Saturday, April 12, 2008

Time's Arrow: Martin Amis

After the not-so-satisfying experience with Night Train, what prompted me to pick up another book by Martin Amis? Well, a good friend whose judgment I trust recommended it to me. And I was not to be disappointed.

Using a different narrative technique is like using a double-edged sword – you can lose the plot if you get too absorbed in the technique and forget the narrative. Thankfully, Amis retains his focus when he architects a book where the story flows backwards. And in a neat kill of two birds with one stone, it also enables Amis to get rid of one area he seemed weak at, at least on the evidence of Night Train: how to finish a book.

The challenge with reading a book of this nature is to be constantly aware of the chronological flip, especially considering the heaviness of the plot: the life and times of a Nazi war criminal, and a doctor to boot. Thankfully, the linguistic control, precision and tightness of Amis help in countering this challenge quite easily.

Another fear that crept into my mind when I realised the reversal of the clock was this: how gory can descriptions of personal activities get. Here’s Amis’ response.

All life, all sustenance, all meaning (and a good deal of money) issue from a single household appliance: the toilet handle. At the end of the day, before my coffee, in I go. And there it is already: that humiliating warm smell. I lower my pants and make with the magic handle. Suddenly it’s all there, complete with toilet paper, which you use and then deftly wind back on to the roll. Later, you pull up your pants and wait for the pain to go away. The pain, perhaps, of the whole transaction, the whole dependency. No wonder we cry when we do it. Quick glance down at the clear water in the bowl. Then the two cups of decaff before you hit the sack.

The next paragraph is even better.

Eating is unattractive too. First I stack the clean plates in the dishwasher, which works okay, I guess, like all my other labour-saving devices, until some fat bastard shows up in his jumpsuit and traumatises them with his tools. So far so good: then you select a soiled dish, collect some scraps from the garbage, and settle down for a short wait. Various items get gulped up into my mouth, and after skilful massage with tongue and teeth I transfer them to the plate for additional sculpture with knife and fork and spoon. That bit’s quite therapeutic at least, unless you’re having soup or something, which can be a real sentence. Next you face the laborious business of cooling, of reassembly, of storage, before the return of these foodstuffs to the Superette, where, admittedly, I am promptly and generously reimbursed for my pains.

Notwithstanding the automatic humour that the technique affords, the poignancy of the plot does not get diluted, especially in those pieces in the concentration camp. Rather, the narrative forces you to linger a little more, and absorb the magnitude of what happens there. Therein, I reckon, lies the triumph of Time’s Arrow.

No comments: