Time's Arrow Dec 14, 2009
This is a review of the audiobook format of Martin Amis's Time's Arrow. I enjoy listening to audiobooks while I'm involved in household tasks. However, I'm picky about my audiobooks for two reasons: first, an inept reader can ruin an otherwise good book and, second, abridged audiobooks are almost always a disappointment.
In this case, I find almost no fault with the audiobook production of Time's Arrow. The book is quite capably narrated by actor Richard E. Grant. Grant reads smoothly, without a single misstep, and adds a soft German accent and a prevailing note of bewilderment to the novel. However, I could tell that the audiobook is an abridgement, and this is unfortunate. The audiobook is only an hour and a half in length. The printed book itself is quite short. There hardly seems any reason to cut out portions of such a short book. As a result of the abridgement, there are some abrupt and seemingly out of context passages. Also, I keep wondering what I've missed.
The book itself is unusual and very unnerving. At the moment of Dr. Tod Friendly's death, a separate consciousness emerges and proceeds to live Friendly's life over in reverse. This separate consciousness is, at first, aware that he is somehow living the same life as Friendly while lacking Friendly's identity. Eventually, the two identities merge completely. The first half of the story is told in first person plural narration - "we" and "our" are the pronouns used. After the total merger, the story is told in first person singular, with the pronouns "I", "me" and "mine".
In the first half of the book, the new consciousness is confused, resentful and whining. Because he is living life in reverse, bodily functions are a horror and human relationships are the epitome of frustration. To make matters worse for this newly-emerged consciousness, there is something horrible or nefarious in Friendly's past (and the new consciousness's future).
The book becomes much easier to follow when the identities merge at the point where Tod Friendly takes the name Odilo Unverdorben. Strangely, ironically and disturbingly, Odilo (whom the listener knows is a Nazi death-camp doctor) ceases to be whining and resentful. He is still confused but becomes more childlike, na?ve and innocent as he lives his backwards life. Very unnervingly, this consciousness draws backwards conclusions from his backwards life. At one point, he muses, "and we all know that violence creates."
Time's Arrow has more literary value than I originally thought. However, it is a revolting book with a singularly unsympathetic protagonist. A memory-less, clueless soul living his violent, evil, sadistic life backwards and coming up with backwards conclusions about violence, life, relationships and Hitler's Final Solution. There are some immensely-intriguing passages nonetheless -- the point where the Odilo goes to confession, for instance, and the new consciousness's backwards lifelong fear of children and infants. He has no idea why children haunt him -- no concept of his guilt, just a sense of horror. Putting aside the book's literary merits, I've got to say that listening to the audiobook was a disturbing experience and I'm glad to be over it.
I am intrigued by Amis's writing and thought, however. I am left with the impression that Amis set out to horrify, disgust and unsettle his readers with this book for a reason.