Time's Arrow by Martin Amis

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Time's Arrow by Martin Amis

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: As ever with Amis, this is a self-conscious, look at me, I'm so clever, cerebral book, yet one that is also accessible and easy to read. Todd T Friendly's dreadful past is gradually revealed, layer by layer. Certainly worth a library trip.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 176 Date: August 2003
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 0099455358

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Tod T Friendly begins his existence moments after his death. He died of a heart attack and his life began. His topsy turvy, upside down, back to front life. The first thing he sees are the doctors armed with the cardio-resucitation equipment that failed to save him. Tod is old, very old. His first weeks and months alive are full of confusion. He's in hospital, his mind wanders and he's confined to his bed. But somewhere inside him exists our narrator - Tod's soul, or spirit, if you like. These two do not always sit easily together, our narrator feels separate - he knows he's inside Tod but Tod is blissfully unaware of anything existing within him. Tod is so old it's not surprising he's confused but Tod's soul is confused because he can see it's all going the wrong way. He knows what way time SHOULD be running. Tod isn't worried but Tod's soul is. Tod has no backwards memory but his soul does; confused, unclear, dreamlike memories they may be, but that soul knows there is trouble ahead. Tod likes to look up into the night sky at the stars and constellations but his soul doesn't. Something there is linked to the dreams that Tod has, or nightmares rather, and although Tod doesn't recognise a connection his soul does. Tod's nightmares are peopled with children and a ghostly, evil, terrifying figure that is somewhere between a doctor and the devil. He has a secret but he doesn't know it - our narrator does, but doesn't know what it is. What he does know is that it's a terrible secret.

Gradually life goes on and Tod gets younger. This world is an odd one in which time is reversed. Imagine eating, imagine cooking the food you'll eat - in fact there isn't much cooking - you just get those scraps right out of the rubbish and off you go. In Tod's world most things spring from the rubbish, or from the incinerator, or I'm afraid, from the bathroom - much is rather gross in fact. His visits to the bathroom are unpleasant, and you can consider THAT one for yourselves - I'm certainly not describing it here, sorry. Suffice it to say that our narrator dreads those morning ablutions and what generally comes after. It's not nice for him, although Tod seems to take it in his stride, an unavoidable evil you might say, but a hum-drum, daily one. Tod goes shopping, but it's to give things back and receive money. Eventually, as he gets younger he has love affairs that start with tears and rows and end on platonic notes - the wrong way round you see. He goes to work; he's a doctor, but it's to create injuries, not cure them. And here lies the rub between Tod and his curiously separate inner being - the person inside Tod hates doctors and everything about them. Why? Well, clearly doctoring in this world is not a happy profession, not for those who can see that things are back to front anyhow - but it's more than that. Something about doctors chills our narrator and makes him feel an awful dread. And why, as we slowly trace Tod's backwards life, does he need to change identity, moving from city to city and country to country?

Much as I'd like to, and much as part of me feels I ought, I'm not telling you any more. Suffice to say that there is a big point to this little book, it's not a comedy by any means. And little book it is too, coming in at well under two hundred pages. Martin Amis' Time's Arrow is written in an easy, conversational way - the narrator inside Tod talks straight at you and so it's an accessible, effortless read. Yet it's clever too - Amis has a wide vocabulary and a precise way of using it. I'm not sure how he marries these two things - it's hard to make difficult words easy to read - but somehow he does. Time's Arrow will make you laugh because of the witty, acute, sometimes nasty observation about a world going the wrong way, but at the same time you will find that the book also gives you a nagging sense of foreboding, just like the one its narrator has. And you really, really do find yourself wanting to know how a life, how Tod's life, will work out in this odd, backwards place. What is that terrrible secret that Tod doesn't even know he has? What do those stars hold in that black night sky? It has to be a good book if it makes you laugh and worry at the same time, doesn't it?

My favourite books from many authors are often the early ones. They may not be the masterpieces that all those early ones aspired to and worked towards and they are not the darlings of the lit-crit world, or the subjects of admiring undergraduate dissertations. They're rough sometimes and they have flaws. They aren't the seven volumes and thousands of pages of esoteric perfection that is Proust's Temps Perdu. They aren't a final expression and culmination of a talent but what they have is an energy and raw freshness that often get lost along the authorial career path. So they may not receive universal acclaim and the plaudits of the most learned but they are often, in my amateur opinion, a darn sight more accessible and oh, so much more entertaining. But I think Time's Arrow gives the lie to my little theory - it's not an early book. Yet it feels like one - I don't think Amis had lost any of that freshness when he wrote it. I like the pyrotechnic way with words that he has. I like the dry wit, the nasty humour and the way Amis has of showing it off. He's not a modest writer by any means. And yes - the usual cliché - I think you do always want to turn the page.

I should warn you though that many people, even his own father, Kingsley, find that Amis junior does nothing but trivialise his big themes with all that cleverness. In fact, Time's Arrow, in particular, has been criticised for just that. I don't think those critics are right and I don't think the book trivialises anything either. I just think you should read it. It's good, very good, and all will only become clear if you do. You'll see what I mean, I promise, but I'm not saying another thing. Go get the book.

Are you glad I didn't write this backwards?

Another book which touches on the dreadful things one people can do to another is Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow by Peter Hoeg. You might also appreciate In a Dark Wood by Marcel Moring.

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Buy Time's Arrow by Martin Amis at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Time's Arrow by Martin Amis at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Time's Arrow by Martin Amis at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Time's Arrow by Martin Amis at Amazon.com.


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