Somewhere in ”washing-line and mailbox America” an old man slips out of ”the blackest sleep.” Moments later he’s alert, paralyzed but alert, and with each passing hour he grows stronger, less infirm. Sensation returns, then coordination, and finally he leaves the hospital and returns home, but — wait a second! — he’s moving backward. And as day follows day (Oct. 2, Oct. 1, Sept. 30), the old man grows infinitesimally younger. Seasons pass (autumn becomes summer, summer becomes spring) and he turns younger still, and taller. Some of his hair grows back, then more of it, and his sexual potency returns. He’s given a retirement party, and the very next morning he goes out to work.
The hero of Time’s Arrow: Or The Nature of the Offense, Tod T. Friendly (alias John Young, alias Hamilton de Souza, alias Odilo Unverdorben), is being reeled, without ever stumbling, back through a lifetime of denial, anxiety, panic, sadism, arrogance, and, finally, innocence.
Time’s arrow, at least in Martin Amis’ cosmology, doesn’t fly from the bow to the target, but from the target to the bow — then from the bow to the quiver, from the quiver to the tree, from the tree to the acorn. The forgotten codger becomes a vigorous model citizen. Then as cars get ”fatter and fewer, and imitate animals with their fins and wings,” he becomes a desperate fugitive. Sailing to Europe in 1948, he’s a war criminal who then flees from Portugal to Italy, eventually making his way from his sanctuary in the Vatican to the camp at Auschwitz, where he serves as the assistant to Josef Mengele (called ”Uncle Pepi” in the book). Leaving Poland, he moves to Berlin and becomes a medical student, then a schoolboy, a toddler, an infant. Then a fetus. Then nothing.
Telling a story in inverted chronology is hardly a new idea, but it’s probably fair to say that nobody has taken it to such dizzying extremes: Here rain is sucked back into clouds, cigarettes are ”quenched” of coals and returned to their packs, a wounded finger is ”healed and sealed by the knife’s blade.” Conversations begin with goodbye, end with hello. Fire creates, and a crying child is ”calmed by the firm slap of a father’s hand.”
Most disturbing of all, the Jews of Auschwitz are brought to life by ”jubilant guards” who give them hair, clothing, even gold for their teeth, then put them on trains and send them all home.
But what’s the point of all the topsy-turvy? This, perhaps: That only in its unraveling, in its utter and total annihilation of itself, does history seem at all benevolent, or a person humane. Time’s Arrow is Martin Amis (London Fields, Money) at his bleakest and most chillingly misanthropic. It’s also Martin Amis at his very best. A