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conceptual
fiction
Time's Arrow

by Martin Amis

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be
lived forwards," Kierkegaard has written.  Martin Amis, in
his quirky novel
Time’s Arrow, reverses the dictum—he
presents a life lived backwards, but capable of
comprehension only when viewed forwards.  

A life told backwards possesses a
strange, unexpected coherency.   
And here is the strangest part: it
seems to follow the same mile-
stones as an ordinary forward-
looking existence—it usually starts
in a hospital with medical personnel
in attendance, but the patient is
totally helpless and weak, only
gradually gaining speech, learning
to walk and other skills we so often
take for granted.

Here’s Martin Amis’s description
from the opening page of
Time’s
Arrow
:

"I move forward, out of the blackest sleep, to find myself
surrounded by doctors…American doctors: I sense their
vigour, scarcely held in check, like the profusion of their
body hair and the forbidding touch of their forbidding
hands—doctor’s hands, so strong, so clean, so aromatic.  
Although my paralysis was fairly well complete, I did find
that I could move my eyes…"

And just as life begins in innocence, but perhaps tainted
with a hidden original sin, the protagonist of
Time’s Arrow
starts his backward journey in time—literally rising from
the dead—with an appearance of moral probity and
respectability that scarcely conceals an anxious, hidden
sense of guilt.  His name is Tod Friendly—or at least it
seems to be: our narrator’s identity changes several times
as he gets younger and younger.   These shifting aliases
add to our sense that the book’s protagonist has something
to hide or someone to hide from.   

Amis relies on an interesting narrative twist here.  His
main character is living life backwards, but without free
will—he cannot control the path on which his existence is
receding towards youth and eventual birth.  Nor does he
remember his historical past, which in this topsy-turvy
story now has become an unknowable sequence of events
he is retracing in reverse.  Mr. Friendly realizes that a dark
cloud surrounds his youth, and he is racing to confront it—
but its horrifying particulars are obscure even as they loom
over his every move.

This is a bleak, sometimes brutal book
but for Martin
Amis, such considerations are not incompatible with
humor, although often of the darkest kind.  His observa-
tions of a backward-led life veer between slapstick and
philosophical reflection.

Related Reviews
London Fields by Martin Amis
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

"'Your driving days are over.' So said the mechanic in his
oily dungarees.  So said the hospital orderly in his stark
white smock.  But they were wrong.  On the contrary, our
driving days have just begun….When people move—when
they travel—they look where they've come from, not
where they’re going.  Is that what human beings always
do?…You have five reverse gears and only one for forward,
which is marked ‘R’ for reverse.   When we drive, we don’t
look where we’re going.  We look where we came from.  
There are accidents, sure, and yet it all works out.”

But affairs of the heart are even more puzzling than these
automotive antics.  When seen in rewind mode,
relationships begin with fights and breakups, and then
move backward through intimate familiarity, and finally
end up with the two parties as total strangers, unaware of
each other’s name.  "By the time I’ve become really fond
of them and their pretty ways, they will start to recede,
irreversibly, fading from me, with the lightest of kisses,
the briefest squeeze of the hand….They’ll be fobbing us off
with the flowers and the chocolates.  Oh yes.  I’ve been
there.  Then, one day, they just look right through you."

A bemused detachment permeates
Time’s Arrow, one
that imparts a haphazard quality to the humorous
elements that constantly come into play.  Imagine the
jokes you and your friends would make if you gathered to
watch a movie in reverse.  Susan Sontag once stated that
all tragedies turn into comedies if you speed up the action
sufficiently, but I would add the corollary that dramas are
transformed into farce if you view them while they are
slowly rewinding.  Have you ever seen the young Woody
Allen’s directorial debut, a low budget oddity called
What's
Up Tiger Lily?—it’s a film built on a real a Japanese spy
movie that Allen butchers by imposing his own poorly
dubbed dialogue on to the action.  Amis sometimes
achieves a similar comic distance in this novel;  his
narrator doesn't really live his life, but merely offers
us his own rambling commentary as it hobbles along in
reverse according to rules beyond his comprehension.  

But this comic detachment coexists uneasily with the
horrific historical undercurrents that eventually over-
whelm and define our protagonist’s life.  One might think
that a life presented as a sequence of events outside the
narrator’s control would be exempt from issues of guilt
and complicity, but Amis is on to something different
here—and something profound.  He wants to capture a
person's sense of his own life when he becomes a spectator
rather than an actor.   The result is one of the quirkiest
novels of its day, and an unsettling synthesis of incom-
patible theologies, one in which both predestination and
redemption by works and intentions equally have their
sway.  And what seems merely, at first glance, a flam-
boyant narrative device, turns into a powerful tool in
laying bare hard truths and painful realities that would
remain hidden in a more conventional tale.   You will walk
away convinced that time’s arrow always stings, but
perhaps even more painfully when you’re looking in the
wrong direction.
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