Time’s Arrow, or, The Nature of the Offense begins in a Massachusetts hospital on the deathbed of a seventy- five-year-old doctor known as Tod T. Friendly. The rest of the book is an extended flashback to the life he is departing, but what distinguishes Amis’ eighth novel from the conventional format of biographical retrospection is the fact that the entire story is narrated in reverse, effect preceding cause, later coming before sooner. The entire short book is a novelistic form of palindrome. On an inspection tour to Treblinka, the narrator of the story notices that the hands of a clock in a railway station are painted to a permanent 13:27—“But time had no arrow, not here.” Otherwise, though the book opens with an assertion of circularity (“What goes around comes around”), Time’s Arrow is shot in a straight line, backward. When Tod eats dinner, dessert precedes soup, and food is lifted out of the mouth and onto the plate. A toilet becomes the seat of a peculiar ritual in which fecal matter rises form the bowl and into the bowels. Sanitation workers deliver garbage, and adults snatch toys away from children. “Good-bye” initiates a conversation; “hello” terminates it.
Amis toys with inverting individual words and sentences—“Aid ut oo y’rrah?” says a pharmacist to her customer, who deciphers more effortlessly than the reader this topsy-turvy universe’s reordering of “How are you today?” The narrator concedes “that most conversations would make much better sense if you ran them backward.” They at least seem less banal. Amis does run them backward, but, after a few initial flourishes, the novel makes do with a normal verbal sequence in the service of recounting statements and actions in reverse chronological order. Time’s arrow is shot form target to bow.
“Tod Friendly”—the name signifies the oxymoron of amiable death—is the last of the pseudonyms that Odilo Unverdorben, also know as “Hamilton de Souza” and “John Young,” adopts after fleeing the Nazi defeat in Europe. Before his abrupt departure, he participates in the gassings and sadistic experiments at Auschwitz. Abandoning a wife and child in Germany, he initially settles in Lisbon. In 1948, at the age of thirty- one, he establishes a new identity for himself in the United States.
Time’s Arrow is narrated by an alter ego of the fugitive Nazi, a disembodied consciousness that comes alive as his double is about to die. While the patient is pulled from the brink of extinction by the force of retrospective narrative, another consciousness is born, a doppelgänger puzzled by the identity to which he finds himself yoked. As he begins experiencing Tod’s life backward, he has “the sense of starting out on a terrible journey, toward a terrible secret.” It is this historical innocent, a modern Candide, who tells the story, and he is more puzzled than the reader about where it is headed. “It just seems to me that the film is running backward,” he declares. Even in flashbacks, cinema has no tense but the present, and Time’s Arrow, too, lacks the privileged perspective of the preterite. It wants the comfort of temporal distance between awareness and event. Its narrator—and its reader—is the puzzled spectator of an unmediated life that is in the process of revealing its secrets.
After backing off his deathbed, Tod becomes increasingly active as he grows younger—even as his name changes from Friendly to Young—with each successive page. The inverted course of his career takes him from Massachusetts to New York to Portugal to Italy to Poland and Germany and through several assumed identities. As Odilo Unverdorben, his latest/earliest name, he marries a German named Herta, but marriage and fatherhood do not deter him from sexual exploits. Irene, one of many women he beds in America, surmises his secret before the narrator does. The narrator does not know quite what to make of cryptic comments on the weather sent once a year...
(The entire section is 1646 words.)