Saturday, July 9, 2011

On "Time's Arrow" by Martin Amis ****

I read about this book a few months ago and thought, I need to read that. It is, admittedly, built largely around a gimmick, and it was the gimmick that appealed to me. But Amis makes the gimmick work. The gimmick is this: the novel is told in reverse. By reverse, I do not mean that we get scenes in reverse order, as in the film Momento. Rather, take the story "Benjamin Button" but place the whole thing into reverse order rather than just the title character. Everyone is getting younger. History is going backward.

Amis describes actions moving in reverse. Dialogue is given, line by line, in reverse. "You're welcome," she said, extending her hands. "Thank you," he said, giving her the box. She put the box in a bag. "This is for you," she said. "No, really, I didn't do anything," he told her. Apparently she took his modesty literally, for she rescinded her offering.

Amis makes the dialogue and the descriptions work, describing them as if going forward even as they move backward. Somehow, even though the conversations are in reverse, they end up making a kind of odd sense, and the actions take on that odd kind of sense as well. In fact, Amis makes it work so well that after reading, I'd inevitably find my mind working in reverse. In a story by another writer I read soon after, in which a character was pregnant, I kept expecting her to become less and less pregnant--no, no, I had to keep reminding myself, that's now how things work: she becomes more pregnant.

What Amis is doing is tracking a man's life as it works backward toward horror and toward innocence. By working back, he gives a whole other perspective to life and to regret. Seizing the day is made all the more impressive when things work away from a breakup toward a romance's start. A character shows up abruptly and disappears gradually, becoming colder with time. As a doctor, the main character mainly helps people get sicker, except when he doesn't, when--in the story's central story-ending events--he helps people rise up from the dead. In this manner, the story becomes one of redemption, taking back evil acts from the past, making evil good.

It's an effective and moving strategy in Amis's adept hands. I loved this book. Alas, because we start at the end and move to the start, it's sole disadvantage was that I knew all that was coming. It was, in essence, predictable. But then again, it may have been predictable in part because of the writer who first brought it to my attention and who mentioned exactly what happens. In that sense, I'm slightly uncertain as to whether the lack of surprise was inherent in the manner of telling or in the manner by which I came to know the story.


Hayley N. Jones said...

*whispers 'it's Martin Amis, not Amos' *end of whisper*

Sounds interesting - Amis has never appealed to me, despite his reputation as a formidable writer, but I may have to try Time's Arrow. If nothing else, I'm always interested in how writers use different devices.

Short Story Reader said...

Thanks for the spelling correction. I'd read one Amis book before and didn't much care for it either, but this one just sounded too intriguing not to try. I'm told "Money" is the one to read.