A few months back I read Amis’s Night Train, and it has stuck in my mind more than most other books I’ve read this year. In those comments, Stewart from booklit recommended Time’s Arrow (1991). I admit, I had first put this book off as a gimmicky, post-modern, literary device that was effective when Kurt Vonnegut used it in Slaugher-house Five but that should not be repeated in order to keep pure the aura of Vonnegut’s magnificent passage, where we witness events in backwards time:
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter plans flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
It’s a fantastic passage, and I didn’t really want to see the technique become a gimmick. But, on Stewart’s good word, I decided to venture into Time’s Arrow.
First things first: I’m glad it was Amis who did this — and, it must be noted, Amis acknowledges Vonnegut’s passage (as well as a story by Isaac Beshevis Singer, which I have no knowledge of). Amis’s style and wit made me forget (almost) that this is really just Vonnegut’s passage expanded to book length. At any rate, it made it so I didn’t care that this was just Vonnegut’s passage expanded to book length. I imagine this must be difficult to pull off, and Amis does it brilliantly.
Here we meet Tod T. Friendly, just as he’s born from death. In his birth, however, he is not alone. The narrator of the book, though he is Friendly, is a separate entity. He’s watching Friendly’s life in reverse. He looks at things from Friendly’s perspective, can feel Friendly’s emotions, but he cannot know Friendly’s thoughts.
The first part of the novel is the progress from senescence to middle-age. The narrator is disoriented; after all, the world doesn’t quite make sense. Amis focuses on the quotidian as he entertains us:
Eating is unattractive too. First I stack the clean plates in the dishwasher, which works okay, I guess, like all my other labor-saving devices, until some fat bastard shows up in his jumpsuit and trumatizes them with his tools. So far so good: then you select a soiled dish, collect some scraps from the garbage, and settle down for a short wait. Varios items get gulped up into my mouth, and after skillfull massage with tongue and teeth I transfer them to the plate for additional sculpture with knife and fork and spoon. . . . Next you fact the laborious business of cooling, of reassembly, of storage, before the return of these foodstuffs to the Superette, where, admittedly, I am promptly and generously reimbursed for my pains. Then you tool down the aisles, with trolley or basket, returning each can and packet to its rightful place.
There are several sly observations: “The Reagan Era, I think, is doing wonders for Tod’s morale.”
And here is one of the parts that really made me chuckle:
Tennis is a pretty dumb game, I’m finding: the fuzzy ball jumps out of the net, or out of the chicken wire at the back of the court, and the four of us bat it around until it is pocketed — quite arbitrarily, it seems to me — by the server.
Perhaps you’ll see that, up till this point, it was all entertaining but really made me question whether that was the only point. Still, there were some beautiful, poetic parts throughout, especially those that deal with relationships:
She’s miserable that it all has to end. Me, I’m miserable that it’s all beginning. By the time we’re on the other side of this, I know (I’m experienced), by the time I’ve become really fond of them and their pretty ways, they will start to recede, irreversibly, fading from me, with the lightest of kisses, the briefest squeeze of the hand, the brush of a stockinged calf beneath the table, a smile. They’ll be fobbing us off with the flowers and the chocolates. Oh yes. I’ve been there. Then, one day, they just look right through you.
The world doesn’t make sense to our narrator: “Now and then, when the night sky is starless, I look up and form the hilarious suspicion that the world will soon start making sense.” All of this confusion, however, leads to a time when the world does make sense. It turns out that Friendly was involved in a grand project: creating a human race from smoke and ashes. It is then that we come to understand why the subtitle of the book — “The Nature of the Offense,” a line from Primo Levi. It is at this point that the book turns from just being very clever to also being very poignant. By reversing cause and effect Amis also reimagines the motives behind one of the ugliest times in human history. By doing this, he adds to the literature of this period by illuminating the nature of evil by presenting its polar opposite. His cleverness and poetry are put to good use.
I believe it’s true and fair to say that in doing this Amis is doing nothing more than what Vonnegut did in his short two-page passage. At least, the basic idea is the same. But that doesn’t make this books less powerful or even less unique in its own way. After all, how many books do we have going forward in time, and even going back and forth in time? Yet we appreciate works in those tired formats when they make us think and feel — and this book does that.