Time's Arrow ⇐if you click this link, don't read the reviews!
Martin Amis, 1991
I read a review of this book about ten years ago. The review made it sound
quite interesting. However, having now read the book, I discovered that the
review had to a great extent spoiled it for me. Time's Arrow reveals
its premise fairly gradually, and thus you're probably best off just plunging
in, knowing nothing, so that the revelation of the premise actually works as
intended. (Consider the case of The Truman Show, whose premise is supposed
to be a mystery for the first 45 minutes of its running time — and whose
marketing campaign spoiled the mystery in advance, making those 45 minutes a
tedious exercise.) But say you don't want to read a book without some kind of
hint as to what it's about. Fair enough. However, even after the premise of
Time's Arrow is manifestly clear to readers, the book hinges upon a
mystery lurking in the main character's past — and the review I read
spoiled that too. Infuriating.
Anyway, last chance to bail before I talk about the...
The narrator of Time's Arrow is a sardonic consciousness living in
the head of an old man named Tod Friendly. Over the course of the first
few pages, we learn that the narrator is experiencing Tod's life backwards.
This is not the sort of backwards narrative employed in works such as
Betrayal and Memento, in which the
scenes are arranged in reverse chronological order but in which each scene
is related from start to finish. This is the sort of backwards narrative
that is like watching a movie on rewind. People sit down on toilets in order
to have feces rocket up into their rectums, making them feel uncomfortable,
and then the discomfort slowly passes until they feel so full that food
emerges into their mouths, which they spoon onto their plates and eventually
pack up to give to a grocery store which compensates them in cash.
A high concept is just a starting point. Execution is the important thing.
And Time's Arrow is exceedingly well executed. I started keeping a
list of spots where Amis used the unusual premise to make a particularly keen
observation, but soon found that I had to keep a parallel list of moments that
had little or nothing to do with the premise but were just such awesome
lines. Here's one that's just setting the scene: "The humans had grown
their winter coats, and the high buildings trembled in the tight grip of their
stress equations." That's fairly magnificent. I also liked this one, at the
end of a paragraph in which the narrator muses about his host's lechery:
"What can it be about women's bodies, apart from their being so incredibly
As noted, those lines could have appeared in any book. Where Time's
Arrow really stands out are the parts that rely on the book's chief
gimmick, which is observing events backwards but evaluating the logic of
those events as if they had occurred forwards. For instance, when Tod
goes to church, the narrator avers that "it's clear what Tod's after.
Christ, he's so shameless. He always takes a really big bill from the
bowl." The sleight of mind required to figure out what's really
going on throughout the book — to translate praise for the pimps who
miraculously heal prostitutes with their fists into the proper moral terms
— was, I found, easy to turn on, but difficult to turn off. Every
time I closed the book I spent several minutes automatically swapping the
causes and effects I saw around me.
What's interesting about that, Time's Arrow observes, is that in
some cases, it doesn't matter. Most conversations, for instance, are
unintelligible backwards, but lovers' quarrels read the same in either
direction. "Don't go—please." "Goodbye, Tod." "Don't go." "It's
no good." "Please." In fact, a lot of phenomena turn out to be bell
curves. When two people gradually grow more distant, kisses turning to
hugs, hugs into smiles, smiles into blank looks — is that the
beginning of an affair viewed backwards, or just a matter of a couple
growing apart? (When it is clear, though, Amis generally makes
it hilarious. Here's Tod, a doctor, seducing his middle-aged patients, in
reverse: "Our girlfriends seem to enjoy the charade, at least to begin
with; they are flirtatious and collusive. I think it must be Tod's
questions that eventually put them off. 'How long have you been married?'
'Is your husband an active man?' 'Do you lead a... do you lead a full
life?' Our girlfriends never lead full lives. They all claim, rather
hurtfully, to lead empty ones. Anyway these questions go down like a
lead balloon." Ha ha ha ha ha ha)
And Time's Arrow also points out that some events in history
have been predicated on backwards logic. One mantra throughout the
book is that violence creates, and in a world where in a matter of
seconds bombs can create city blocks that subsequently take years to
dismantle, that's true. But if "violence creates" is quite literally
the opposite of true, what can we make of an administration that
declares, even in a world where cause precedes effect, that war
will heal the Middle East?
Note that I haven't even talked about all the richness that the second
premise adds to the mix. This is a really good book.
Time's Arrow reminded me a lot of the old computer game
Ego, with its focus on the stages of life. In Time's Arrow,
of course, you move backwards. The beginning of the book is largely about
the mortifying indignities of old age. When Tod moves into the milder
indignities of late middle age, the narrator is ecstatic. "Tod and I are
feeling so damn good these days: physically. I can't understand why Tod
doesn't show more gratitude for the improvement. When I think back to how
things were out in Wellport, man, we were still walking, but only just.
It was taking us twenty-five minutes to cross the room. We can bend over
now with scarcely a groan, scarcely a knee-crackle." And later: "I want
to click my heels, I want to clench my fist: Yes. Why aren't people
happier about how great they're feeling, relatively? Why don't we hug
each other all the time, saying, 'How about this?'" I think that
is extremely well observed, but perhaps that is because I am sufficiently
ghoulish that even before I read this book I tended to obsess about my
vanishing youth, already tended to dwell on the fact that I will in all
likelihood never feel better physically than I do today, and never as well
as I did yesterday. Unless the singularity does something about it. Maybe
living in a hard drive feels really awesome.
Even more commentary
I can't help but notice that recently I have taken to waking up, eating
a handful of chocolate-covered mini pretzels, then going about my business,
eventually making a fancy pasta dish as my main meal for the day, and finally
having a bowl of cereal shortly before going to bed.
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