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Time's Arrow, or The Nature of the Offense ()

Granta Best British Novelists (1983)

    When I told him that I was writing about nuclear weapons, he said, with a lilt, 'Ah. I suppose you're
    . . . ''against them,'' are you?'
    -Martin Amis on his father, Kingsley, Einstein's Monsters

    Nobody can imagine in physical terms the act of reversing the order of time. Time is not reversible.
        -Vladimir Nabokov

When we were kids, there was a toy from Kenner called, I believe, the Give-a-Show Projector.  You'd tack a sheet up on the wall and use the hand-cranked projector to show a short film, typically an old Three Stooges.  That was cool enough, but what made it really terrific was that you could run it backwards, so that the pie flew off of one Stooge's faces into the other's hand, and so on and so forth.  Terrific that is for about ten minutes at a time and for a couple months, then it was exiled to a box in some closet and never heard from again.  Martin Amis, apparently unaware of how quickly the novelty of such backward motion wears off, writes this entire novel from the perspective of a nascent human soul watching a man's life unspool in reverse.

Dr. Tod T. Friendly dies as the book opens and the narrator is "born".  From this beginning/ending in an American city, the doppleganger ("the soul he should have had") observes the progression/regression of Friendly's life, which takes them back to New York City, where he was known as John Young, to Portugal and Italy (Hamilton de Souza), to Germany (Odilo Unverdorben) and to Auschwitz, where Unverdorben worked under Mengele, performing horrific experiments on the inmates.

It is at Auschwitz that we see just what Amis has intended, as, rather than a mass murderer, Unverdorben appears to be a healer, his experiments, run backwards, seeming to bring his "patients" back to life and health, the camp filling with people "as good as new", the Zyklon B repackaged, the ghettos dismantled, the Jewish Laws repealed, the windows unshattered on Kristalnacht, the entire Holocaust itself being undone.  And back and back until Unverdorben is unborn, crawling back into his mother, as if none of it had ever happened, a kind of cosmic do-over.

Martin Amis has variously said that either the Holocaust is the central fact of modern life or that the "nuclear experience" was :

    Nuclear war never happened, but this was the nuclear experience, unknowable to anyone born too
    soon or too late. In order to know what it was, you have to have been a schoolchild, crouched under
    your desk, hoping it would protect you from the end of the world.

And, indeed, his response to these two facts seems to be to want to hide under a desk or, as in Time's Arrow, to crawl back into the womb.  Actually, this is his reaction to the general tendency towards entropy in all of existence.  He seems terrified of disorder, longing for a return to the perfectly ordered world that existed before Adam and Eve ate of the apple.

The problem with this yearning for security is that it is ultimately antihuman.  The Holocaust, the prospect of nuclear war, all of the evils that we commit or of which we are capable, are all part and parcel of what it is to be human.  Terrible as they are to contemplate, they are facts which we, as a species, must come to terms with if we are ever to overcome this capacity for evil.  In this sense, Time's Arrow is representative of a literature of defeat.  The security that Amis is in search of could only come at the expense of Man's free will.  Many would find this a price worth paying, and since at least the time of Cain and Abel, humanity has divided into two camps over whether to pay it, but it would basically reduce us to the status of sheep.  This prospect, of permanently surrendering our humanity, is surely more frightening than the knowledge that we are frequently susceptible to actions which are inhuman, more frightening even when that inhumanity occurs on such a horrific scale as did the Holocaust.

Some critics have credited Amis with enhancing our understanding of the Holocaust by approaching it from a novel perspective, and it is always worthwhile to do so.  But  the time reversal technique is not compelling enough to carry the story along for all of its hundreds of pages.  This is the type of clever trick that the Twilight Zone used to toss off in a half hour.  This might have been an effective short story, but it's a rather tedious novel.


Grade: (C)


Martin Amis Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Martin Amis
    -Martin Amis Web
    -WIKIPEDIA: Koba the Dread
    -BOOK SITE: Koba the Dread (Penguin Random House)
    -EXCERPT: First Chapter of Koba the Dread
    -ESSAY: The palace of the end: The first war of the Age of Proliferation will not be an oil-grab so much as an expression of pure power (Martin Amis, March 4, 2003, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Lightness at Midnight: Stalinism without irony (CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, SEPTEMBER 2002, The Atlantic)
Writing toward the very end of his life, a life that had included surprising Stalin himself by a refusal to confess, and the authorship of a novel—The Case of Comrade Tulayev—that somewhat anticipated Darkness at Noon, Victor Serge could still speak a bit defensively about the bankruptcy of socialism in the "midnight of the century" represented by the Hitler-Stalin pact. But he added,

Have you forgotten the other bankruptcies? What was Christianity doing in the various catastrophes of society? What became of Liberalism? What has Conservatism produced, in either its enlightened or its reactionary form? ... If we are indeed honestly to weigh out the bankruptcies of ideology, we shall have a long task ahead of us.

In the best sections of this book Amis makes the extraordinary demand that, in effect, the human species should give up on teleology and on all forms of "experiment" on fellow creatures. He is being much more revolutionary here than perhaps he appreciates.

    -INTERVIEW: Martin Amis in Conversation with Olga Slavnikova (The New Yorker, 6/13/12)
    -INTERVIEW: Martin Amis, The Art of Fiction No. 151 (Interviewed by Francesca Riviere, ISSUE 146, SPRING 1998, Paris Review)
-ESSAY: Why We Should Read Martin Amis (Riley Moore, 1/09/21, Quillette)
    -TRIBUTE: The Singular Robert Conquest (JAY NORDLINGER, September 10, 2015, National Review)
    -PROFILE: Is Saul Bellow Martin Amis’s true father?: Reviews of Martin Amis’s new book prove that the best questions are the ones that no one asks (David Herman, 10/02/20, the Critic)
    -REVIEW: of Koba the Dread by Martin Amis (Paul Berman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Koba the Dread (Anne Applebaum, Slate)
    -REVIEW: of Koba the Dread (Neal Ascherson, The Guardian)
Amis has loved two men who have found reasons not to dismiss what happened after October 1917 in Russia as an inexcusable moral atrocity. These two are his late father, Kingsley Amis, and Christopher Hitchens. Kingsley Amis, before his spectacular conversion to the right, was a member of the Communist party from 1941 to 1956. Hitchens was never a Stalinist, but he stayed loyal to an intellectual Trotskyist view of the Bolshevik revolution, which honoured Lenin and blamed Stalin for deforming the revolution into a state-capitalist dictatorship. Amis is asking how could they have. But of course he is also asking how could I have, how can I continue to love them?

    -REVIEW: of Koba the Dread (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Koba the Dread (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of Koba the Dread (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Koba the Dread (Jason Cowley, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Koba the Dread (Charles Taylor, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Koba the Dread (Paul Daley, The Age)
    -REVIEW: of House of Meetings by Martin Amis (Joan Acocella, the New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of House of Meetings (Thomas Mallon, Washinhgton Post)
    -REVIEW: of THE SECOND PLANE: September 11: Terror and Boredom By Martin Amis (Warren Bass, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Inside Story by Martin Amis (New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Inside Story (Ronald K. Fried, Daily Beast)
    -REVIEW: of Inside Story (Douglas Murray, UnHerd)
    -REVIEW: of Inside Story (declan Fry, Australian Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Inside Story ()
    -REVIEW: of Inside Story ()
    -ESSAY: The End-Of-History Smart Set: From '60s radicals to pro-war liberals, the West's last literary clique now seems a relic of the 20th century. That isn't such a bad thing. (Matt Purple, 5/28/21, American Conservative)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Featured Author: Martin Amis (NY Times)
    -Martin Amis Web
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Night Train
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Heavy Water
    -ESSAY :  London Literary Life : Let Me In, Let Me In! (Martin Amis, April 5, 1981, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Underworld by Don DeLillo (Martin Amis, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : with Martin Amis (Laura Miller, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW : with Martin Amis (Alan Rusbridger, May 8, 2000, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW : 'You lying hippies' : Martin Amis tells Andrew Pulver about novels, movie-making and the 1970s  (January 23, 2001, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW : Martin Amis (Linda Richards, January Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW : NO CLOUT IN THE HOME : An Interview With Martin Amis (Monica Drake, The Stranger)
    -INTERVIEW : Fathers and sons : Martin Amis discusses art, death and family relationships with his mentor and kindred spirit, Saul Bellow (Electronic Telegraph)
    -INTERVIEW : Why Amis can't escape : Martin Amis tells 'Prison Writing' magazine about the words he stole from Dylan and of his thwarted plans to flee Britain... (Electronic Telegraph)
    -INTERVIEW : No More Illusions : Martin Amis is Getting Old and Wants to Talk About It (Alexander Laurence and Kathleen McGee , The Write Stuff)
    -INTERVIEW : An Interview with Martin Amis (Will Self, Mississippi Review)
    -INTERVIEW : Punk no more : Can the angry young writer who shocked readers with Money and Dead Babies really be 50 already? The son of Kingsley Amis talks  to The Globe about life, love and the allure of America. (DOUG SAUNDERS, May 6, 2000, The Globe and Mail)
    -INTERVIEW : What an Experience  with Martin Amis Pt. 3 (Danielle Egan, Terminal City)
    -INTERVIEW : with Martin Amis (Commonweath Club)
    -CHAT TRANSRIPT: (HotWired, 16 May 1995)
    -PROFILE : Martin Amis: Down London's Mean Streets : There is more to Martin Amis, Mira Stout finds in this profile, than the bad-boy reputation he has developed in the London press. She also interviews Amis's father, Kingsley. One of England's original ''angry young men,'' and now a Thatcherite, Kingsley thinks that in many ways Martin is a similar kind of writer. (Mira Stout, February 4, 1990, NY Times)
    -PROFILE : Success. Money. Happy? : New family, new novel, and a victory at tennis. No wonder Martin Amis is smiling (Tim Adams, October 12, 1997, The Observer )
    -PROFILE : Daddy dearest : The father's letters reveal a curmudgeonly love for this erudite son. So do the son's new memoirs show a mellowing of the tough man of letters? (Vanessa Thorpe, April 16, 2000, The Observer)
    -PROFILE : Martin Amis braves America (Adam Woog, January 29, 1998, The Seattle Times)
    -PROFILE : Famous Amis, up close and personal  (Ellen Emry Heltzel, The Oregonian, February 15, 1999)
    -ESSAY : The Gulag Argumento: Martin Amis swings at Stalin and hits his own best friend instead. (Anne Applebaum, August 13, 2002, Slate)
    -Martin Amis - Author Page  (Guardian Unlimited)
    -THE INFOGRAPHY :   Amis, Martin (1949- )
    -Martin Amis (August 25, 1949 - ) (Bradley C. Shoop)
    -ARTICLE : New Novelist Is Called a Plagiarist : Martin Amis accuses Jacob Epstein of plagiarism in Epstein's first novel "Wild Oats." Amis cites fifty examples of nearly identical wording in "Wild Oats" and Amis's 1972 novel "The Rachel Papers." (SUSAN HELLER ANDERSON, The New York Times,  October 21, 1980)
    -ARTICLE : Writer Apologizes for Plagiarism : Jacob Epstein apologizes for the plagiarism. He explains that he had kept notebooks of passages he admired from "The Rachel Papers" and other books. After reworking the material, he lost his original notebooks and was unable to reconstruct what he had borrowed and what he had invented. (SUSAN HELLER ANDERSON, The New York Times, October 28, 1980)
    -ARTICLE : Girl finds father is Martin Amis (Elizabeth Grice, June 21 1996, Electronic Telegraph)
    -ARTICLE : Martin Amis's Big Deal Leaves Literati Fuming : A deal paying Martin Amis over $700,000 for his novel ''The Information'' left a lot of hard feelings in London's literary circles, where commercial success is viewed warily by serious novelists.  (Sarah Lyall, January 31, 1995, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Is Martin Amis worth it? : As the 'Mick Jagger of literature' goes back to his old publisher for a cool £1 million, George Thwaites looks at how his latest novel has been selling (Electronic Telegraph)
    -ESSAY : The Sisyphean treadmill of anguish : Obsession with death or prescient vision? Martin Cropper on parallels, constants and appalling coincidences in Martin Amis's work (Electronic Telegraph, 31 August 1996 )
    -ESSAY : MARTIN AMIS: Between the Influences of Bellow and Nabokov (Victoria N. Alexander, The Antioch Review Fall 1994)
    -ESSAY : Blame it on Amis, Barnes and McEwan : British novels no longer bring us "news" of our times. (Jason Cowley, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY : Losing a grip on reality (Julie Burchill, August 4, 2001, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY : Notebook : The novel is dead again (Ian Jack,  May 30, 2001, Granta)
    -ESSAY : "Narrative Reversals and the Thermodynamics of History in Martin Amis's Time's Arrow"  (Richard Menke)
    -ESSAY : History and Memory in Slaughterhouse Five and Time's Arrow (V. Archer)
    -ESSAY : Time in the Body (Melissa Miles, : Vitanza, E5352, Deleuze & Guattari and Rhetorical Theory)
    -ESSAY : And so, to begin at the end ... (JANE SULLIVAN, 21 May 2001, The Age)
    -ESSAY : From the Ridiculous to the Sublime: The Early Reception of Night Train (James Diedrick)
    -ESSAY : Will They Survive ? : Literary Reputations : The Amises (DJ Taylor, New Statesman)
    -SLATE BOOK CLUB : This week, a discussion of Experience:  A Memoir, by Martin Amis (Andrew O'Hagan & Inigo Thomas, Slate)
    -ARCHIVES : Directory | Martin Amis
    -ARCHIVES : "Martin Amis" (Slate)
    -REVIEW : of Time's Arrow (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -ANNOTATED REVIEW : Amis, Martin Time's Arrow (Jan Marta, Medical Humanities)
    -REVIEW : of TIME'S ARROW by Martin Amis (Evelyn C. Leeper)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (PATRICK MCGRATH, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (complete review)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (Frank Kermode, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (Allen Barra, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (John Updike, Times of London)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (Luc Sante, Slate)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (Walter Kirn, New York)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (Art Taylor, Spectator Online)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (Andrew Taylor, Tangled Web)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (Jonathan Foreman, National Review)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (James William Brown, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (Allen Barra, City Pages)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (Adam Woog, Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train by Martin Amis (Natasha Walter, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (YVONNE CRITTENDEN --Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (HOLLIE SHAW -- CP)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (GARNET FRASER -- Edmonton Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (CHRIS NELSON -- Calgary Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Night Train (Rahul Gupta, Pulse)
    -REVIEW : of The Rachel Papers (Grace Gleuck, May 26, 1974, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Einstein's Monsters (Carolyn See, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of London Fields by Martin Amis (Christina Koning, September 21, 1989, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of London Fields (Michelle Rainer, The Peak, Simon Fraser University's Student Newspaper)
    -REVIEW : of The Information  by Martin Amis (E. Scott Slater, Boston Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Heavy Water (complete review)
    -REVIEW : of Heavy Water and Other Stories by Martin Amis (Laura Miller, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Heavy Water (Nathaniel Rich, Yale Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Heavy Water & Other Stories by Martin Amis (Brooke Allen, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW : of Experience by Martin Amis (James Wood, May 20, 2000, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Experience ( Andrew Roe, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Experience : Working-class monster : Relatives say Martin Amis' new memoir exploits his murdered cousin, and they're right -- but not in the way they think. (Graham Joyce, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Experience: A Memoir  by Martin Amis (Katherine Catmull, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Experience (Jeanie MacFarlane, The Hamilton Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of Experience (ELIZABETH GRICE, The Age)
    -REVIEW : of Experience by Martin Amis (Joy Press, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW : of The Letters of Kingsley Amis and  'Experience' by Martin Amis  (Christopher Hitchens, This is London)
    -REVIEW : of  The War against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 by Martin Amis (Frank Kermode, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of The War Against Cliche : Essays and Reviews 1971-2000  by Martin  Amis (Geoff Dyer, Guardian Unlimited)
    -REVIEW : of The War Against Cliche : Essays and Reviews 1971-2000  by Martin  Amis (Jason Cowley, The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of THE WAR AGAINST CLICHÉ by Martin Amis (January Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of The Information by Martin Amis (Edwin Frank, Boston Review)
    -BOOK LIST : Count on it :  The author of "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt" picks five great books that play with numbers. : Time's Arrow by Martin Amis (Aimee Bender, Salon)


My review, incorporating your review is here:

- max

- Jan-16-2006, 08:15


Times Arrow presents an interesting question regarding death and continuation of the soul. The character at the beginning, Tod Friendly, has died and is reliving his life. As those with near-death experiences have described, it appears that his “life is flashing before his eyes.” It is cerebrating to consider the permutation of the soul. Does the soul have a separate consciousness? At the end of life, are previous experiences relived? Were the soul to have a separate, distinct consciousness, it would allow for disaffected perspective on actions and opinions. When Friendly dies, his soul is detached from his body and reborn without the wanton experience and desires of the old man. In other words, the soul sees the world through a lens that is untainted by human life and experiences, both good and bad. Is there salvation at the end? Is there any spiritual significance to the style of writing Amis uses?

- Lonn

- Apr-27-2005, 16:28


thank you very much, it was enlightening! but i don`t agree with the theory you invented to characterize the narrator´s self!

- susan

- Jan-09-2004, 16:27