I don't know how I feel that the cover of my copy of Time's Arrow gave the plot away. Not because it ruins the story so much--we know that this Tod Friendly character's a creep, nursing some nasty past or other--but I wonder how I would have received it if I hadn't known already that the scale of evil reached all the way up to the Nazi death camps, if the escalation would have startled me (more), or if I would have found a different perspective on a re-read. (Welp, I guess I also just blew the chance for you to go read it and report back to me. Sorry about that.)
The conceit is that the narrator, whoever that is exactly, is stuck in Tod's body as a traveler, unable to exert his will on it or to see beyond what Tod sees. He perceives time going in reverse, only able to guess at the demons in his host's past until he actually gets there. The narrator opens his eyes and gasps in the man's last decrepit breath, as doctors batter him to sensation on the table. He painfully retraces his backwards way home, slowly getting more vital as he de-ages. He retains a forward-thinking sense of cause and effect, and Amis wrings comic irony from any number of vignettes told from that point of view. Beautiful things are lovingly destroyed, food is masticated into form and returned to the store for money, arguments and hurt feelings are suddenly reconciled with insensitivity or violence, and the toilet and the trash are the benevolent wellsprings and motive forces of humanity. Sometimes the bits are well-written enough that they almost work in either direction, at which point I had to stop and read them again. Even for a short book, and even with the humor,** it got tiring.
And it's a pretty well-worn shtick by the time we get to the real horrorshow, where Friendly finds himself with a proper German name, working under some fictionalized Mengele. He relates Auschwitz as the asshole of the world, and can think of no higher praise. Here, people are nursed from death to health, often with the urgent intervention of the doctor's own hand, and he soars with the good feeling of it. After the war, his story devolves to anticlimax, as the narrator fades away from consciousness toward the innocence of infancy. Amis suggests that Tod's a product of his time, that anyone could be corrupted with his empowerment and influences, but I don't buy it--even as a young man before the war, Tod (now Odilo) reads like some kind of sociopath. I don't think people abuse their wives and terrorize their neighbors just because they're allowed to. Too many of us drift along with the historical tides, but others smile and merrily dig in an oar.
Heavy stuff, and you know what? Enough already. I want to say that the problem here is that Time's Arrow either deals with far too weighty a subject for a gimmick book, or it's far too gimmicky and ironic for a Holocaust book.
Or maybe that's not exactly the right complaint. This backwards thing** is well-suited to terrifying experience, but, I think, it invites a more existential and universal sort of anxiety, giving us readers a rare alternate angle on these nagging questions of what it means to briefly be thinking meat in an incomprehensibly complex universe. I mean, you don't need genocide to make that point.
I found myself fixated on the reality of the narrator. I don't actually think Amis addresses "the rules" to my satisfaction, but he manages to squirrel away from scrutiny because it's such a short book. The speaker knows back from forward, and for that matter, he's stuck working in the language and metaphor we know, which is inevitably built on a foundation of causality... so why does he accept the mode of his experience? (And when he briefly asserts normal time, why doesn't the return to reverse chronology keep bothering him?) And who the hell is he narrating to? What is his perception of elapsed time? Because the continuity of his thought (that is, this short novel) sure makes it seems like he's walking us through a whole backwards life in the space of an hour or two. I settled in my mind that it was not an alien presence talking to us, but some other projection of Tod/Odilo himself. That is, another artifact of the same bolted-together biohardware floating there in space-time, one that is merely perceiving things in a different way, because after all, who the fuck knows the hidden depths of how all this works. And the message here--the holy-shit, make-you-think part that has really kept this novel alive in my mind--is that we can't condemn the widdershins experience for being any more arbitrary and bizarre than this one. We are only along for the ride on time's forward arrow too. The best we can really do is comment.
* Speaking of detached humor, and evil, and layers of irony, oh look, Martin Amis wrote the introduction to the copy of Lolita that I read. Seems fitting.
** It's not the most common one, but I think it's fair to call it a trope. I was tearing through my shelves trying to find it, but once again, the internet was the better tool: the first story I remember reading in this vein was called Divine Madness, by Roger Zelazny (which, I will add, didn't suck). That one got to the scary and sensitive too, and didn't even require awful people doing unimaginable things.