Time’s arrow – by Martin Amis
Vintage Publishing 2003, 144 pages Paperback ISBN: 9780099455356
THERE IS A PASSAGE in Amis’ Money involving a horse race which, from the first time I read it around twenty years ago and on every occasion since, has induced the same helpless laughter as when Brian Johnston described Botham’s inability to get his “leg over”.
Thus, armed with book tokens during the 2021 lockdown I sought similar Amis-led relief. From The Guardian’s list of the best Amis novels, I selected number 4: the 1991, 144 page Time’s Arrow. Crucially I did not read their or indeed any summary. Had I done so I would have established two things: that this is a dark book which uses the narrator’s confusion to comedic effect; and that the unexpected revelation that brilliantly creeps up on one halfway through would have been spoiled.
Time’s Arrow begins with Doctor Tod Friendly dying. Or more accurately, as the narrator details, coming back to life. After which paramedics take him to his retirement home in the suburbs to experience a heart attack before doing a bit of gardening.
What we quickly realise, but the narrator (a confused, bewildered being, co-existing “inside”, yet not part of the Doctor) does not, is that Friendly’s life is being experienced backwards, from its end to its beginning. The narrator does however realise he is little more than a parasite or spectator with no influence on events, actions or thoughts. Significantly he “…came along too late or too early to make a difference”.
Upon hearing that the weather in New York, hitherto consistently temperate, has become unsettled, Tod moves there and renames himself John Young, becoming younger, stronger and more promiscuous. Working as a doctor, the reversed timeline means he removes the bandages from patients, worsens their wounds then sends them out to experience trauma. Similarly, comic situations arise such as restaurants paying him to produce a meal which is later taken away then described to a waiter; pocketing large amounts from the church collection plate; or splitting up with his lovers before seducing them.
The narrator’s confusion mounts as he observes “They’re always looking forward to going places they’re just coming back from or regretting doing things they haven’t yet done. They say hello when they mean goodbye.”
The challenge of this novel lies in understanding and being prepared to think through the reverse narrative. It is not a unique technique of course (cf. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5) but requires a few pages to “settle” into, perhaps as when reading text in the vernacular, such as Welsh or Kelman. Yet confusion, uncertainty and discombobulation are key to the story. As the narrator says: “How many times have I asked myself: when is the world going to start making sense? Yet the answer is out there. It is rushing towards me over the uneven ground”. As indeed it is… The method is unsettling because it reflects the narrator’s experience as he seeks explanations and rationalisation for events which ultimately cannot be so rationalised.
Assuming one does not read any summaries of the story and thus “pre-discover” the outcome, I’d hazard Time’s Arrow will be viewed as one of Amis’ best. I’d even put Money on it.
Now in our sixteenth year, ThinkScotland is not for profit (it makes a loss) and relies on donations to keep publishing our wide range of opinions and writing – You can help support ThinkScotland by making a donation here.