Analyse the effectiveness of Amis's use of different narrative techniques
Analyse the effectiveness of Amis’s use of different
narrative techniques in ‘Time’s Arrow’.
You will not be able to include all of this in your essay so you must
be selective about what you consider the most important. Then,
you must be selective about your use of evidence across the whole
text to support your assertions.
1. Consider the use of the first person narrator / unreliable narrator - 'exiled or
demoted soul' – split narrative voice - Unverdorben's soul regards him as a 'ruined
god, betrayed and beaten by his own magic', and says that Unverdorben is 'on his
own' (p. 156). Where have we seen the consequences of Unverdorben's soul
dissociating from him at this moment.Consciousness, or selfhood, or corporeality, is
intolerable' (p. 78): 'Consciousness isn't intolerable. It is beautiful' (p. 82).
2. Consider the use of temporal reversal / reverse chronology - reversal and
dissociation - throws our intuitions into disarray. How does memory work in reverse?
Does effect lead to cause, and if so, does the process of getting younger entail
becoming gradually more innocent - less knowing, and also less guilty? Does free will
disappear? If Friendly is experiencing his life backwards, what was the oblivion out of
which he emerged? 'Destruction — is difficult .. . Creation, as I said, is no trouble at
all' (p. 26). What about conversations (pp. 28—9, pp. 120—1) - first as they are
written, then in reverse.
3. Narrative mode – how does the use of temporal reversal lead to irony – pathos –
bathos – privileged reader/narrator - the narrator observes Friendly's activities
uncomprehendingly: an irony is set up between - what he misunderstands and what
the reader fully understands. This means that the reader can judge what the narrator
cannot.The inversion of Young's life as a doctor reveals a dark counterpoint. Trace
the ironies on e.g. pp. 126—35, and gauge your reactions to them. These ironies
depend on our having a greater knowledge of what is really happening than the
narrator. In what sense does this technique highlight the collective human loss of
innocence that the Holocaust brought about?'One of the key concepts in Nazi
ideology was that of 'progress': can the narrative conceit of Time's Arrow can itself
be seen as an ironic comment on that idea'.
4. Consider the theme of 'Time, the human dimension, which makes us everything we
are' (p. 76) and character. What aspects of a person's life would you include in the
idea of 'everything we are'? Make a list. How many of these things do we know
about Friendly's life? Friendly seems to have spent his time getting away from what
he was, assuming new identities. Played in reverse, does the narrative of his life
promise to lead through the layers of false identities — Tod Friendly, John Young,
Hamilton, Odilo— to his true identity? Or is the reader required to adopt an attitude
of alert scepticism about every new 'fact' that we learn, in case this also is false? We
cannot measure what we learn against what has happened so far in the narrative:
we must wait to measure it against what is to come. How does this narrative
strategy differ from the usual contract that exists between a novelist and a reader?
In what ways does pp. 161-6 suggest that Unverdorben's actions as an older man can
largely be explained by his sense of sexual frustration, impotence and loneliness as a
young man?Time's Arrow subverts conventions of how fiction sets up identity. Does
the conceit of the reversal of time amounts to little more than ingenious wordplay… The
metaphor of time's arrow takes on a new significance on p. 151 – is it toyed with elsewhere?
5. Consider Amis’s style - Use of language – euphemism – poetic techniques –use of
repetition (of Atrocity)–imagery ‘feeling tone’ ‘the reptilian mind’ – ‘His vigour,
nowadays, contains something savage and tasteless. It is pink-tongued. It is feral'
(p.108). Look at earlier imagery that this echoes. 'John attends them both with his
animal parts thickened' (p. 89); 'Cruelty, which is bright-eyed, which is pink-tongued'
(p. 31). What ideas form around the notion of ‘youth’ and 'vigour' - playful use of
language – references to the ‘perfecto’ - Friendly/Young/de Souza/Odilo’s 'perfectos'
(cigars) are more consistent than his identity. Note that they recur with the
frequency of a leitmotif, each time with an alliterating adjective: 'a pensive perfecto'
(p. 22); 'with plausible perfecto' (p. 107); 'one's penitent perfecto' (p. 120) are
examples. Despite his changes of identity his character is in some ways consistent.
An arrogant belief in his own superiority runs throughout, as does hedonism, as does
a capacity for posing. How are these ideas conveyed by this recurring motif?The
narrator's claim that he can only understand somos (p. 112) continues the verbal
playfulness with which Amis presents the reversal of time. It is a palindrome,
because it reads the same backwards. The narrator has drawn our attention to this
conceit as early as p. 16, when he lists 'palindrome' as an instance of his 'superb
vocabulary'. What other palindromes can you find? 'Deed' is the same, backwards
and forwards — but is a deed? How does this affect our reading of the novel?
6. Consider the use of name and places and setting from New York to Portugal to
‘Auschwitz lay around me ... like a somersaulted Vatican' (p. 124). How do you react
to this name? What connotations does it carry?What does 'preternatural purpose'
(pp. 124, 127, 128) mean to the narrator? Linked to the title of this chapter, what
does it mean to you? Philip Pinkus, in Sin and Satire in Swift (1965), writes: "Since
Swift's constant concern in his satires is man's corruption from original innocence,
there is no more graphic illustration than the excremental. That is why his satires are
obsessed with it. It is the traditional imagery of evil, of which Swift's contemporaries
were well aware [...} All Swift's references to the unclean flesh, the dung, the stench,
the filth of man's body, are the symbols of man's sin."Does excrement have a
symbolic function here? If so, what does it symbolise?
7. Other themes and symbols? Violence, death and sickness; healing, life and health word orders - 'I was flooded by thoughts and feelings I'd never had before. To do
with power' (p45) – the ‘bomb baby’.The narrator has alluded throughout to the
'bomb baby' that exerts 'such power over its parents' (p. 135), and 'the mortal
importance of no one knowing they are there' (p. 101). See also references to this
idea on pp. 48, 55, 67. What does this dream image seem to symbolise? Read the
episode on pp. 149-51 describing how Unverdorben discovered thirty Jewish 'souls'
hiding, because a baby's cries gave them away. Which previous moments in the
novel does this episode help to explain? Review the allusion on p. 101: what new
significance does the phrase, 'the mortal importance of no one knowing they are
there' take on in the light of this episode? Look again at p. 135: 'the physical power
that the bomb baby exerted, over its parents and over every-body else in the black
room: some thirty souls.' Given that the explosive effect of the baby's cries was to
betray them to Unverdorben, why does he dream about it so obsessively and
threateningly? Remember that he has a child himself soon after-wards.Dreaming of
‘a storm of souls’ the black boots/white coat - Connect the image of Unverdorben
donning black boots and white coat with previous allusions to this image '(e.g., pp.
12, 48, 72).
8. Consider how tension is created in this reversed world - mystery – intrigue - 'an
intractable presentiment that I will soon start seeing ... in Tod's dream' (p. 47), something
about 'vanished' babies - something that 'Tod will eventually do' (and has therefore already
done). In this order of reality, dreams that are for Friendly the crucible of memories but for
the narrator they are nightmare premonitions of what will certainly happen…
9. How does Amis’s use of historical contexts enhance the novel – historical truth – the
1970s – JFK assassination – (pp 120-121) – the Vatican – consider historical accounts
of reactions of the Roman Catholic Church to Nazi atrocities – you could try doing a
web search on Pope Pius XII. According to John Cornwell, in Hitler's Pope: The Secret
History of Pius XII (Penguin, London, 2000), the wartime Pope's 'silence' in the face
of the Jewish genocide was tantamount to counterwitness to what was happening.
For a rebuttal of this argument, you might go to http://www.beliefnet.com - how
does Amis offer comment on historical truth?
10. What about those chapter titles – fallacious logic – eg Chapter 3 - Consider for a
moment the fallacious logic of the title: the second statement does not follow from
the first. It only becomes logically correct if reversed: 'Because everything I do heals,
I am a healer.' However, given that the acts of creation and destruction in this
narrative are reversed, and Friendly's role as a doctor is to 'demolish the human
body' (p. 83), the statement in the title takes on a sinister implication: 'Everything I
do is justified by the labels I attach, to myself or others.'
11. Consider the ending - In the chicken and duck story (p. 171), Unverdorben voices his
ideas about distinctions: what does this anecdote reveal about his childish
understanding of good and bad, and about what he has the right to decide? What is
the significance of this episode?'He has to act while childhood is still here before
somebody comes and takes it away. And they will come' (p. 173). Assess the validity
of the claim that 'By finishing at the point of innocence, albeit temporary, Amis
reasserts the value, after a story of the vilest degradation, of human goodness and
potential.'What is the significance of the final arrow image on P173?