A compelling new novel by Martin Amis works backward through a hellish life.
A. N. WILSON
Martin Amis on Cape Cod.
There used to be a restaurant in Paris where they could poach an egg inside a scrambled egg. A gastronome told me about it once. He lovingly described how his fork had penetrated the delicate crumbling outer wall of scrambled to find the little poached fellow within, as firm as a fetus. In the end, though, as he had to admit, it was just two eggs, not so very different from a couple of sunny‑side ups that he could have bought for a dollar in a diner.
Martin Amis offers analogous thrills and disappointments to his readers. His prodigious cleverness with form makes us gasp and roll our eyes. He can do us a poached egg inside a scrambled with no trouble at all. Such stylishness has increasingly made him want to assure the fans that there is something serious underneath. In Money, his best book to date, he pulled off both feats ‑a tremendous exercise of style and a woundingly hilarious satire on Western materialism. London Fields, his last, somehow got taken over by its own cleverness, and for all its flawless plotting it left us with the feeling that he only wanted to play with puppets, not write about people.
The latest pièce de résistance, Time's Arrow (Harmony), a title he thought of giving to London Fields, is a tale told backward. The central figure starts by dying in a suburb of "primary‑color, You're‑okay‑I'm‑okay America." He ends by being conceived, around 1916, in Solingen, the birthplace of Adolf Eichmann.
Dozens of writers must have thought of a backward narrative. For all I know, it is something you have to do in creative‑writing courses. For sheer brilliant handling of the idea, Amis Minor goes to the top of the class.
Some of his back‑to‑front conversations are superbly funny, since, as the narrator says, "most conversations would make much better sense if you ran them backward. But with this man‑woman stuff you could run them any way you liked ‑and still get no further forward." Some of the surreal rewinds of action are, likewise, hilarious. "Our clothes came at us from all over the room. A shoe like a heavy old bullet thrown out of the shadows, and skillfully caught, off balance and one‑handed; windmilling trousers trapped by the foot and then kicked up onto the leg; that serpent necktie." The narrator funks the next bit of the scene, when the protagonist is kneeling by the can. "The bowl filled with its terrible surprises." If the action (a drunken man being sick) were actually happening in reverse, then the vomit would be rising out of the can like a fountain and making its accurate progress to the back of Johnny Young's throat.
Johnny Young is our hero's name in the middle part of his life, when he is a successful New York doctor. When we first meet him he is an old codger called Tod T. Friendly. ("We really do look like shit. Like a cowpat, in fact.") By the end ‑or rather, the beginning‑ of the story we find that he started life as a German called Odilo Unverdorben, who became a doctor in a concentration camp. We learn of Tod/Johnny/Odilo's story through the consciousness of someone or something a bit like his soul ‑only he doesn't have a soul anymore. The narrating consciousness of Time's Arrow is curiously detached from Odilo's bodily self, detached in the way that the consciousness or inner life of a psychopath is removed from the diseased part of his personality. And a psychopath is what Odilo is, or was.
In other words, Odilo breaks up after his experience as a concentration camp doctor, responsible for annihilating thousands of Jews. Thereafter, he is not one person. He is a fake personality ‑Johnny Young or Tod T. Friendly‑ being observed by the split‑off part of his personality. "At death," as Philip Larkin observed, "you break up: the bits that were you/Start speeding away from each other forever/With no one to see.” Such processes of disintegration can occur in cases of moral crisis, too, and this is the difficult thing that Amis is trying to confront in this novel.
The psychopathic mentality that was so much in evidence in the Third Reich horrifies by its impenetrability. We nonpsychopaths cannot understand, and perhaps do not truly wish to understand, how a man can kiss his wife and babies goodbye in the morning and set off for work in a Nazi concentration camp with the same indifferent air as a man going to work in an accountancy office. His day will be spent doing unspeakable things. In the evening he will return to the happy domestic scene. Yet we know that hundreds, thousands, of men and women did this. Amis's Odilo is in fact disturbed by what he is doing, and it has a devastating effect upon his marriage. Amis is compelled to draw on reading for his account of the death camps. Odilo's Auschwitz is the same as that depicted in Robert Jay Lifton's The Nazi Doctors, and it also owes much to Martin Gilbert's accounts of the Holocaust.
There is a recession on, and there is no doubting the wisdom of any author today who chooses such a theme for fiction, since the literature of the Holocaust shows no signs whatsoever of growing less popular. Whether so somber a theme is suited to the Shandean high spirits, the sheer larkiness, of this back‑to‑front novella, some readers will doubt. I think that the author doubts it, too, which is why he allows some disconcerting attempts at "high style" to slip into the usual Amis prose. "Time is heading on now towards something. It pours past unpreventably, like the reflections on a windscreen as the car speeds through city or forest." That is terrible. So is "I am excoriated by erotic revanchism." There are not many such sentences in the book, but they make the admirers of vintage Amis, of whom I am one, wince just a little. That is only because the rest of the book is so good. Martin Amis's difficulty as a satirist is based on a fundamentally Swiftian dilemma. The best satirists defend humane values by inhumane explosions of spleen and contempt. Swift's "A Modest Proposal," which suggests that the best way to keep down the poor population of Ireland is to make the Irish eat their own babies, is this satirical spirit at its strongest. Inside the satirist a love of truth is at war with a universal contempt, and this lies at the heart of Amis at his best in Money. Amis's characters fart, fornicate, and swindle their way through a pointless existence and half infect the reader with the author's sweeping horror of the human race. The next stage -the obliteration of the planet by nuclear weapons‑ seems in such a world view almost merciful, for the author has become like the God of Genesis, feeling that the human race was a ghastly mistake that deserves a universal deluge.
In a short book called Einstein's Monsters, Martin Amis adopted the hilarious pose of being a "concerned" liberal, frightened of the nuclear arms race and debating the matter with his father, Kingsley Amis, who adopted a conservative view that it was necessary to keep the nuclear deterrent to preserve the peace.
Time's Arrow confronts that other great scourge of the twentieth century, genocide. The Nazi doctor's story is seen through the eyes of his detached alter ego, and the alter ego himself is presented by Martin Amis, who adds an afterword for this very short book as though it were an academic dissertation, with thanks and acknowledgments to various people. Awed by the nature of his material in this story, Amis has tried to tug us by the arm and beg us to take him seriously. It is a brilliant book, and for 90 percent of the time it disconcerts the way it intends to disconcert. For the other 10 percent of the time, it disconcerts by the conflict between the actually sympathetic figure of the grown‑up Martin Amis and the callousness of his literary projections and personae. It is a chilling book because, in spite of all the horror to which it alludes, it is devoid of all suffering.