Martin Amis: Time’s Arrow (1991)

Some books change your perspective on the world. Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis, does just that, on the most concrete sense of the word. While I was reading it, I felt disorientated and was confused over the simplest everyday movements. Time’s Arrow principle (some may say “trick”, with reason) is that the book is told backwards: from the death of the main character to its birth.

It’s not simply a plot told in flashbacks (like Sarah Waters’ Night Watch), no, everything is done backwards: food is regurgitated, things appear from the fire, trash is distributed nightly by city trucks, people in the hospital come in healthy and go out bloody and sick, lovers meet crying and arguing and split in a quiet, detached way.

It’s a miracle, and a proof of his writing gift, that Amis can sustain the story for a hundred pages or so. For the reader, it’s a mind exercise (sudoku, anyone?), that requires undivided concentration (otherwise you end up flipping the pages backwards and forwards, like I did).

Of course, such a ploy requires a detached point of view, above and around the action and just describing it. I can’t imagine how a subjective point of view would do the trick; it would make no sense, because the subjective point of view implies a causality based on the normal time sequence. So Amis has the story told by his main character’s soul (not on the moral sense of the word), an autistic soul that looks at the world trying to make sense of it all, while the main character just goes on with his life like on an old rewinding VCR tape. There’s practically no feeling described here, only actions.

What about the story? Oh yes, the story… There start the difficulties. The principle was funny (as a writer I wanted to see the craft and the feat), but the story in itself is not something I am comfortable with. As a principle, I draw the line at fictions using the Jewish genocide as a subject for imagination. Especially when they use literary tricks. Here, the quiet American retired doctor living in suburbia evolves backwards into a young Nazi doctor proceeding to awful biologic experiments in Auschwitz. Hence the lack of feelings, that also comes handy. The autistic soul, once arrived in Auschwitz, eventually feels a lot better: in that place, dead people are born out of ashes, grow healthier and happier, to finally be reunited with their loved ones and be sent home all over Europe. I don’t like these scenes at all, where we readers are expected to draw back in horror while the soul describes the genocide in rosy terms. I guess that Amis wanted to illustrate how the Nazi regime was evil and perverse. I don’t think it needs to be demonstrated, forwards or backwards. I guess that he wanted to show how unassuming people can hide terrible secrets in their past, and be evil at heart, even if they’re benevolent later on in their life. But this is a little weak and empty. If it were told forwards, this would be obvious. Eventually, I feel disappointed and manipulated, as if Amis had left all the work for the reader to do. The book is interesting, but not completely convincing.

That’s my reading of David Lodge’s essays “The Art of Fiction” that led me to this book. Here’s what he says about Time’s Arrow (re-translated backwards from French by myself…):

“This story can be interpreted as a sort of purgatory in which the main character’s soul has to relive his awful past, but also as the myth of revocation of evil, which is obviously impossible. Most examples of radical experiments on the story chronology, that come to mind, seem related to crime, offences, and sin.”

Obviously I am not enough of a religious person to have thought of that…

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7 thoughts on “Martin Amis: Time’s Arrow (1991)

  1. I was more impressed with Time’s Arrow than you were, Smithereens. I share you unease at any art that tries to make use of the Holocaust. But what worked for me (and not so much for you) was the use of narrative technique to demonstrate, not merely explain, how the brain handles the literally “unthinkable” by reordering the facts, as our memories often do to spare us, into the only sequence the narrator can accept.

  2. I have never read any Martin Amis, because I’m afraid it might be all male show-off trickery with an absence of emotional depth. Probably if I ever did read him, this wouldn’t be the place to start. I know my husband enjoyed The Rachel Papers a lot. I’d rather read his father – Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis has been on my reading list for a long time!

  3. Well, yeah, if you haven’t read Lucky Jim yet, that would be the right choice. But dip into a couple of pages of Martin, too, and decide for yourself whether the technique is enough to keep you reading.

  4. I’m reading my first Martin Amis, The Information, so I haven’t read Time’s Arrow, but after reading your description I want to. I think it sounds genius, actually, to go backwards into the Holocaust; it seems like the only thing one *can* legitimately do to try to “make sense” of how someone could perpetuate such atrocious acts. How many times have people tried to write traditionally forward in an attempt to “understand” a serial killer or some such thing, but it seems to always stop just short of comprehension, because a “normal” person would put on the brakes. This further convinces me Amis is brilliant and I haven’t even read this one yet. Also, everyone keeps telling me that instead of reading The Information, I should have started with Money. I’m rather enjoying his writing. I think he’s brilliant.

  5. David, you’re so right in linking Time’s arrow with the way memory works, especially when it deforms things we’re not comfortable with.
    Linda, I agree with you: brilliant is the right word for his literary skill. If only for that, I want to try another one, maybe Money, but in English this time, as I’m afraid I might lose something in a translation.

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