In reverse

Frank Kermode

  • Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis
    Cape, 176 pp, £12.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 224 03093 0

A story can be told in almost any order except backwards. Gérard Genette’s impressive catalogue of ‘anachronies’, of all the ways you can destabilise or re-order narrative chronology, does not provide for the complete reversal of narrative flow.

The White Queen claims that she lives backwards, and that her ‘memory works both ways’ – she remembers best the things that happened the week after next. In her world punishment precedes trial and the crime comes last of all. This gives her an advantage over Alice, who has to admit that she can’t remember things before they happen. We are nevertheless on Alice’s side and not the Queen’s; we recognise the Queen’s position as at best a trick or regal paradox, for it is actually presented to us in the order in which information, however absurd, normally is presented to us, even, so far as I know, in Science Fiction.

Martin Amis’s new novel has to do with a looking-glass world – its timeflow, as the title implies, is White Queen-wise, backwards, or professes to be. It remembers what happened the week after next, but it also remembers, at least in general terms, what has already occurred and must therefore be about to occur last week and beyond that. Since novels are expected to bear at least some relation to a world we know, it seemed prudent to inquire what the learned had to say about a world in which such a situation was deemed to be possible. So I looked into G.J. Whitrow’s book, The Natural Philosophy of Time, which probably isn’t for philosophers, though I’m afraid it is for me, the last word on the subject.

Whitrow reports many speculations as to what a world would be like in which time ran backwards, the direction of its arrow reversed – a universe the mirror-image of the one we live in, a ‘time-reflection’. In such a world, F.H. Bradley argued, ‘death would come before birth, the blow would follow the wound, and all must seem irrational.’ Others demur: is ‘irrational’ exactly what the White Queen sounds when she cries out and bleeds before she pricks herself? A world in which the sentence precedes the trial and the crime follows that is certainly not the one we feel at home in, but must it be called ‘irrational’? Living in such a world, rather than looking at it from the other side of the time-mirror, we might very well not find it so: it could seem just as usual as the one we have, in which things happen the other way round. But Whitrow himself firmly dismisses that supposition. He says that in a time-reversed world memory would be replaced by precognition, and you couldn’t have both, as the White Queen pretended she had. He allows that to a being for whom events occurred in the reverse order to ours, those events of whose occurrence he was already aware would still be assigned by him to the past, so that for him ‘the blow would follow the wound.’ But although he concedes that ‘a world in which events occurred in the reverse order to those in our world can be imagined,’ it is nevertheless an impossible world:

for a reversal of our sense of before-and-after would imply a state of mind in which we began with maximum information of the occurrence of events and ended with minimum, and this is self-contradictory... the order of our individual time is the order of our awareness, that is, of the growth in our information of what occurs. By definition, an event which leaves a ‘trace’ of its occurrence is in the past ... there is no such thing as a future analogue of a trace.

Martin Amis, purporting to proceed in reverse, imagines that there can be a future analogue of a trace, but ensures that his reader, like everybody else’s, should start with the minimum and end with the maximum of information. That is to say, he cheats, as he must; our limited style of information-uptake being what it is, we should have no idea what was going on if he didn’t. There are ways of deluding us into agreeing that we are capable of reading a story backwards – short dialogues that have to be read thus (not, except in a brief sample specimen, the words letter by letter, and not even the order of the words in each sentence, just the order of the sentences). Chess, love-making, a drunken binge where getting thrown out precedes riotous behaviour, defecation, eating, even an abortion, are described backwards. Children grow younger and smaller, old people move into youthful vigour, and so on.

Certain limitations are shown to be inherent in the condition of living backwards: for instance, suicide is not an option. And in this world, we are now and again reminded, ‘creation is easy’; on this temporal scheme, it is what destruction is on the normal one. Thus an earthquake instantly builds a city, living Jews emerge from the ovens of the death camps. Of course the opposite is also true: healthy people are dismissed from casualty wards with dreadful wounds. Garbage trucks deposit rubbish on the pavement. Prostitutes pay their clients with cash showered on them by their pimps. Battered women lie waiting for the healing rape. A woman uncleans a house. And so on.

For all that, the progress of the tale is fairly orthodox, it heads towards a recognition: that is, the supply of information is maximised in quite the usual way. We find out what it is all about as we approach the end, which, under the licence of imagination, is represented as a beginning. This changed relation of end and beginning may modify our assumptions of causality. The idea is to say something new about our world by defamiliarising it and imagining another one. The reading of such a book is an exercise in what we could, if we felt like it, call enantiomorphology.

If one asks whether such an effort of fantasy and contrivance is worth the very considerable trouble involved, for reader as well as author, the answer, in the case of Time’s Arrow, is emphatically yes. For the author it was an extra ordinary feat – for readers it is a genuine test – of imagination. One can reasonably say of it that what it does could not have been done in any other way, in any dialect less forcefully persuasive, by any narrative method less seriously deceptive and through-composed.

At the outset, or inset, we come upon an operating theatre where the narrator, surrounded by hateful doctors, is dying. A monstrous doctor and a terrible baby are, for good reasons, recurring figures in the tale. The patient moves backwards into life, inhabiting, it seems, the body of another person, his secret sharer, who regresses through life under different names into various jobs. He has fled from a past into which he must now move, rather as in that ‘dreaming-back’ in which Yeats took such an interest. At the outset he is Tod Friendly, friendly towards death, perhaps; later, or rather earlier, he passes through several aliases until he retrieves what seems to be his original name, Odilo Unverboren – the surname means ‘undepraved’ and maybe the first name means something, too. Old Tod is a nice cheerful American old-timer – a churchgoer, though for obvious reasons he takes money from the collection box. But then, moving backwards, he becomes, or has been, a doctor.

Some guy comes in with a bandage around his head. We don’t mess about. We’ll soon have that off. He’s got a hole in his head So what do we do. We stick a nail in it. Get the nail – a good rusty one – from the trash or wherever. And lead him out to the Waiting Room where he’s allowed to linger and holler for a while before we ferry him back into the night.

On the whole, the narrator is disgusted with the mature body, lecherous and ugly, that he inhabits (not a new theme in Amis), and with the endless medical fight ‘against health, against life and love’. ‘Every day, the dispensing of existence. I see the face of suffering. Its face is fierce and distant and ancient.’

Eventually, if that is an admissible adverb, reverse time takes them back to the death camp where Unverboren had worked, will work. On the way back, while intermediately known as Hamilton, he confesses his remorse at what he had done as an Auschwitz doctor. ‘We lost our feeling about the human body. Children even. Tiny babies.’ At Auschwitz gold will be inserted into the teeth of corpses soon to be brought to life; freight trains of human hair will arrive at the station. Mass reanimation emerges from ordure. For the death camp is the opposite of life, it is simply shit. ‘Even on my return from the ward, past ulcer and oedema, past sleepwalker and sleeptalker, I could feel the hungry suck of it on the soles of my black boots. Outside: everywhere. This stuff, this human stuff, at normal times (and in civilised locales) tastefully confined to the tubes and runnels, subterranean, unseen – this stuff had burst its banks, surging outward and upward onto the floor, the walls, the very ceiling of life.’ But creation is easy; it is in this locale that the kind doctor ‘dreams Jews down from the heavens’. Passing through this reverse Auschwitz, we follow Odilo back to his mother’s womb.

What is most striking about the novel is that it shows a mirror-image not only of time but of humanity. It suggests, with a certain desperation, that in a horrible world it remains open to us to remember ‘our feeling about the human body’, our sense of ‘the gentleness of human flesh’. The impediments to our doing so are formidable. Doctors man the course of that flesh from birth to death, and in the camps doctors practise the ghastly opposite of gentleness.

The mass murderer Tod Friendly has regressively become now continues his regress from harmless old age through ungentle career to babyish impotence, but what his course has demonstrated is that the impotent baby has a potential of evil so dreadful that one can think of it as a bomb.

In Odilo’s regress we can recognise more than a new account of the vileness of an insane regime, or of a period of epidemic cruelty, of the invention and use, so beautifully creative, of the camps and the atomic bomb. The potential of all such creations is in the terrible baby. Yet it is also the case that this image of inhumanity mirrors a notion of humanity, a tenderness for fragile flesh, not extinct though always rare and difficult of access. Merely to turn the story backwards would not have been enough: the other necessary trick was to make the vivid, cynically expressed detail, the course vigour of an Americanised prose, suggest the gentleness that can co-exist, perhaps only sporadically, with the apprehension of evil and with the natural dread of that fierce, ancient face. Time’s Arrow performs these tricks with wit, ingenuity, and an admirably impassioned assurance.