When I was a kid – what would be called a tween now, my brother and I watched Red Dwarf on almost constant repeat. I haven’t watched it in nearly two decades now but it, specifically the episode ‘Backwards’, was for obvious reasons the first thing that came to mind when I first started reading ‘Time’s Arrow’ by Martin Amis.
In ‘Time’s Arrow’ as in the ‘Backwards’ world, Christmas sees people callously taking beloved toys from children, the Second World War sees millions of people being brought back to live and going to the toilet is – if you’re conventionally minded – deeply disturbing.
The novel starts with the death of the main character – or rather the moments fractionally before death as he is dragged into life by an assortment of medical personnel – and works forward, in jumps and starts, to his eventual birth. As an old man, he regurgitates food, scraps grease from his head to sell to the local pharmacy and slowly destroys his beautiful garden. As he grows younger, he acts callously towards those around him at first, then he grows kinder until after a final fizz of excitement, they calmly forever exit his life and his thoughts. And he becomes a doctor – a cruel man who makes relatively well people’s illnesses and injuries steadily worse before kicking them to the curb too. But all the while, he is plagued by mystery – a recurring girlfriend who says she knows his secret, peculiar postcards and dreams of horrors yet to come – and as he repeatedly flees his life, changing his name and travelling east (to New York, then to and across Europe), we realise where he’s going (or coming from) – that he was involved with those millions of people being brought back to life en masse in camps across Poland. After (before) that, the time goes incredibly quickly – his wife becomes steadily more frigid and distant until she disappears from his life, his mother turns up to replace her, and his dreams calm to colours and noises – and then just before the end, he – or perhaps rather the narrator – sees something unexpected: an arrow flying, point first.
It’s a strange book.
The narrator is both the main character and not him at the same time. The narrator exists inside the protagonist’s head and experiences everything he does, but is also separate from him, allowing commentary – and critically to start with, clarification. The narrator performs as our stand-in – aware that time is progressing backwards from “normal” and thus explaining things (like going to the toilet) that would be commonplace to the actual character – but this also distances us from the story: the narrator isn’t privy to the character’s innermost workings and doesn’t know what is to come any more than we do. Through the use of the narrator, we are saved from excess “spoilers” (just those hints and dreams) and we are prevented from identifying too strongly with, or feeling sympathy towards, the character who will in time do/has done horrendous things. Like with Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt in theatre, by being held at a distance, we consider the character and his actions intellectually rather than emotionally.
And there is a fair amount that is worth reacting to emotionally. Before the journey back to Europe and the big reveal, we see him objectifying women and treating them with utter disdain, and towards the end of the novel, we see he is barely kinder to his wife and he reacts coldly to the death of their daughter. But it is, of course, his actions during the war which are the most challenging. That it is happening in reverse – that he is bringing people to life rather than killing them – doesn’t make the events any less horrifying: torture is still torture whether it’s going forwards or backwards. The violence and terror of the final solution remains because it wasn’t just one big act at the end but a series of heinous, dehumanising acts played out over years: that the indignities drop away rather than build over time doesn’t mean the journey is not still atrocious. It is the reverse timeline here more so than the narrator that distances us from the action, and in doing so we are forced to reflect in a new manner on the events with which we are familiar.
What impacted me the most was a notion not explicitly discussed by the narrator in the text – that a universe where time flows backwards is one of ultimate predestination, where cause and effect are utterly devoid of our understanding of them. As Rimmer says in another episode of ‘Red Dwarf’:
It will be happened; it shall be going to be happening; it will be was an event that will have been taken place in the future.
The character in ‘Time’s Arrow‘ has no ability to change his life any more than Lister could change what he had for breakfast yesterday: he is plagued by nightmares for years but can’t change his actions to prevent the source of them. He has, in essence, no free will. This both intrigued me on an intellectual level but also affected me on a more fundamental one – after reading for longer than usual, I felt disorientated on my return to reality, as if my actions didn’t matter: whatever was going to happen would happen however I acted. A very strange feeling indeed!
(It’s a coincidence that I read this book shortly after reading ‘The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August‘ – another book about time (or at least the character’s sense of time) working abnormally. I had planned to read ‘Life After Life‘ next but I think I might go for a book where time progresses in a straight line in a forward direction instead, just for the novelty of it ;))