A review of Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis

Reviewed by Tom Frenkel

Time’s Arrow
by Martin Amis
ISBN-13: 978-0679735724, Paperback: 176 pages, September 29, 1992

I was slightly off my usual beat this time. Instead of rummaging around my local thrift shop in Sunnyside, New York, I was up in New Haven, Connecticut, seeing an old friend and re-visiting my old stomping grounds. While there I walked down Audubon St. and came across Arethusa Book Shop, an out-of-print and used bookstore. New to me (though it’s been around a while), and quite a classy place; not one of your 99-cent paperback stores. I had an long and interesting discussion with the woman who worked there … she filled me in on New Haven goings-on. And I came across a book that turned out to be quite a find: Time’s Arrow (1991) by Martin Amis. (If you haven’t heard of Martin Amis, you may have heard of his father Kingsley, author of Lucky Jim, which I most heartily recommend.) Anyway, I had known Martin Amis before for his novel The Information (1995) which I greatly enjoyed. I had not, however, been that turned on by a couple of his other novels (London Fields and Night Train), so I spent a bit of time browsing Time’s Arrow in the store before I bought it. Not only did I like the prose that I sampled; I also enjoyed the physical presence of this volume. It was a hardcover edition, but a comfortably small one, and … the pages were actually sewn in “signatures”, not glued together singly memo-pad fashion, which is how most books are made nowadays.

One thing I did not do, however, was read the jacket notes; and (especially in the case of this book) I would counsel you to follow my example. A considerable part of my involvement of Time’s Arrow came from trying to figure out how the story was going to develop; one gets more and more clues as one goes along.

And this story (appropriately enough for a book found on a journey to past haunts) unfolds in a most unusual way; namely: backwards! The most salient thing about Time’s Arrow is that time progresses from “future” to “past”… and not as a series of flashbacks, but in a continuous stream, just as if one were playing a movie backwards. (Does anyone know of any precedents for this?) The book starts out with the death of Tod Friendly, the main character. It is narrated by what the jacket notes (yes, now I’ve read them!) call a doppelganger, kind of an alter ego that exists inside Friendly’s body. To this “reverse Tod” I suppose we could call him, time’s arrow is reversed. He can feel what Tod feels, but is unaware of what the past (which to him is the “future”) holds, except for vague foreshadowings. At the outset, the narrator, i.e. the “reverse Tod”, speaks of having “the sense of starting out on a terrible journey, toward a terrible secret”. And as we go along from the future toward the past, we find out more and more….

The time-reversal technique would probably not work in the hands of a lesser writer, but Amis, I think, handles it most adroitly. I get a sense of virtuosity, the way I do when I hear a musical form such as a canon,which has to follow very strict rules. In addition, there is often an intellectual challenge to the reader, to piece conversations and events together in the “normal” way as one reads about them in the “reverse” way.This makes the reading of this book even more of a participatory experience than one has with most other books. And the overall payoff of this unique way of telling the story is that the “past”, as one moves toward it instead of away from it, is depicted with a remarkable vividness.

Although the book as a whole is anything but humorous (when you read it you will definitely see what I mean), many individual passages are quite funny, I would say. My favorite is probably this one, about taxicabs (just remember, everything is reversed):

The business with the yellow cabs, it surely looks like an unimprovable deal. They’re always there when you need one, even in the rain or when the theaters are closing. They pay you up front, no questions asked. They always know where you’re going. They’re great. No wonder we stand there, for hours on end, waving goodbye, or saluting — saluting this fine service. The streets are full of people with their arms raised, drenched and weary, thanking the yellow cabs. Just the one hitch: they’re always taking me places where I don’t want to go.

This time-reversed world has certain peculiarities. For one thing, as the narrator notes, suicide is impossible, once a character is on the scene (think about it). For another, a guy “often gets everything on a firstdate”!

Doctors are a major theme of this book. At the beginning, as Tod “is born” (well, actually as he dies of course), he is surrounded by doctors.And since time is reversed, one sees, as the story goes on, perfectly respectable American physicians doing terrible things to people, like placing them in wrecked cars and implanting cancer into their bodies! (Why does Amis take such pains, so to speak, to depict this? Hang on….)

To sum up: Time’s Arrow is a brilliant work, in my opinion. In the first place, the time-reversal is done with great skill; and on this level, Time’s Arrow is certainly a tour de force. But I think the book is much more than that. The writing is powerful. And when taken as a whole, the book has an overarching structure that pulls everything together. Not a pleasant read in many places, but I think an important book.