Julian Barnes and Martin Amis are in the vanguard of British writers who for the past decade have flouted convention and, in the process, bewildered and sometimes angered the literary establishment. Barnes’s groundbreaking third novel, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), is more a collection of brilliantly linked aphorisms than a story, while Amis’s most ambitious work, London Fields (1989), is a bleak and bristling satire aimed at the underbelly of Thatcherite Britain. But in their newest novels, Barnes’s Talking It Over (Random House, 275 pages,
$24) and Amis’s Time’s Arrow (Penguin, 173 pages,
$22.99), the so-called bad boys of BritLit appear to be sliding into a mainstream that has, in recent years, shown signs of moving to meet them. Each has taken a familiar story and given it a fresh twist.
Barnes’s Talking It Over is about a love triangle. But the story unfolds directly through the voices of each of the players. Like actors, the three characters implore, confide in and even berate their audience as they recount separate versions of the same tale. Oliver, sardonic and loquacious, and Stuart, pedantic and earnest, are best friends. Stuart falls in love with the practical and pretty Gillian. And for one idyllic summer, things go smoothly—until Stuart and Gillian marry, and on their wedding day Oliver realizes that he is in love with his best friend’s bride. What follows is a classic parable of thwarted passion, obsessive love and both the fickleness and the power of human emotion—a story as old as Pythagoras.
Amis's novel, Time’s Arrow, tackles a 20thcentury nightmare—the Holocaust—from a different vantage point. The story of Tod Friendly, a doctor living in America, begins with his death and moves backwards through his career—until he resumes his original identity as Odilo Unverdorben, a Nazi death-camp doctor. But this is no mere reminiscence. The action literally unravels like a film reel going backwards while the narrator, a facet of Friendly’s personality, tries to make sense of
what is going on. Everything moves in reverse. Patients enter the hospital where Friendly works in perfect health and leave broken and bloodied. Girlfriends disappear from Friendly’s life just as things are going beautifully. “When,” he asks himself, “is the world going to start to make sense?” But at Auschwitz, things begin to fall into place. In another reversal of reality, he watches as living, breathing human beings emerge from the piles of corpses in the gas ovens. And the narrator finally sees himself as a creator of life instead of a destroyer. “The
world, after all, here in Auschwitz has a new habit,” he muses. “It makes sense.”
At first, Amis’s morbid satire seems to trivialize the Holocaust. But underlying his anger and apparent flippancy is a deep sadness and the unshakable conviction that only in a world turned completely upside down could such a horrendous tragedy occur. While both Amis’s and Barnes’s novels seem part of a campaign to subvert the conventional novel, the two authors are more than literary bad boys. In fact, the insights contained in their new books make them angels in a dark age.
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