A stranger back to the future

A stranger back to the future

Time's Arrow is a lifetime journey in reverse. And of course,anything so perverse is food and drink to Jefferson Chase

Whisky & Culture | 25 Nov 2004 | Issue 44 | By Jefferson Chase

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To put the cart before the horse, I must confess I’ve never been a big fan of Martin Amis, son of Lucky Jim author and Macallan aficionado Kingsley Amis. Despite his polished style and sharp eye for human weakness, I always found Amis fille’s proficiency somewhat cloying, as if he were less concerned with writing than with impressing dear old dad.But I was surprised recently when I got round to reading Amis’ 1991 novel Time’s Arrow. The book is as gimmicky as the most outlandish cask finish or whisky cocktail, but it works. Time’s Arrow is the story of a human life told in reverse – from the moment its hero Tod Friendly aka John Young aka Odilo Unverdorben awakens from death to the final hour before he enters his mother’s womb.It’s great fun watching everyday life run backwards. In the Bizzaro universe of Time’s Arrow, you get paid for going shopping, sex precedes lively conversation and a nice dinner, and if your lover’s husband catches you in flagrante, he just switches off the light, backs out of the room and lets you get on with it.You find yourself waiting for the booze scene in which drinking makes you sober. Amis doesn’t disappoint. Here’s Tod/Jack/Odilo before/after an encounter with Wild Turkey.I got a very bad feeling as we pitched into the bathroom and fumbled for the mouthwash. The we knelt before the altar of the can – and pulled the handle. The bowl filled with its terrible surprises. We’ve done this once or twice before…The premise for alcohol abuse, one gathers, is that consciousness, or selfhood, or corporeality is intolerable. But it is intolerable. Certainly when you’re chockful of gangrene. Here it comes again…Reverse narration is tricky business, and what allows Amis to pull off the stunt is the first-person narrator who inhabits Tod/Jack/Odilo’s body but isn’t identical with him. The bemused commentary guides readers through what seems to be a rather queer ritual.We went out into New York City and staggered here and there through the Village and drooled it all out in bar after bar. They wouldn’t serve us at the first few joints we tried, which wasn’t surprising, because we came through the door yelling our head off, or trying to, in this faulty new voice of ours. There was, I remember, quite a restful interlude up some alley or other, during which we reclined panting on a heap of cardboard boxes; then two young men jovially gathered us up and escorted us back into action.The narrator, and we readers, soon discover what every drunk knows: the best hours of a bender are the first ones.I can understand why John was overexcited by New York, where at night, life and all its colour and reflection is folded out on to the street… In any event by six o’clock he was in okay shape. Outside the last bar the cab was waiting remorselessly, the driver with his face averted, waiting to take me somewhere I didn’t want to go.The hero is stone cold sober, but as the last line foreshadows, he’s got worse things coming.Indeed, as Time’s Arrow progresses (or regresses), we not only go back in the life of Tod/Jack/Odilo, but back through history as well.Our hero, it turns out, has a very, very nasty secret in his past, one connected with the darkest chapter in European and, arguably, human history.The further we get in the novel, the more the absurdist humour turns into full-blown grotesque, and the more Amis suggests that the world would be a far better place if 20th Century history could be undone.An intriguing, if debatable proposition, which makes Time’s Arrow a book to mull over while savouring a whisky – perhaps a Macallan from the 1930s or ‘40s series.Just because there’s a gimmick doesn’t mean a product can’t be first-rate.I would imagine that father Kingsley, described after his death in 1995 as someone who “did not give a damn what other people thought about him, and he said what he thought,” must have liked this book. I did in any case.
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