Saturday, May 17, 2008

Martin Amis' "Time's Arrow": Book Review

"London Fields," Amis' previous novel, he tells us in its forward, could have been called "Time's Arrow," and that term comes up a couple of times in that sprawling narrative epic of environmental and personal chaos near the millennium. His experimental style in that novel (also reviewed by me here and Amazon US where this appeared today) took on a mock-heroic, satirical tone that tried to fit its bitter social critiques and mordant humor. For "Time's Arrow," wisely, Amis stays sober. The voice assumed sounds much more American than the earlier novel, and this matter-of-fact style, reminding me in parts of Philip Roth's "Everyman," makes the mix of the bizarre and the mundane convincing. The daring of this novel may undo it from reaching perfection, but it remains worthwhile as an intellectual and spiritual quest into how a human contorts under pressures to do the wrong thing.

Reading it, I feared continuing as the horrors loomed ahead-- or behind. The ingenious structure of the tale fascinates. You fear how Dr. Friendly's medical skills will be warped, and how his care for children in his elderly incognito existence in America will be demonstrated to have emerged from the Nazi camps. This becomes a truly cathartic novel, in which fear and pity mingle as you turn the pages forward, backward into the origins of the doctor's past crimes.

An early passage: "A child's breathless wailing calmed by the firm slap of a father's hand, a dead ant revived by the careless press of a passing sole, a wounded finger healed and sealed by the knife's blade: anything like that made me flinch and veer. But the body I live and move in, Tod's body, feels nothing." (28) So we learn as his soul tells his tale. Like his spirit, we may not wish to continue the journey as the future recedes and the memories left repressed rear up and assault our senses, but this sometimes stunning depiction of the last century's historical regression into savagery, in its often relentless momentum, pulls us into their maelstrom.

The strain of this structure, perhaps, means that the underlying moral condition, buried as it is under the weight of time and of apparent suppression by the doctor, becomes less distinct. This may be intentional, but it blunts the impact of the novel. Perhaps, on the other hand, this has been an effective step back by Amis, for how many fictional works have tried and also stumbled in trying to "explain" the camps, the doctors, and the evil?

Amis, with relative reticence, and restraint, manages to take us into the labs of Auschwitz without exploitation or bathos. Parts remained rather unclear, but in retrospect I sense this shows the soul, and then Amis, stepping back from fully confronting the terrors that are summoned back from the lands of the dead. The necessary details that evoke this terrestrial hell, both in Tod's later life and his earlier years, have been integrated subtly, to show off by the estrangement of the form their parallel distortion in content, compared with conventional fiction and moral standards. This feat, in a novel that by its daring may (like "London Fields" in its range and hubris) show that Amis, even when he writes a less than perfect tale, can earn acclaim for his imagination, his innovation, and his performance in a bravura turn that compels you.

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