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June 16, 2010 / schulerbooks

… is Another Man’s Treasure: Time’s Arrow

Done with another expeditious romp in the ball pool of fiction. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis can be read in a flash, but unfortunately can be forgotten in the same time, too. Luckily, you won’t close the novel feeling uncomfortably balmy and fearing that that’s urine you smell on your clothing. Told through Amis’ clueless narrator, who observes time in reverse and develops his own ideas of cause and effect, the story drifts swiftly by on his comical credulity while maintaining an unsettling undercurrent of mystery.

We’re introduced to Tod T. Friendly on his deathbed, waking up to a circle of defeated medical personnel who whisk him back to feeble life, when our narrator’s mistaken take on life begins. The narrator isn’t Friendly, nor is it an omniscient Amis, either. Point of view is Amis’s greatest obstacle, and one I think he couldn’t let stand in the way of his Main Point. One can either accept this tale as an enjoyable experiment that ultimately fails to set a precedent or as a redundant indictment of human evildoing. Without dwelling on this forever, I’ll say that inside Tod T. Friendly is imprisoned an unconscious, but apparently very separate, companion who experiences time backwards.

Considerable intrigue enters Friendly’s retirement in cookie-cutter America when we’re introduced to a venomous female acquaintance and fed bits of whispery correspondence with some legal counsel. It appears that Friendly’s quiet living is more of a defense than a result of exhaustion or lack of imagination. Youth progresses and more of Friendly’s sins and secrets are revealed, here and there astonishing and alienating his unconscious companion, whose casualness rarely breaks given that he has nothing else to relate to. We’re treated to beautiful images of whimsy – construction workers painstakingly demolish buildings, garbage men fill garbage cans with filth that is picked up piece by piece by passersby. Friendly is a doctor who, according to the voice inside his head, mutilates patients, sending them off to be healed by periods of sickness or moments of injury. The narrator’s naiveté elevates the subject matter from its tedium and sullenness. Amis blesses him with a gift for the absurd as adroit as the Coen brothers’, but never as condemnatory or hopeless in tone. Friendly’s frequent encounters with women are the most curiously treated scenarios; the narrator finding nothing sensible to make of male-female relations.

It’s easy to predict the trajectory of Friendly’s life if you give the novel more than a brief glance. His later life echoes with the gunshot that brought him to America. The narrator tags along like a child, not missing any details, leaving his comfortable American confines for increasingly miserable surroundings. When he finally leaves for post-WWII Europe, our suppositions are confirmed about Friendly’s shadowy past. Consider that his name is no longer Tod T. Friendly. Unfortunately, by the time Friendly arrives in Europe, where his most formative years happen, the narrator has advanced comparably in age. The narration becomes drier, more philosophical, and tired as Friendly de-ages and becomes a hardheaded youngster. Right when we want the narration to be vigorous and curious, it shrivels up and ponders only more abstract ideas. In a way this attitude better serves Amis’ purpose. His mild observations of places like Auschwitz and Birkenau give the story a cold, documentary feel, which is really the only way to describe what went on there.

Is it worth a look?

Without the weighty subject matter Time’s Arrow is more of a goofy little experiment, and like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a fun challenge for the writer to authenticate. Amis does a good job making us suspend our disbelief but occasionally, like when his narrator learns to decipher human speech, his plot holes shine like flashlights in our eyes. Doesn’t his narrator find it odd that people speak backwards when he dreams conversation in the correct order? Wouldn’t he put two and two together, especially when he gets regularly confused by human conduct? Or maybe the narrator is simply doing a good job of suppressing his fears, refusing to admit that he may be mad. I suppose it’s admirable that Amis addresses this inconsistency openly.

If there were any way to breathe new life into one of the dreariest chapters in world history without doing it Quentin Tarantino-style, Amis found the way. It’s odd to see his character witness the Cold War, Vietnam, and the Civil Rights Movement (a.k.a. the golden age of U.S. assassinations) without batting an eye, but I suppose if I had a hand in the Holocaust I would be equally self-absorbed. Amis’ take on the Holocaust doesn’t serve to make it any more horrific. Told forwards or backwards it’s just as infuriating, and personally I’d prefer something with a bit more insight into its cause. Yes, I understand Hitler, the Big Lie and related propaganda, longstanding ethnic hatred, and bitterness over WWI, but how could this really have boiled over within a decade of human history? Amis is a novelist and he tells an interesting story. Maybe I’ll have to check out some non-fiction next time.

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One Comment

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  1. caroweathers / Jul 13 2010 6:11 am

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