Written by Cab Ven Elk
Thank you for taking the time to read this review.
Let’s start at the end.
I find that this a very difficult book to talk about. Not because the events within it occur in reverse, from actions to dialogue. No, it’s something deeper. There is a sensation that this book provides you with as an experience that will be robbed of any meaning if it has to be narrowed down into words. As with all the most important feelings in life, words would only be a devaluing factor. There is an immense part of this book that is best left discovered subjectively, otherwise it will prejudicially shape the way you experience it.
But then again, isn’t that the same as what experiencing a lifetime is like? Filled to the brim with knowledge you can only gain from the subjective experience of actually going through it yourself.
This is the core truth that lies within the pages of Martin Amis’s 1991 masterpiece, Time’s Arrow or The Nature of the Offence.
This book has 3 parts, 8 chapters and consists of 165 pages. If you read the blurb on the back of the book you will learn that the main character is Dr. Tod T Friendly. This would falsely have you believe that there is a protagonist in this story, which Dr. Friendly certainly is not. He isn’t even the main character. In my subjective reading of this book, I found the narrator to be the main character. This isn’t a third-person narrative either, it’s first person subjective.
This might all come across as a bit bewildering or convoluted at first, and it might make this book sound too intellectual to be engrossing, but that is certainly not the case here. The main issue lies within the secret that experiencing the book fresh, without much prior knowledge, holds.
Therefore I’m not going to focus so much on telling you about Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis, as what I will be going into the precious details about the background reasons why you should read this book.
In this story we have what’s known in modern literature as an unreliable narrator. I mentioned before that this narrator is not Dr. Tod T Friendly – but in a way it is him. The unreliability of the narrator of this book versus the unfolding events reminds me very much of the relationship between our ego and our subjective experience in this life. We constantly tell ourselves stories that do not always run parallel to our own reality, because they are controlled by the ego. The narrator of Time’s Arrow experiences a different life than Dr. Friendly lived, albeit merely in a different direction.
A great theme that this book leaves with you is the idea of our relationship with knowledge and each other within the objective reality we are roaming in on this planet.
Sounds rather deep doesn’t it?
Well, to fully comprehend the idea of this book, let’s go back a little deeper and look at three important other cultural ideas provided to us by three other vastly different individuals.
Four years after the release of this book a film by Richard Linklater was released, starring Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy. The film was titled Before Sunrise. In this film two strangers meet per chance while travelling in Europe, and the entire film is their conversation with each other up until the next morning, when they both have to depart. It is a thought-provoking art film that explored many facets of what it is to be human – love, life, loneliness, identity, etc. There would two more films in the trilogy, with the latest Before Midnight being released in 2013.
Richard Linklater is known for his interest in the less quantifiable aspects of existence. He often works it into the narrative or theme of his films. The Before trilogy featured these two characters and are, in themselves, engrossing dialogues. But it was my first experience with a later film of his titled Waking Life, where I first met these two characters. In this slightly psychedelic film, Linklater goes through a stream of consciousness narrative about the nature of reality and lucid dreaming, as well as our relationship with the idea of inertia and death. In one of the scenes, we cut to a couple lying in bed, with colourful rotoscopic-like animation creating a visually-subtle psychedelia.
This couple in Waking Life is Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, continuing a part of their conversation from the Before films.
In this conversation, Julie Delpy expresses her subjective experience of her own life. She reintroduces us to the scientific anomaly that is the brain at the moment of death. It has been said that those last few nanoseconds of brain activity at the moment of our death is comparable, in our minds, to an experience that might last for what feels like months or even years. In this scene, Julie Delpy expresses that she feels that her own entire life is simply the replaying memories of some old woman who is busy dying and experiencing those last few seconds of brain activity.
To the inexperienced mind tied to the arcane rules of time, this might sound like a depressing outlook to have. Yet, what Delpy’s character experiences is, in reality, the lack of that dissonance we have with our own mortality. Accepting your own aged self as living in a parallel reality to your own can be quite humbling. Something Dr. Tod T Friendly, the doctor in Time’s Arrow, clearly never did.
When it comes down to it, we experience the image of ourselves in instant snapshots of memory. We are never fully aware of how we have progressed as much as what we are fully aware of ourselves at any one given instant. You aren’t able to “see” your own growth as much as what you have two “visually comparable” instances of yourself in your mind. The “old you” and the “new you”. The one before and the one after. And yet, we are aware that there must be motion between these two versions of ourselves, because the progression occurred.
Which brings me to the second out of the three crucial iconic thinkers who contribute to understanding the theme of this book – Zeno of Elea, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher.
Born around 495 BC, Aristotle called him the inventor of the dialetic method. The dialetic method is a form of philosophy in which there is a discussion between two individuals, both of whom hold different points of view about a subject. Yet, they actively endeavour to resolve the matter through establishing the truth, using reasoned argumentation. Is this the same as debating? No. In the dialetic method there is no room for emotional subjectivity, because it is after the ultimate truth. Just like the two characters from Linklater’s Before trilogy.
What is the ultimate truth of life then? What is the secret behind a life lived outside of the constraints and rules of time – such as the narrator in Time’s Arrow?
We try to make sense of this life as we go through it and in many occurrences we stumble across certain paradoxes that challenge our ways of thinking or our beliefs, and they change us forever.
Just like the unpredictable ways in which Dr. Friendly, our supposed main character, changes by the end of the book. Neither you, nor the narrator, will believe it.
The word paradox comes from the Greek word paradoxon, which translates into “that which is distinct from our opinion”. A paradox usually occurs when we try to make sense of something through accurate and consistent logic and premises, but no matter how hard we try, fail to do so.
One of the most famous paradoxes, made by Zeno of Elea himself, is The Arrow paradox.
Zeno states that if one is to shoot an arrow from a bow into the air, once it is flying, it is actually at rest. That’s right, not moving. At rest.
Zeno argued that in every single instance of time that the arrow is flying, it is simply in a singular position of space, unmoving until the next moment where it is in the next position. In this supposed “moment” the arrow can not be moving toward where it is, because it is already there, nor can it be moving to where it is not, because no time has elapsed in this isolated moment. Much like when we try to fathom in our mind how we have progressed in time and can only see these snapshots of our former selves. The “old” us and the “new” us.
Zeno’s Arrow paradox seems to make sense if you completely disregard the knowledge we have gained as humanity about physics and the nature of motion and inertia in the mass amount of historical time since. Zeno’s arrow would finally be split by a certain philosopher who would be born over 2400 years later.
The year is 1908, and the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine, the third critical mind in understanding Time’s Arrow, is born.
Quine later went on to ascribe that there are three different types of paradoxes. He would state that Zeno’s paradox is falsidical, meaning it appears to be true based on a certain logical assessment within a certain state of knowledge or condition of understanding, but that said state is fallacious in some sense – meaning there is no real insight into the paradox and it actually remains unresolved.
Think of how we perceived the earth to be flat before we had the means to traverse the globe.
“When we drive, we don’t look where we’re going. We look where we came from.” the narrator notes of Dr. Friendly’s driving.
If you’re a fast reader you can read a page in about a minute. If you consider that the average epic movie nowadays is on average 150 minutes or so, it would stand to reason that you could read this entire book in an afternoon. Right?
However, that would not be possible.
Despite its brevity, Time’s Arrow is meant to be read slowly. This is due to the fact that, just like in life, if you rush through it, there will be many helpful nuances that you will miss in the background. It would simply not make sense.
Take your time with this book.
This book’s events unfold as the narrator experiences it, and the narrator joins us at the start within those last few seconds of brain activity, as it escapes from Dr. Friendly’s dying body. The filter you have to read through has to also keep in mind that the entire rewinding events of the book unfold within this space of those last few seconds of brain activity.
“Wait a minute. Why am I walking backwards into the house?” the narrator notes of Dr. Friendly’s return to his home from the hospital.
Looking back, it goes without saying that every second writer worth their weight has attempted to write a holocaust novel. Time’s Arrow certainly takes a new approach at this subject, but it addresses so many bigger facets of existence within the concept of unfolding time and unreliable perception.
This is a book about about our relationship with time, knowledge and each other.
Not to mention the poetic approach to an incredible rewinding view of the world. In this world, doctors hurt, time rejuvenates, and caring forces maliciously encumber those who they seek to aid. Violence builds and love destroys. In one passage a moment of rage causes a pile of splinters on the floor to turn into a chair in Dr. Friendly’s hand “at the flick of a wrist”.
The narrator’s view is very much in line with how we view knowledge and how we view ourselves, and perceive of an “old me” and a “new me”. We are constantly evolving, just like the two main characters in this book. But, just as with them, we have no idea what version of ourselves is coming next and the two can’t communicate with one another. This is usually because these two versions of ourselves can never truly meet, as they live in different spaces, just like Zeno’s supposed slumbering arrow within its isolated moments.
So, the different versions of you in these moments of time are never able to perfectly collate decisions with repercussions, because one makes the decision to smoke for two more years and the other stands on fifteen years beyond the habit, but still has the repercussive chest ailments, for an example. And if there is a gap between these two entities what does that mean for morality within the concept of time?
If no action can be measured logically against a starting point, because on the very quantum level we are ever-changing, does this not mean that the morality of actions is an obsolete concept, if you know there is more to life than all of this? Perhaps not, but this murkiness, this “fugginess” of morality and reality is where Time’s Arrow takes us, as we traverse deeper into the shallower waters of Dr. Friendly’s life as a German practitioner in a concentration camp during World War 2.
“Probably human cruelty is fixed and eternal. Only styles change…” our narrator in Time’s Arrow muses of Dr. Friendly’s life and interactions and observations.
“…Intellectually I can just about accept that violence is salutary, that violence is good… A child’s breathless wailing calmed by the firm slap of the father’s hand, a dead ant revived by the careless press of a passing sole, a wounded finger healed and sealed by the knife’s blade…”
One of the greatest morality paradoxes we face in modern history is the facet of the sheer magnitude of corporeal and spiritual damage of hundreds of thousands of people – not just during World War 2 but during any war – and the incidental knowledge we have gained from these atrocities, separating time and morality exclusively.
Such as microwave technology that has managed to make cooking a more affordable commodity for thousands today, being a result of accelerated innovation during the Cold War era and developments of nuclear technology that cost the lives of thousands. Not to mention the horrific experimental surgeries inflicted during World War 2 within these same camps where the likes of Dr. Friendly would have resided. The same horrific experiments that bore hundreds of pages in German notebooks that provided us with the precise surgical knowledge to be able to save the little girl’s leg that go trapped under the bus today. This proves that within the realm of time, morality is a mere coat of paint on the wall. It is a single resting arrow, not moving within context.
“Time passes. Cars are fatter and fewer, and imitate animals with their fins and wings. Syringes are no longer disposable… Last week they came and took away my colour TV. The gave me a black-and-white one… After the Moonshot, I remember, a little light went out in everybody’s head; suddenly the world seemed cosier, more local, fuggier. World opinion, on the other hand, disappeared slowly. Like dental self-consciousness. You see ogreish smiles all over the place these days, and nobody minds… Everyone becomes more innocent, constantly forgetting…”
It’s funny that Martin Amis chose to write Dr. Friendly as a character who is obsessed about his teeth. Amis himself paid a fortune to endure a painful capping of his own teeth when he moved to America. He, of course, is the son of the famous 1950’s writer Kingsley Amis. Martin’s father never really read any of his books, and although the two both share the unique instance of talent, they maintain a healthy creative distance. Whereas Kingsley’s work was considered cult classics and hilarious writing back in the 1950’s and 60’s, Martin has been compared to Flaubert and James Joyce by some. He has also been touted as one of fiction’s angriest writers, but it is all in self-awareness.
It is true that he tends to write about the less attractive aspects of humanity, but in Time’s Arrow we get a masterful reflection of something so much deeper than just depravity.
It’s interesting to note that Kingsley’s second wife, Martin’s stepmother Jane Howard, was also a celebrated British author. In her second novel The Long View the story was about a marriage, but the book’s plot was described in reverse chronology.
In later years, Martin would encourage her to write the series of books that she is still known for today, The Cazalet Chronicles.
It seems the inspiration cross-pollinated between Martin and his stepmother, which leaves me with the most heart-wrenching line in Time’s Arrow that I will leave you with today:
Read Time’s Arrow to find out why this line hits you in the gut. This book is an experience that will take time, but also obliterate it at the same time.
In the spirit of this book, let’s end at the beginning.
Have you read Time’s Arrow yet? You really should.