Everything is backwards in this novel. The reversibility of time makes all objects reversible as well, including metaphysical and moral objects. Of course, outside of Amis’ narrative, the laws of thermodynamics operate as normal. However, the logical rule of time has been altered so that we are no longer counting up to a limit but down to an initial condition.
What is the nature of time’s arrow? And what is the offense?
Amis’ narrator offers us clues throughout the novel as to what it is. As cryptic or obvious as the clues are, however, the final events of the novel offer no definitive insight into the nature of the narrator, the offense, or time’s arrow. Perhaps the narrator is Tod T. Friendly’s conscience or soul, a passenger and / or a parasite. Perhaps not. We see Tod’s dreams and nightmares, we hear his thoughts, and witness his body, through the filter of whatever the narrator is. We watch the narrative in reverse, “like a tape running backward,” so that excrement in the toilet enters the body and people vomit full course dinners onto plates in restaurants. In terms of cruelty and perversity, this is pretty soft-core compared to some other phrases throughout the novel. Amis is telling the story of a being within a Nazi holocaust doctor as time flows backward: you do the math.
Several passages of interest and commentary, quoted from memory:
“He had dreams of shitting human bones.”
The narrator tells us this with some reluctance. And there is something prudish about the narrator, to a degree. It is not innocent, yet it is somewhat childishly resigned to its life inside of Tod. This phrase is a truly ugly sentence, the kind of which few authors are capable of writing, even KidLit authors.
“We found a road to the reptile brain and built an autobahn to drive there.”
To me, this seems to be closest thing to “the nature of the offense.” The actual conditions of a concentration camp are only imaginable to me—I cannot un-imagine them. Some of the things that Amis describes are so twisted in the perversity and comedy, that it is brilliant. At other times, there is simply darkness shed by the darkest of human nature.
“Cruelty is bright-eyed and pink-tongued. Cruelty is young.”
This is near the beginning after the narrator states how much it hates doctors. I find the phrase to be not so much ugly or beautiful, but generally true. To be young at heart is to be forever cruel. (That’s mine, but you can have it.) The desire to “be young” is among the most dangerous obsessions parallel to the amount of propaganda about the legal status of children.
Amis’ prose is hypnotic; even when narrating events backward, there is a flow that makes sense. Dialogue is a little bit confusing the first time through and is deployed at very precise times of sexual tension, like between Tod and his wife, for example. The treatment of world war 2 and the holocaust is represented in terms that are morally inverted, parallel to the backwards narration of events. Tod’s involvement in the war becomes apparent as the narrator describes witnessing the activities of a doctor in Auschwitz.
Amis is not a novelist for readers’ of the bestseller list. Read this with caution: if your are faint of heart or squeamish, you will probably hate it. Time’s Arrow, however, challenges the reader to participate in an affirmation of humanity’s darkest passions in an unconventional way. The reader capable of taking up such a challenge will definitely find something satisfying within the novel.