Shoot That Poison Arrow...

'Time's Arrow' - Martin Amis

There's a fine line between unworkable gimmick and usable premise sometimes. Imagine getting the idea to write a story but tell it backwards, as Amis has done here. Where would you start? At the end obviously. Or, at the beginning, and write backwards. If you choose to tell it first person, then how do you deal with the question of consciousness of surroundings, and the concept of learning new things.
Martin Amis has chosen a slightly different tack in working this device through, to tell it from the first person but at the same time an objective narrator. Tricky to envisage, I know, but basically Time's Arrow is written from the perspective of someone dwelling within someone else - that way the protagonist's external body has all the trappings of normality in that he can function just as anyone can, but the perception of things is set back: you can learn alongside the anonymous narrator as a multitude of bewildering concepts fall into place. In fact, this method is incredibly engrossing - I read most of it while on the train to and from work, and I really had to pay attention to what I was doing once I alighted. It's a narrative technique that really challenges you while reading.

In fact, as it works out, this system is very succesful. Rather than the traditional plot revelations and new discoveries of a traditional, linear story, in this novel every new thing that is discovered is an explanation for something you've already read: so, for example if Tod Friendly (the main character) starts of by welcoming a girl entering his room by shouting, you can see afterwards the cause of this, the catastrophic argument. While it takes a little time to get your head around the principle in the novel, it actually makes more sense than you expect and you find yourself thoroughly sympathetic with a character that, by the end of the book, you realise you shouldn't have had any sympathy for whatsoever.

It's an incredibly sad book in many ways: with quotes like, "I keep expecting the world to make sense, although I know it never will," your heart pours out to this poor soul (almost literally) that has to suffer such bewilderment at the hands of an unknowing, uncaring host. Even when considered in a 'forward' manner, Tod Friendly doesn't have a particularly happy life and more and more of the reasoning behind this is experienced as the book progresses.

I've ummed and aahed about how much I should let on of the story, but needs must to tell of the focal point of the story. For Tod Friendly is in fact, not Tod Friendly at all. This all-American doctor is actually a German doctor with a faultless English accent which once enabled his assimilation into America from Nazi Germany before the war. Or should I say after, because as the narrative explains, this man escaped at the end of the war to America via Portugal - if you follow the book as is written then almost immediately in part two, you find yourself at the business end of Auschwitz-Birkenau 'creating' thousands upon thousands of Jews...

It's certainly a new way of looking at the Holocaust and one that arrests your attention as to what actually happened. In my opinion, anything that can make you gasp with realisation as the true story makes itself known is worth reading, and this is certainly a worthy cause. The book is very well written (even despite the lack of comparable literature), and the story is compellingly told: I've not really been familiar with much of Amis' work, but based on this book one can certainly state a case for an author who's willing to challenge tradition, perception and expectation. It's not the most perfect novel I've read in terms of execution, but he's set himself a pretty large challenge and for the most part, has matched it.

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