Sunday, March 6, 2016

Time's ArrowTime's Arrow by Martin Amis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Beneath the clock was an enormous arrow, on which was printed 'Change Here For Eastern Trains.' But time had no arrow, not here."

Martin Amis's Time's Arrow (1991) is, for the most part, a one-gimmick book. This would normally turn me off and it is not easy to explain why in fact I like this novel. Yes, it is well written, but I am finding several problems with the overall concept so there must be something more than just the accomplished prose: probably it is the emphasis on the time dimension of human life - seemingly the main theme of the novel - which made me pay close attention and appreciate the book .

My other difficulty in reviewing Time's Arrow is that I do not want to divulge the ending (if one can call the final one-third of the book "the ending"), when it is precisely the ending that gives the novel the meaning that transcends the gimmick. Without the last third the novel would be reduced to just an amusing contrivance and would not deserve much attention.

The novel tells the life story of one Tod T. Friendly in quite an unusual way: the story begins at the moment of Tod's death and then goes backward in time to the moment of his birth, covering roughly the period from about 1990 to 1917. To make it clear: it is not just the story that moves backward; instead, the narrator participates in Tod's life lived backwards, with the reverse direction of time treated with full seriousness. Not only the years move in the reverse order, but also people move backwards (from our point of view) when they walk, the customers give items to the cashier in a store and receive money for them when they buy things, and food moves from people's stomachs and mouths onto the plates. Tod is a doctor so some of his work involves putting tumors into the patient bodies so that they could go home sad and scared. Lines of dialogue presented in reverse order are fun, substantially more fun than vomiting or defecation done backwards.

The backward motion in time leads the reader to learn about events so horrible that - if I understand the author's intention - only the insanity of the time's arrow reversal could explain them. Here lies one of my problems with the novel. I do not believe that one needs to suspend the laws of physics to explain humans committing atrocities of the most unimaginable nature. Human beings have been inclined to savagery and barbarity from the very dawn of their history. Everybody should by scared by what humans are able to do to other humans.

My second objection is that the redemptive value of the last part of the novel does not compensate for the indulgently overlong - 110 pages or so - main part that focuses solely on the time reversal trick. That part is simply amusing and because of its sheer volume it overshadows the powerful message of the conclusion.

Finally, my third - technical and minor - problem with the time reversal setup: the technique works fine for a lot of everyday observable activities, which are reversible, at least in mechanical sense. However, there are activities that are irreversible, like thought and speech. We enter the issue of granularity of reversibility: even Mr. Friendly notices that people speaking backwards sound like birds chirping. I love the "shtib" and the "Aid ut oo y'rrah?" shtick. It is really funny! But completely reversed language, including the "language of thought", would have no meaning whatsoever as the granules of meaning are not reversible.

Still, I recommend the novel as a one-of-a-kind, courageous, and failed experiment. And the message that it carries is powerful enough without the time reversal.

Three stars.

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