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Wednesday, January 28, 2009 

The Curious Case of the reverse narrative.

Marcel Berlins notes that the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, ostensibly based upon F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story from the 20s, also shares a storyline with a much more recent novel, the Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer. Whether the screenplay was inspired by a more recent take on the being born old and regressing in age theme, it's hardly one which is entirely unique.

Science fiction especially has often used if not the device of being born old, then certainly the idea of aging backwards. Even more notable, at least in my opinion, was the use of the theme by Martin Amis in his 1991 novel Time's Arrow, one of his lesser known but exceptionally well judged works. Taking its cue from how the doctors in concentration camps harmed rather than healed, a reversal of their natural role, everything is backwards, with the German war criminal who managed to escape to the United States un-noticed going from his death, to practicing as a GP, to finally back to alongside Mengel himself. While Amis's powers have dimmed notably from his heyday, his use of language no longer used to illuminate and astound but more to bludgeon, as his essays on the war on terror testify, few writers could have kept the central conceit going so vividly, especially when writing on as sensitive a subject as the Holocaust. The reverse narrative results not in the deaths of those condemned to die, but their revival, and with it, rather than the extermination of an entire race, their creation. It's not only a masterfully simple way of broaching the horror, it also gives hope itself: Amis's point, as well as showing the reversal of humanity, is that even from the most terrible of acts something new emerges. A message far more substantial than that which Benjamin Button even begins to offer.

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Philip K. Dick, /Counter-clock World/, 1967.

And Sean O'Faolain's And Again? (1979)


http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950DEFD8143FF934A2575AC0A96F948260

There's also a decent JG Ballard short story called Time Of Passage about a man who is dug up out of the ground and lives his life backwards with Ballard making the whole process of unbirth absolutely terrifying.

There's a bit in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five where the hero, who has "come unstuck in time", sees a film about a World War II air raid forwards, then backwards. There was some speculation that Amis had ripped it off in Time's Arrow, as I recall.

Word Verification: proingle, v.t. to probe intimately in rubber gloves.

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