them to strollers, later to backpacks. Or they are held in the arms and quietly soothed - of course they're sad to be going. In the very last months they cry more than ever. And no longer smile. The mothers then proceed to the hospital. Where else? Two people go into that room, that room with the forceps, the soiled bib. Two go in. But only one comes out. Oh, the poor mothers, you can see how they feel during the long goodbye, the long goodbye to babies.

To the passenger everything that Tod does as a doctor in the United States is the opposite of healing. But as time recedes and the story progresses, Friendly finds himself back in Poland working with Dr. Mengele. Everything that the passenger observes there is the opposite of barbarity. To the passenger's eye Friendly is giving life and saving people. To the passenger Friendly's purpose (then known as Odilo Unverdorben's, his birth name) is to breathe life into dead children, to collect the Zyklon B and bottle it where it can hurt no one, and to conjure a race of people from nothing.

These familial unions and arranged marriages, known as selections on the ramp, were the regular high points of the KZ routine. It is a commonplace to say that the triumph of Aushcwitz was essentially organizational: we found the sacred fire that hides the human heart - and built an autobahn that went there. But how to explain the divine synchronies of the ramp? At the ver moment that the weak and young and old were brought from the Sprinkleroom to the railway station, as good as new, so their menfolk completed the appointed term of labor service and ventured forth to claim them, on the ramp, a trifle disheveled to be sure, but strong and sleek from their regime of hard work and strict diet. As matchmakers, we didn't know the meaning of the word failure; on the ramp, stunning successes were as cheap as spit. When the families coalesced, how their hands and eyes would plead for one another, under our indulgent gaze. We toasted them far into the night. One guard, his knees bent and swaying, played an accordion. Actually we drank like fiends. The stag party on the ramps, and the Kapos, like the groom's best friends, shoving the man into the waiting cart - freshly sprayed with trash and shit - for the journey home.

The effect of this is jarring. The book blurs the line between cause and effect; between beginning and ending. Readers are constantly asked to compare twisted descriptions of creation and destruction that are so different from one another morally that they otherwise would never be compatible. I was constantly saying to myself things like, "OK, he has just put his tie on...no, wait! That means that he hasn't put it on, but he just took it off." The book keeps the readers mind reeling and constantly thinking about things both as mundane as putting on a tie, and as important and as destructive as separating weak Jews from strong as they arrive at concentration camps.

This is an excellent SF story, especially for one produced by a mostly mainstream author. Amis' exploration of this little used trope is excellent, and misses not one single thing, especially if you are willing to accept that the passenger really did not want to face up to Tod's past before he absolutely had to. Some will say that Amis missed the point because he developed Friendly so poorly, only showing parts of his life and never really getting into the nitty-gritty of what drove him to accept the embodiment of evil into his soul so easily, what the true effect of that was on his soul after he escaped, and how he tried to redeem himself later on. But that's not what this book really is about. It's not about Friendly. It's about us as a race, and the passenger is our own wish-fulfillment device. Amis seems to have no trouble accepting that there just are some evil bastards in this world, and that it's not important to us as a society how, or even whether they redeem themselves or express regret. What's important is how we as a society put things back together after these evil bastards have finished making their dark marks on our souls and on the landscape. This is a fantasy novel; it's about reversing the wrongs perpetrated on the world - particularly on the Jews and on children - by the Nazis. In that regard it is a shining success. And if the truth be told, we did get to watch some important events in Tod's life which I thought they were pathetic; perfectly fitting for such a person. For example, the reader is shown Tod's very last and final, abortive, angry and totally unsatisfying sexual encounter. I thought to myself "how appropriate. That was pathetic. Good, because I hate this guy."

Time's Arrow was short-listed for the Booker prize in 1991.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)


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