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  • Narrative Reversals and the Thermodynamics of History in Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow
  • Richard Menke* (bio)

When I think about [entropy] nowadays, it is more and more in connection with time, that human one-way time we’re all stuck with locally here, and which terminates, it is said, in death. Certain processes, not only thermodynamic ones but also those of a medical nature, can often not be reversed. Sooner or later we all find this out, from the inside.

—Thomas Pynchon, Introduction to Slow Learner

Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, or, The Nature of the Offense tells a life’s story backward. A postmodern unbildungsroman, the novel begins with the death of Tod T. Friendly in contemporary America and moves forcefully and inevitably back in time to conclude with the earliest traces of his infantile consciousness on the other side of both an ocean and a century. What provides the crucial twist in Amis’s scheme is the first-person voice that supplies the novel’s retrograde narrative: although from Tod’s point of view life presumably proceeds normally, to the unfortunate and impotent narrator trapped within him everything happens in reverse, a fact that quickly dawns on the reader but only becomes apparent to the narrator slowly and confusedly. The [End Page 959] novel sets forth a life, a traditional project of fictional realism but, by an act of authorial fiat, “the film is running backward” (8). Instead of providing the seamless transparency attempted by more orthodox realisms, the reversed narrative willfully obtrudes between the imaginary life and the account that constitutes it, occupying an uneasy middle ground between mimesis and diegesis, between representation from within the action and commentary from without. 1

Against Tod Friendly’s sometimes brutal, often banal life history, the narrative provides the filigree of art, a stream of ironically inverted meditations, brilliant aperçus, and time-reversal set-pieces. And along with the satisfactions of this showy (and often very funny) literary artistry, the narratorial voice—which is only a voice, a “passenger or parasite” in Tod’s body with access to his emotions and dreams but not to his thoughts (8)—offers the principal source of humanity among the human shapes that hurry backward through Time’s Arrow, their eyes focused on what they have just left, their blind steps leading them ineluctably into the past. For the nameless inner doppelgänger who narrates the events of Tod’s life from finish to start turns out to be more or less Tod’s vestigial conscience or soul, abandoned during the pivotal experience of Tod’s life (indeed, of the twentieth century), or so dislocated by its experience of the Holocaust that it must reverse the sequence of Tod’s biography in order to make sense of his life at all.

Interpreting life backward, this fictional soul is a supremely reliable narrator; he may be relied upon to get things diametrically, and often poignantly, wrong. The scheme allows not only for powerful art but also for a more humane artistic vision than Amis’s usual murderous satire. But at what price? Time’s Arrow presents the act of narrative as the soul of fictional art, with its task of recounting, reordering, and reinterpreting history. Yet, ironically, this extraordinary act of narrative can itself only reimagine history by conceding its powerlessness before it. The novel’s narrative reversals, which present literary art as history’s double, ultimately ratify the one-sidedness of the relationship between the two.

This pessimistic conception of the relationship between literature and history centers upon the field of metaphor tacitly at work in both the novel’s title and its vision of the Holocaust: thermodynamics, the physics of heat and its relation to other forms of energy. The physicist and science writer A. S. Eddington coined the phrase “time’s arrow” to [End Page 960] denote the directionality of time that follows from the second law of thermodynamics, which describes the inescapable increase in entropy in closed physical systems (68). Because this law alone sets the direction of time’s arrow, Eddington accorded the second law of thermodynamics precedence among the laws of physics. The narrative of Time...

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pp. 959-980
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