Experimental Fiction, Part Three: Structural Games – the Backwards Narrative

26 Feb

When Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow was first published back at the start of the 1990s, critics were swift to point out that the idea had been cribbed from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut’s book features a number of experimental techniques, unusual in a work that has proved so popular. The narrative is anything but straight, bent out of shape through a series of time shifts experienced by the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. There is the old metafictional trope whereby ‘Kurt Vonnegut’ appears as an occasional character in the book. The key passage for our purposes, though, is the backwards narrative device used to throw the harsh light of irony upon terrible acts, to make sense out of the unintelligible. Billy is sitting in his living room watching a war movie on his television. He sees an Allied bombing raid on a German city, but as he does so events run backwards. Thus we find that the bombers “flew backwards over a German city that was in flames” and “opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes”. And so it goes. It’s a brilliant device, producing a fiendish transformation in which acts of war are turned into ones of mercy.

The harping of critics notwithstanding, I found Time’s Arrow to be the strongest of Amis’s books. And so while he might not have been the maker of this infernal device, it was Amis who rose to the challenge of sustaining its use across the entirety of a novel, employing it to investigate another of World War Two’s horrors, the Holocaust. Necessarily then, it’s a work of the darkest imaginable irony. Tod Friendly – Amis has a genius for names – is the alias of Odilo Unverdorben, a  former doctor at a Nazi death camp and now an old man hiding up in the USA. We travel back in time with him to the depths of human depravity and his involvement with events at Auschwitz. Here is an example – “…to prevent needless suffering, the dental work was usually completed while the patients were not yet alive. The Kapos would go at it, crudely but effectively, with knives or chisels or any tools that came to hand. Most of the gold we used, of course, came direct from the Reichsbank. But every German present, even the humblest, gave willingly of his own store”.

Harrowing it may be, but it’s a story that must be told and retold so that we never forget. Hearing a Holocaust survivor relate her experiences back in the 1990s was probably the most moving and inspiring event that I have ever had the privilege to attend. And a quarter of a century from now, almost all of those who had the courage to speak will be gone. Amis has put Vonnegut’s clever technique to work in a remarkable piece of writing that ought to make a contribution in keeping alive the memory of those dreadful events. Time’s Arrow joins La Disparation, that sustained lipogram by Georges Perec  (whose own mother died in the Holocaust), in which the letter ‘E’ never appears. Both then are bold, experimental novels, seeking to find some way to articulate the unspeakable – by omission, by relating events backwards…

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Running the same whether viewed forwards…

A similar principle, of course, is contained within the palindrome, that push-me-pull you of the written word that can be read either backwards or forwards. In its pure form, it reads exactly the same both ways. That great hero of experimental writing, Georges Perec is credited with creating the world’s longest, The Great Palindrome (well, he was GP, after all) weighing in at over five thousand words. Wow! If you’ve ever attempted this, you’ll know how very difficult it is. It is, perhaps, the ultimate constraint (see a forthcoming post for a fuller discussion of constrained writing). In a perfect world, the term itself would be palindromic, a ‘palinilap’, perhaps. Such asceticism is not always possible or indeed, desirable. A relaxation of the rules allows for sentence or paragraph order to be reversed. While this compromises on purity it increases scope. There are elements of all three in my short story, So reflect, etc: elf, Eros. Again, I have found it to be a technique that can be used to ironic effect. Do try it yourself at home, but be prepared for the long hours of mental torment…

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…or viewed backwards

All images and text – except quotations from Slaughterhouse-Five and Time’s Arrow – © PSR 2013

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