It’s chilling to think about, the possibility of life moving in reverse. It’s an idea that is incomprehensible and yet somehow an idea we’ve been mulling over for our eternity, how many times have you heard someone assert something ended before it began?
But really, really think about it. What would it look like? Martin Amis has an idea. It looks like cab drivers paying passengers, bodies becoming stronger, hookers paying their clients, breakups beginning relationships, the knowledge of impending war or disaster, dirty dishes being set on a table, and doctors mutilating their patients.
Time’s Arrow is Amis’ mind-fuck of a novel which delicately treads the line between a temperance towards, and an abuse of, his conceit; the profoundly eerie fact that time is moving in the wrong direction.
While it can occasionally devolve into pure gimmick (by nature a reader given the conceit will be tempted to read purely and distractedly for the conceit), Amis doesn’t keep his readers guessing as to the source of the confusing narrative flow, he immediately announces the narrative strictures he has placed on his fictional world through his narrator, a voice inside of Tod (the protagonist) who is and isn’t Tod at the same time.
Is it his soul? His conscience? We don’t really know. We do know, however, that despite the access our narrator has to Tod, Tod doesn’t seem to notice it. In fact, Tod seems to be willfully ignoring its presence. Whatever it is and whatever it represents it’s necessary; our guide to this universe, assisting us in developing an understanding of just how different Tod’s life is from our own in its voicing of our own confusion and ignorance.
“I keep expecting the world to make sense.”
Tod is a doctor. He lives a mostly solitary, mostly unhappy life. There’s an occasional woman. Tod receives a letter each year from an anonymous sender unvaryingly informing him of temperate weather. Time moves slowly for a time. But then wars begin to arrive, first Vietnam, then the big one, a bifurcation, and Part two.
Etiquette requires I refrain from divulging narrative details further but suffice to say time’s reversal, if imagined in a psychological sense, does, at a certain critical point, begin to make sense. At least kind of.
It’s a darkly cynical book taking some of the blackest times in Western history as its setting. When Amis’ narrator states the necessity “to harden your heart to pain and suffering and quick. Like right away at the very latest,” it’s delivered as a matter of fact prescription for those who want to maintain sanity in the 20th century and Amis marshals the most sympathetic as victims in his dark take on fatalism, history, and the nature of man.
Time’s Arrow is also an assertion in a way, of art’s power to reverse time, or, if not to reverse it, at least to complicate it. “Like writing, paintings seem to hint at a topsy-turvy world in which, so to speak, time’s arrow moves the other way.” Amis’ in Time’s Arrow has latched on to a powerful, not to mention rather metaphysical method of forcing his readers to confront tragedy not by humanizing it, but by recounting it in the darkest manner possible.
It’s profoundly chilling, life going backwards. The brutal realization that some things don’t actually get better. Some get much worse. That violence happens no matter which direction time moves. That very often when we think we’re healing, we’re injuring. And that no matter which way time’s arrow turns, humans will always remember only what they want to remember.
In Time’s Arrow Tod remembers the past but we, we encounter what it would be like to only remember the future.
“We needed magic, to resolve significance from what surrounded us, which scarcely permitted contemplation: we needed someone godlike – someone who could turn this world around.”