Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis
I have taught this book in the Contemporary Literature elective every year since the class began, but next year it will likely not be in the course any longer. A large part of the shift is that the book is far older than any of the other novels that we cover in that class, although as it was published in 1991, it can hardly be described as “old”. This book is one of those cases where purists are split; some Amis fans say this book is the place to start if you want to read your first work by this important British author, others say it is not the best indication of his overall style. I agree with both – the book is distinctly heavier than a lot of Amis’s other work, but it is an unforgettable read. So what is it about?
Very early in the book, we realize that something is not right with our narrator. He doesn’t seem to understand himself very well. The reason why becomes apparent once we learn that the narrator of the story is a sort of spirit trapped in another man’s mind, observing the world through a stranger’s eyes. But here’s where it gets strange: The viewer doesn’t realize that this man’s life is playing itself out in reverse order: The first page is the moment of the man’s death, and then we watch the years tick backwards throughout the protagonist’s extraordinary life (somewhat like Benjamin Button except that *everybody* is going in reverse order). At times, this is comical – the act of brushing your teeth, for instance, becomes decidedly more disgusting (and absurd) when you see it in reverse – you suck spit up out of the sink, shove a wet toothbrush into your mouth, extract some pristine toothpaste and magically vacuum it back into the tube, at which point, your teeth feel filthy. You will later bring this toothpaste that you harvested from your teeth to the grocery store, where they will pay you to put it back on the shelf, unopened. Other times, the reversal of time raises some serious questions about our moral code. It’s tough to get into the plot without giving away anything major, but this is an interesting read, one unlike pretty much anything else you are likely to encounter.