Friendly Holocaust–A Review of Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis

8 Jul
“Well, what seems to be the problem?” Tod Friendly’s doctor says to him at the end of the conversation. This is after an entire dialogue that takes place backwards.

And this is the most immediate example of the alternate physics that occur throughout Time’s Arrow. The book follows the observations of a bisected consciousness living inside of the main character, only this other consciousness experiences his entire life in reverse. Like a child, this consciousness is entirely innocent and, for the most part, unaware that physics should operate any other way. The novel often reads like Nabokov meets Vonnegut (or, perhaps, Philip K. Dick, whose novel Counter-Clock World also deals with a world in reverse). However, unlike Dick’s book, this is also a Holocaust novel — something that you wouldn’t know until about two-thirds of the way through if it wasn’t for the jacket synopsis.

This brief novel takes its time acquainting the reader with its reverse-world and all the complexities of the everyday, and Amis is allowed plenty of space to show his creativity with language and imagery. People walk and drive backwards. As mentioned above, they have conversations backwards. They hit their alarm clocks and shoot into bed in the morning and calmly get out of bed to start their day at night. The main character looks for feces in his toilet, sucks it into his body and removes bites of food from his mouth the next day. When he goes to bars, he spends his time dodging women who keep finding him in the crowds. Sex is a necessary foreplay to the main event of tumbling passion that follows. Prostitutes are charitable people who walk you to the end of the street and give you money every time you depart.

If there’s one minor fault in the book, it’s that the technique is doomed to run just a little too thin, even in its brevity, before the idea has time to exercise its full potential. But just when it gets predictable (we can all pretty much guess what the most mundane parts of our day would be like in reverse), we get backwards relationships. Some of them operate like palindromes, fizzling into life and igniting into nonexistence with the same calm flame. But most relationships are terrible in the beginning. As the narrator says, “You get everything on the first date.”

The reversal of conflict that comes with relationships sets us up for the nature of violence. Of violence, he says:

Intellectually I can just about accept that violence is salutary, that violence is good. But I can find nothing in me that assents to its ugliness … A child’s breathless wailing calmed by the firm slap of the father’s hand, a dead ant revived by the careless press of a passing sole, a wounded finger healed and sealed by the knife’s blade …

It’s easy to see where this is going, and because it is delivered so well, we really wish we didn’t know.

Dreams provide foreshadowing, acting as a kind of prophecy for some terrible thing that must happen, but due to the healing power of violence, seems entirely necessary to the narrator. He goes on to describe the crying, displaced Jews, looking for lost people whom they are destined to find again, or those whom they are waiting to return to life.

Once the Holocaust begins with emaciated people being guided into Auschwitz, we learn that the narrator is a guard who will work at the camp. He keeps faith that all of this is necessary, that the feces people collect from the ground will give them sustenance; that they must be beaten to life. As time goes on, we watch prisoners fill out in figure, less despondent as ashes are taken into the incinerators. Bodies are piled into the “sprinkle rooms” bringing loved ones to life so they can meet for the first time. By the time it’s all over, we’re left with a Europe slowly getting better for the Jews. Little by little, they’re awarded more rights, allowed to buy and sell more products. The reverse of genocide would appear to be redemption and salvation.

Ambitious in technique, the novel seems less like a novel of ideas than a novel of a sole idea. And this sole idea, when stripped of the pyrotechnics surrounding it (as brilliant as they are), seems to say little beyond evil reversed makes no evil, which would be good. But it’s hard to suspect that what the book is trying to say is Amis’s main concern. His work has generally been self-reflective in the sense that Nabokov, one of his heroes, said fiction should be—in that it should not enchant you by the personality of the character’s but that it should enchant you by the personality of the writer. In Amis’s book The Information, the reader is told to put the book down and try to guess how each of the four seasons line up with each of the four major literary genres. In Money, a minor character named Martin Amis makes a few appearances. The first-person narrator in London Fields makes no bones about the fact that he’s writing about a love triangle that he is almost directly involved with (that would, I guess, make it a love-square).

In other words, Amis is not a stranger when it comes to addressing the reader, nor is he a stranger to strange techniques and strange subject matter (as in London Fields which features a girl who has a premonition about the man who will someday murder her and decides to make him pay before the deed is even done). He is also not a stranger to dark humor. However, this book has very little humor in it, aside from some observations about the backward nature of reality which offer direct comical contradistinctions to the world we know. But if this is a novel of a sole idea, it could also be said that this is a novel with a sole significant technique. Surely, Amis intended the reader to have this kind of relationship with the book: the narrator, who has experienced none of the story yet knows less than we do about how it will end.

“How many times have I asked myself: when is the world going to start making sense?” the narrator says. “Yet the answer is out there. It is rushing toward me over the uneven ground.”

Though innocent of any alternate reality with an alternate physic, the narrator makes several statements like this. He senses that something is out of joint in the universe even though all the bad things are being corrected. Perhaps this is because he witnesses all good things corrected, as in one early passage:

The kid will be standing there, with flustered mother, with big dad. Tod’ll come on up. The toy, the squeaky duck or whatever, will be offered to him by the smiling child. Tod takes it. And backs away, with what I believe is called a shit-eating grin. The child’s face turns blank, or closes. Both the toy and smile are gone … Can you believe this guy? He’ll take candy from a baby, if there’s fifty cents in it for him.

But if there is any other perspective to gain from this book beside the obvious ones about the nature of good and evil, perhaps it lies in the strange interruption of time that parts of life sometimes offer; things that seem to possess the same nature backwards and forwards. See the following passage that depicts a visit to a museum:

Like writing, paintings seem to hint at a topsy-turvy world in which, so to speak, time’s arrow moves the other way. The invisible speedlines suggest a different nexus of sequence and process.

It would seem that Amis is trying to play directly with the nature of art and reality.

If anything, the novel plays with the nature of fate, since, in reverse, fate has a physical property that is measurable to the reader, at least in the world of this book. Ultimately, one of the big questions that people have to this day is, “Why did the Holocaust happen?” In reverse, even after all the optimism of what the narrator sees as the Holocaust’s healing power has settled, the only thing that seems necessary to ask in that world is, “Why did the Holocaust have to happen?”

I’m reminded of William Gass, who accused people of wanting to view The Holocaust as something a-historical, in other words, something that exists apart from the flow of history–an idea perpetuated in fear that it has happened before and could happen again. Perhaps the novel shows (intentionally or not) that the evil of the Holocaust exists outside of time, this time with the evil occurring before. Whether evil is impending or whether it’s a long gone ghost, it is ultimately unexplainable even in its most extreme.

The book shows that Martin Amis, usually a genius of comedy and jazzing around, is somehow able to jazz around even more while accomplishing something far more serious.


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