In physics, the “arrow of time” is a metaphor for time and entropy first coined in 1927 by Arthur Eddington. Eddington wrote:
Let us draw an arrow arbitrarily. If as we follow the arrow we find more and more of the random element in the state of the world, then the arrow is pointing towards the future; if the random element decreases the arrow points towards the past…This follows at once if our fundamental contention is admitted that the introduction of randomness is the only thing which cannot be undone. I shall use the phrase ‘time’s arrow’ to express this one-way property of time which has no analogue in space. (Source)
This is true enough for reality as we understand it. Fiction, however, can do whatever the hell it wants. In Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis makes time run backwards from a man’s death to his birth. The narrator experiences the life of that man, Tod Friendly, backwards. For the narrator, it’s perfectly ordinary to see broken things repaired with a kick and chewed food returned whole to the plate. As the narrator travels back through Tod’s life, we learn the man’s secrets and discover a horror that is made all the worse because time is running in reverse.
We meet the narrator just at it discovers Tod. Tod has just returned to life after suffering a fatal coronary. The narrator is puzzled, just as we readers are, by the way the doctors fiddle with Tod by ripping out IVs and stuffing him back into his clothes before the paramedics whisk him away and deposit Tod back in his garden.
The narrator never twigs to the fact that time is running backwards, and why would it? It’s never experienced time any other way. So the narrator endures the discomfort of old age while Tod slowly grows younger. Relationships are particularly bewildering for the narrator, since they always start with fights, crying, and sex before a series of dates that end with Tod’s lover or girlfriend “pretending” not to know who Tod is.
For a long time, the narrator suffers as Tod practices as a physician. To the narrator’s point of view, doctoring is a ghastly profession:
Some guy comes in with a bandage around his head. We don’t mess about. We’ll soon have that off. He’s got a hole in his head. So what do we do? We stick a nail in it. Get the nail—a good rusty one—from the trash or wherever. And lead him out to the Waiting Room where he’s allowed to longer and holler for a while before we ferry him back out into the night. (76*)
According to the narrator, being a doctor involves hurting people while criminals can restore people to perfect health by punching them.
As Tod grows younger, the narrator notes that he sometimes changes his name. He moves back to the city from what we know to be his retirement home and changes his name. Then he sails to Europe and changes his name again. Then he travels to Italy and follows a series of trains to Poland and Germany, changing his name once more. In the last third of the book, we learn at least who Tod really is.
The last third of the book is also where the real horror begins. Because the narrator has been watching time in reverse (though it doesn’t realize it), it sees healing, care, then injury. When we learn that Tod used to be Odilo, an Austrian who worked as a doctor for the SS, the narrator believes that Odilo is reanimating dead people after creating them from mud and smoke. I have read a lot of Holocaust fiction, but the impact of all of these reversals hit me like a ton of bricks. I had to stop reading for a while just to process what was happening on the page.
Time’s Arrow is technically and emotionally brilliant. I knew about the backwards-time conceit before I picked it up, but I didn’t realize that Amis (who I’ve never read before) had the chops to actually make time run in reverse—instead of cheating and just writing the scenes out of chronological order. By turning time on its head, Time’s Arrow forces readers to reimagine the Holocaust and the crimes of Auschwitz because we simply have to think harder to first understand the narrator’s experience then parse out what’s really going on. It really is a work of genius.
* Quote is from the 1991 hardcover by Harmony Books.