Novels of consciousness are glimpses into the mind or minds of an other or others that to my Western empirical mind seem nearly impossible. Truly knowing another is the holy grail, something I never even hope to achieve, but some writers have created the illusion very compellingly. And it’s often very uncomfortable. Living in your own head can be hard; how much harder to live in someone else’s, even for the relatively brief space of a novel (although “brief” is probably not the right adjective for the work of writers such as Proust). As a result, these novels are often challenging reads that reward the work by bring new insight on one’s self, the mind’s workings, and the world in general.
In the early 20th century, inspired by the advent of modern psychology and new theories of time and space, writers like Woolf and Beckett and Joyce (who I like less well than the first two) were experimenting with writing a novel that would let us see inside the mind and experience things as minds do. Their techniques were varied and, depending I think on how your brain happens to function, just as variously successful.
Bruce Sterling, in Holy Fire, makes a briefer statement on the possibility of knowing the mind of another: he does not hope for fully knowing another; rather simply one moment out of a lifetime in which one knows one is thinking exactly the same thing as another person. Such a moment of synchronicity is to be treasured as a rare and glistening experience. It could happen at any moment, perhaps with your lover, but just as likely with someone you hardly know—though realizing it is happening with someone you hardly know is usually harder.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not putting Sterling in the same category with Woolf and Beckett any more than I’d place Martin Amis, author of Time’s Arrow, among such august company. Nevertheless, Time’s Arrow is a novel of consciousness—and its statement about the possibility of knowing another is more skeptical than any so far articulated in this post. By placing an unnamed, observing, fully-conscious narrator inside the body of his otherwise separately and fully conscious protagonist, Amis is suggesting that it is not only the minds of others and the world in general that are unknowable; no, even the inside of our own heads is beyond our complete knowledge and control. This radical empiricist, neo-Humean stance allows Amis to construct the novel’s main conceit: for this nameless narrator, and thus for the reader, time is experience backward from that of its body’s controlling consciousness. Essentially then, Time’s Arrow is the story of a man’s life told the wrong way round.
It’s not a bad concept and it does lead to interesting results. For example, doctors don’t sew up cuts, they remove stitches and open wounds; cleaning ladies don’t get clean your place and get paid, they mess it up and leave you money on the counter; food doesn’t get chewed up and eaten, it . . . well, you get the idea. Most thought-provoking for me was seeing the end of a relationship before the beginning and working backward through the initial meeting. But, while the direction of time may be arbitrary, it doesn’t yield all that much insight to see it in reverse. In fact, it’s mostly confusing and difficult to follow. Despite that confusion being part of the point, apart from a few clever moments, it seemed an empty exercise.
To make matters worse, the protagonist turns out to have been a doctor at Auschwitz who committed horrifying atrocities during World War II. As brutal as some of the scenes are, experiencing them backward had the effect of somewhat trivializing a subject that never should be. The novel fails mostly because it’s premise is a gimmick. Or just as bad, because I think you probably could use the idea to good effect, the novel fails because it makes the main idea feel like a gimmick.
Finally, two nitpicks. First, everything in the novel travels the wrong way in time except the individual statements of people. A conversation that we would experience as “How are you?” “Fine.” is told as “Fine.” “How are you?” While this does leads to some amusing moments, it’s also not really experienced fully backward. If it were, that same conversation would be “.eniF” “?uoy era woH” As difficult as this is to read, it would also be a lot more consistent.
Second, the math teacher in me cringed when Amis began a chapter: “Multiply zero by zero and you still get zero. Well, how do you follow that? The answer is: you can’t. Of course you can’t.” Amis goes on to develop this as a metaphor for the inability of people who are barely alive to help each other and make progress, but, for me, like most of the rest of the book, it misses the target.