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Martin Amis: Time’s Arrow

Before you read the book:

A few months back I read Amis’s Night Train, and it has stuck in my mind more than most other books I’ve read this year.  In those comments, Stewart from booklit recommended Time’s Arrow.  I admit, I had first put this book off as a gimmicky, post-modern, literary device that was effective when Kurt Vonnegut used it in Slaugher-house Five but that should not be repeated in order to keep pure the aura of Vonnegut’s magnificent passage, where we witness events in backwards time:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England.  Over France, a few German fighter plans flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen.  They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

. . . .

It’s a fantastic passage, and I didn’t really want to see the technique become a gimmick.  But, on Stewart’s good word, I decided to venture into Time’s Arrow.

First things first: I’m glad it was Amis who did this – and, it must be noted, Amis acknowledges Vonnegut’s passage (as well as a story by Isaac Beshevis Singer, which I have no knowledge of).  Amis’s style and wit made me forget (almost) that this is really just Vonnegut’s passage expanded to book length.  At any rate, it made it so I didn’t care that this was just Vonnegut’s passage expanded to book length.  I imagine this must be difficult to pull off, and Amis does it brilliantly.

Here we meet Tod T. Friendly, just as he’s born from death.  In his birth, however, he is not alone.  The narrator of the book, though he is Friendly, is a separate entity.  He’s watching Friendly’s life in reverse.  He looks at things from Friendly’s perspective, can feel Friendly’s emotions, but he cannot know Friendly’s thoughts.

The first part of the novel is the progress from senescence to middle-age.  The narrator is disoriented; after all, the world doesn’t quite make sense.  Amis focuses on the quotidian as he entertains us:

Eating is unattractive too.  First I stack the clean plates in the dishwasher, which works okay, I guess, like all my other labor-saving devices, until some fat bastard shows up in his jumpsuit and trumatizes them with his tools.  So far so good: then you select a soiled dish, collect some scraps from the garbage, and settle down for a short wait.  Varios items get gulped up into my mouth, and after skillfull massage with tongue and teeth I transfer them to the plate for additional sculpture with knife and fork and spoon. . . . Next you fact the laborious business of cooling, of reassembly, of storage, before the return of these foodstuffs to the Superette, where, admittedly, I am promptly and generously reimbursed for my pains.  Then you tool down the aisles, with trolley or basket, returning each can and packet to its rightful place.

There are several sly observations: “The Reagan Era, I think, is doing wonders for Tod’s morale.”

And here is one of the parts that really made me chuckle:

Tennis is a pretty dumb game, I’m finding: the fuzzy ball jumps out of the net, or out of the chicken wire at the back of the court, and the four of us bat it around until it is pocketed – quite arbitrarily, it seems to me – by the server.

Perhaps you’ll see that, up till this point, it was all entertaining but really made me question whether that was the only point.  Still, there were some beautiful, poetic parts throughout, especially those that deal with relationships:

She’s miserable that it all has to end.  Me, I’m miserable that it’s all beginning.  By the time we’re on the other side of this, I know (I’m experienced), 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, the brush of a stockinged calf beneath the table, a smile.  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.

The world doesn’t make sense to our narrator: “Now and then, when the night sky is starless, I look up and form the hilarious suspicion that the world will soon start making sense.”  All of this confusion, however, leads to a time when the world does make sense.  It turns out that Friendly was involved in a grand project: creating a human race from smoke and ashes.  It is then that we come to understand why the subtitle of the book – “The Nature of the Offense,” a line from Primo Levi.  It is at this point that the book turns from just being very clever to also being very poignant.  By reversing cause and effect Amis also reimagines the motives behind one of the ugliest times in human history.  By doing this, he adds to the literature of this period by illuminating the nature of evil by presenting its polar opposite.  His cleverness and poetry are put to good use.

I believe it’s true and fair to say that in doing this Amis is doing nothing more than what Vonnegut did in his short two-page passage.  At least, the basic idea is the same.  But that doesn’t make this books less powerful or even less unique in its own way.  After all, how many books do we have going forward in time, and even going back and forth in time?  Yet we appreciate works in those tired formats when they make us think and feel – and this book does that.

11 thoughts on “Martin Amis: Time’s Arrow

  1. Rob says:

    This may have been the stand-out Martin Amis book for me. This, and maybe the good novella that was hidden somewhere in the layers of flab that were The Information.

    You’ve already said everything I would have said about Time’s Arrow, so I’ll just nod, “Aye.”

  2. Rob, Amis has definitely got my attention. I have enjoyed what I’ve read so far, but I need to dig into one of his longer works to see if I enjoy him because he’s clever or if he can hold my attention beyond the cleverness.

  3. After all, how many books do we have going forward in time

    Hmm… I wonder why. :)

    To me this sounds like a horrendous postmodern gimmick. I read Sarah Waters’ Night Watch, where scenes play out forwards but in reverse order, and thought that was rather gimmicky. Time’s Arrow is clearly even more extreme. I’m guessing how worthwhile you find the book is going to depend on how attached you are to the idea that a story is something that could potentially be true.

  4. John Self says:

    I agree that The Night Watch was rather gimmicky, but I rate Time’s Arrow among Amis’s best. Oddly, my one complaint is that, at just 180 pages or so, it’s a little too long. Amis struggles to follow the central scenes (the narrator even opens the next chapter with “How do you follow that?” or something similar) and I think it could have been edited ruthlessly thereafter. But the paradoxes Amis sets up – like the impossibility of suicide in a backward world, or the following one, are irresistible to me.

    The women at the crisis centres and the refuges are all hiding from their redeemers. The crisis centre is not called a crisis centre for nothing. If you want a crisis, just check in. The welts, the abrasions and the black eyes get starker, more livid, until it is time for the women to return, in an ecstasy of distress, to the men who will suddenly heal them. Some require more specialised treatment. They stagger off and go and lie in a park or a basement or wherever, until men come along and rape them, and then they’re okay again. Ah shit, says Brad, the repulsive orderly, there’s nothing wrong with them – meaning the women in the shelter – that a good six inches won’t cure. Tod frowns at him sharply. I hate Brad too, and I hate to say it, but sometimes he’s absolutely right. How could the world ever fix it so that someone like Brad could ever be right?

  5. Excellent passages John. And (SPOILER ALERT) there’s also the passage where Tod performs the abortions, only to meet with the women about eight weeks later.

    It’s just that reversal of cause and effect that also reverses motive that makes this book so powerful. When I say I’m wondering how he can maintain a longer work, I don’t mean to imply that I thought this one was weak. It’s just that I agree that it was perhaps a bit too long, even for a very short work. I’m taking that to mean that he’s always very clever and has a very interesting premise, but not one that is fully fleshed out with sustained subtlety.

    But it was a great one, and I’m just trying to decide which of his longer works to tackle first!

  6. John Self says:

    Probably Money. If you don’t like that then you won’t like the others, I suspect. Plus then you would get to meet the man I took my name from!

  7. I’d second Money, and like John I’d say if you don’t like that there’s not much point in trying others. It’s a tremendous novel, with a fascinating protagonist. A very rewarding work as I recall.

    I thought Amis had written a backwards time novel dealing with the Holocaust, this plainly isn’t that, has he done this twice or am I misattributing another author’s work?

  8. KevinfromCanada says:

    My problem with Amis is that while his books seem fine when I read them, a few months later I have no memory of what the book was about. I checked the bibliography — I’m pretty sure I’ve read five and can’t tell you what one of them was about. Again, that may say more about me than it does about the author.

  9. Actually, Max, this is that very work dealing with the Holocaust. That doesn’t come until well over half-way through the novel, and I wondered if it might be a bit of a spoiler to mention it in my main post, so I just alluded to it by mentioning the novel’s subtitle. Well, I probably was wrong about that being a spoiler. Mentioning Friendly’s role in the Holocaust might be a spoiler, but not the fact that the Holocaust plays a large role in the novel.

    I will definitely go with Money next. I think I’ll like what I read by Amis, but I might be like Kevin. I haven’t forgotten them, but the impact lessens over time. I attribute that to the fact that I feel that what I’ve read so far has been very clever but a bit narrowly focused on the cleverness.

    That said, I think he’s a wonderful writer, and I look forward to getting to know him better. I think by developing a relationship with his work, especially his longer works, I’ll see more in it.

  10. Ah, thanks Trevor, I was being dense not picking that up.

    Amis is perhaps a tad too clever for his own good, but Money has stayed with me (or at least some images from it) years after other novels I read at the same time have faded, and though it’s early to say I’m hopeful The Night Train may have some longevity and even be worth revisiting in a few years.

  11. I’m in the middle of an Amis kick at the moment, having worked my way through about half of his novels. I’ve just finished Time’s Arrow and I found it technically brilliant. As John mentions, it could perhaps have been edited down to be even more concise, but a fantastic achievement nonetheless.

    It’s a complete pleasure to read through the quotes you’ve picked out – Amis is one of the novelists whose writing stands up, even in isolation.

    Thanks.

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