Published in the early 1990s, this short novel by Martin Amis was nominated for the Booker Prize, ultimately losing to Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, which I haven’t read. This novel begins with a description of an older doctor thinking about his recent retirement and career as he lays in a hospital bed. But the narrative voice is immediately and noticeably strange. One the one hand it’s first person narrative presumably told by the doctor, but on the other, the doctor’s name and consciousness is told in a third person voice. What becomes apparent (and not clear) is that there is more than one consciousness telling this story within and without the head of the doctor. The presumable reason for this becomes more understandable late in the novel.
The novel then begins to move backward in time, narrating things in reverse and moving slowly backward in the doctor’s life. This allows us to see him as a doctor, as a man in relationships with women — whom he treats coldly, and then escaping Europe to South America in the late 1940s and continuously back to Germany of the 1920s.
Martin Amis is writing this novel in the late 1980s and it seems in part that he was responding to the death of Primo Levi, who died by suicide in 1987. In the afterword/acknowledgments page, Amis discusses Levi’s suicide as a wresting of control away from Fascists who worked to control death to such a degree. The book is predicated on this idea in a lot of ways.
This is a fascinating book, but also a limited and frustrating book. I am not entirely convinced the conceit works, but I do like the idea of tracing results backwards, but am less convinced by the functioning of cause and effect that is implied here.