Time's Harrow: A Study in the Nature of Time and Fiction
Brian Tierney | December 2006
Waking with the definitive thought that time is circular. Indeed, reasonable people could debate the specific form of time: time is triangular, time is helical, or, of course, the compelling assertion that time is rhomboidal. Reasonable people might debate the issue, that is, if they believe that time exists at all.
Throughout the history of human thought there have been those who believe that temporality is merely an illusion; a refined, albeit laborious, creation of the human mind. As such, time can be manipulated by the mind, as the 16th-century mystical poet Angelus Silesius suggests:
Time is of your own making,
Its clock ticks in your head.
The moment you stop thought
Time too stops dead.1
For many of these temporal relativists, true reality exists in a realm that transcends time, variously known as "eternity" to Europeans, "nirvana" to Buddhists, "moksha" to Hindus, and "Dream Time" to Australian aborigines.2 Outside of this mode of thinking, chronological time risks becoming a coffin we inhabit, the story we tell ourselves as we languish among the other, living dead.
Despite the menacing implications, most of us do let fall the veil of common perception. That is, we consider time-when we do consider time-as do those who work in a building outside of Boulder, Colorado, where time is an absolute: a near-perfectly measurable quantity. The physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology boast that their well-polished device, affectionately called NIST-F1, shares the distinction of being the most accurate clock in the world and will neither gain nor lose a second in nearly 20 million years. This feat is accomplished by utilizing a ball of cesium gas, several lasers, microwaves, and a detector that calculates the natural resonance frequency of the cesium. Thus, one second of Earth time is not defined as 1/86,400 of a day: it is, in truth, 9,192,631,770 beats of a cesium atom.3 The problem is, NIST-F1 keeps better time than the Earth itself, which has an irregular rotation rate, causing physicists to periodically adjust their atomic clocks. One might ask then, whose time is right? NIST time? Earth time? The zealous believer's pliable nontime?
Albert Einstein revealed that time is not an absolute concept, but rather, it is a state relative to a frame of reference. Consider the state of motion. If one stands on a station platform as a train rushes by, the train appears to be moving very fast. However, if one is on the train as it passes through the station, the depot appears to be moving quickly past the window. So, too, time is dependent upon the perspective of an observer measuring the time. According to A.A. Mendilow, "Every man carries his own time-system about with him."4 In his book Time and the Novel, Mendilow discusses ways fiction writers present time. The novel, he says, has a protean capacity for changing its shape and adapting its conventions to meet its varying needs. Further, "time affects every aspect of fiction: the theme, the form, and the medium-language."5 It assumes different meanings in different systems. It varies from one frame of reference to another.
"The novel is a complex of time-values."6 The composite of relations between the different time-values of the reader, the writer, and the character creates an intricate and subtly balanced equilibrium. Our primary frame of reference is our concept of absolute (or clock) time. However, as Mendilow points out, our experiences and thoughts and emotions proceed at a different and personal rate. Given that, when examining time in fiction one must consider the
distinction... between chronological duration of the reading, the chronological duration of the writing, and the chronological duration of the theme of the novel.7
Though Mendilow refers to the latter as 'fictional time,' each of the elements affects the reader's experience of the work. Add to the equation the time loci of the reader, the writer, and the psuedo-author. The reader occupies an extended position in time within which falls the date of the act of his reading. How he perceives the work on one day may differ from how he perceives it on another. Similarly, the writer faces certain limitations relative to the age and views of the culture he lives in. "The work of every novelist... is explicitly or implicitly a social commentary on the time in which it is written."8 Also, in novels written in the first person and past tense, there is the time of writing of the assumed author in relation to the time when the events recorded are to have occurred. Finally, there is psychological time: "a relative, interior time estimated by constantly varying values, in contrast to the exterior time measured by fixed standards."9 This duration manifests itself in the act of reading, through the assumed or psuedo-author, or through other characters in the story.
Pondering all of this, the mind turns to hash. The foundation on which rests the notion of time as a linear absolute crumbles, revealing to the discerning eye that time is but a lens of perception, an arbitrary construct deftly manipulated by an author to create an alternate world, one often separate and dramatically different from the world in which we routinely take our tea.
In his novel, Einstein's Dreams, Alan Lightman conceives of time in thirty different ways. The book itself is an unconventional and fascinating novel. It is unconventional because of the absence of a plot that unfolds through the actions, dialogue, and thoughts of certain characters. We do meet Einstein and his friend Besso in the course of the Prologue, Epilogue, and three Interludes, but these scenes are in general uneventful: Einstein ruminates in his clerk's office and at a cafe while eating crackers with Besso and again in a rowboat on the Aare, this time eating a cheese sandwich and smoking his pipe. Throughout the remaining chapters, I sometimes wondered if the boy, man, valedictorian, or award recipient being discussed was indeed Einstein, but I cannot be sure. So many other people were introduced, and there seemed to be no dramatic build-up, no consistent story line for any of the characters. Yet, what the book lacks in convention is more than made up for by its fascinating and novel treatment of time.
Lightman posits, for example, that time is a circle, time is a flow of water, and time has three dimensions like space: horizontal, vertical, and longitudinal. In "4 May 1905," time does pass, but little happens. In "8 May 1905," the world will end on September 26, and everyone knows it. In "11 May 1905," the passage of time brings increasing order. The author illustrates these concepts by applying them to two-dimensional characters, cities, landscapes, and history. Some chapters begin with the stated premise, and then unfold into an illustration of it. For instance, "24 April 1905" opens with "In this world, there are two times. There is mechanical time and there is body time. The first is rigid and metallic... The second squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay."10 He continues, "The first is unyielding, predetermined. The second makes up its mind as it goes along."11 And as the chapter goes along, Lightman populates the paragraphs with people whose lives and thoughts are formed by the way one or the other concept of time manifests in their world. How they think, relate to one another, when they rise, eat, make love, or work all result from this perception of time.
Other chapters begin with images, actions, general scene-setting details, and it is not until the end of the chapter that Lightman indicates the working precept governing this world and sewing all the pieces together.
One of my favorite meditations is in "20 May, 1905." The chapter opens, "A glance along the crowded booths on Spitalgasse tells the story."12 We find shoppers walking hesitantly from stall to stall, seeing the items in front of their eyes but wondering where are the mustard seed, cod, and sassafras? Many of the shoppers use notebooks to record what is briefly in their heads. "For in this world, people have no memories."13 At the end of the day, people refer to their notebooks to discover where they live and, upon returning home, introduce themselves to their families. A husband and wife do not linger at the dinner table discussing the day's activities. Instead, they smile at each other and feel the urge of lust between their legs. "For it is only habit and memory that dulls the physical passion."14 This world without memory is a world living in the present. Each person compiles his own Book of Life filled with his personal history. With time, each Book of Life "thickens until it cannot be read in its entirety. Then comes a choice."15 One can read the early pages of youth or read the end and know oneself in later years. Or one can choose not to read it at all, to abandon the past. "Such people look you directly in the eye and grip your hand firmly. Such people walk with the limber stride of their youth."16
Another chapter, "28 June 1905," considers time as a flock of nightingales after which many people chase though few birds are ever caught. "The children, who alone have the speed to catch birds, have no desire to stop time."17 Time moves too slowly for children already, anxious as they are for birthdays and holidays, barely able to wait until tomorrow. Those people who wish to halt time, the elderly, are too slow and lack the vigor to capture the birds. "For the elderly, time darts by too quickly."18 They must watch time speed past them. On those rare occasions when a nightingale is caught, the catchers delight in the moment only to discover too soon "that the nightingale expires, its... song diminishes to silence, the trapped moment withered and without life."19 Who has not in savoring a moment also experienced the fleeting nature of joy?
Lightman's book is so engaging because it speaks to us on a metaphysical level, calling our psyches to entertain questions and truths beyond our conscious and pragmatic understanding of the mundane, routine world we create daily. The book is rich with insight and ripe with possibilities for reevaluating how we consider that which we call Time.
Einstein's Dreams is a valuable book for any person who is curious about and interested in exploring the fabric of the human experience, but it is especially valuable for writers. Its varied treatment of time might inspire writers to think beyond a linear concept of time. Writers could use one of Lightman's notions of time simply as a structural model. However, they could go one step further and develop characters with more depth and action than those in Lightman's novel. The chapters are short-several pages each-but rich in imagery, insightful, and profound. The meditations on time are thought-provoking and endure long after the book has been closed.
And this one hour, while the young men play their violins, is not one hour but many hours. For time is like the light between two mirrors. Time bounces back and forth, producing an infinite number of images, of melodies, of thoughts. It is a world of countless copies.20
Time in the opening of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude is not experienced as a linear string of events, as sequential locked boxes opened one after the other. Rather, time is experienced as a lens through which many points may be viewed at once; fluid, unfolding like a multi-petaled blossom. Indeed, throughout the book, Garcia Marquez seems without bounds and able to leap forward or backward in time with apparent ease. A principal reason he is able to seduce the reader into suspending the pragmatic impulse towards chronological structure is that he is skilled at finding the marvelous in the ordinary and the ordinary in the marvelous, thus creating a subtle balance between the extremes of fantasy and stark realism. In short, it is the author's use of realistic detail that grounds the whimsical elements of the prose so that the reader does not fly off in disbelief. The result is a delicious tension between realistic time and timelessness. For instance, in the opening sentence, "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice," the ambiguous "many years later," "that distant afternoon," "was to remember" and "discover" disconnect us from a specific moment in time and introduce a timeless, universal plane. Conversely, details such as "he faced the firing squad," "Colonel Aureliano Buendia," and "his father took him to... ice" capture our interest and carry us along specific story lines we hope to follow. Garcia Marquez continues the interplay with the indefinite "At that time" and the precise "Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses..." We venture to the timeless/universal with an image of rocks enormous and white "like prehistoric eggs" and the quasi-Genetic statement "The world was so recent that many things lacked names" to be eased back to the specific/real with "Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and... display new inventions."
Arguably, the chronological story begins with "First they brought the magnet. A heavy gypsy..." And so we meet Melquiades, the de facto narrator of these events that are told not "in the order of man's conventional time."21 Here, too, with the magnet we see the first object of Jose Arcadio Buendia's obsession with science, a force that propels the plot of the first chapter and is strengthened each March with the gypsies' return, until the year Melquiades is said to be dead and the new gypsies exhibit "ice." In this way, the end of the first chapter loops back to the first sentence, and we find ourselves beginning the story again, at once facing the firing squad in the future and touching ice in the present past. This mirrors how the end of the book loops back upon its beginning as Aureliano Babilonia deciphers Melquiades' parchments that are, after all, the novel we have just read foretold.
Imagine if we could foretell events, if we could open a dusty tome, select a page at random, and read what will occur at a particular time and date. Would the intervening period be anticlimactic? Would knowledge of the future rob the present of its intensity, or would it serve to increase our passions? Lightman envisions a world where the future is fixed. In it, he sees that
life is an infinite corridor of rooms, one room lit at each moment, the next room dark but prepared. We walk from room to room, look into the room that is lit, the present moment, then walk on.22
In the novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Garcia Marquez explores the terrain leading towards a predetermined event. Unlike Lightman's scenario, the doors Garcia Marquez opens are portals to the past and the future, and the corridor he leads the reader along is the short time between the protagonist's waking and his inevitable death. The author reveals the ostensible climax, the murder of Santiago Nasar, in the opening sentence. "On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on." By the second page we learn that within an hour and a half of his waking, Santiago Nasar was dead. The murder occurred twenty-seven years before the present of the first-person narrator. It is a small book-only 143 pages-yet each of its five chapters weaves through the past and the future, always returning to the center axis of that one and a half hour period, causing the fictional time to take the shape of a double helix.
The novel's title is the first indication of the braiding of time. 'Chronicle' denotes the record of a past event, while 'Death' suggests both the present act of dying and the state of being dead. 'Foretold,' of course, purports the future.
For the purpose of examining the form time takes in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, let us consider Santiago's final hour and a half of consciousness to be the thematic present of the story. Let us also designate the period preceding that and the period following that as the thematic past and future, respectively.
All three times are present in the opening sentences. The first sentence begins with the thematic future-the foretelling of Santiago's murder-then moves to the thematic present-he "got up at five-thirty in the morning"-and concludes with the thematic future-the fact that the bishop is coming. As the first chapter continues, we swing back to the past in a description of Santiago's dream and his momentary happiness before reawakening in the present with the feeling of being "completely spattered with bird shit." Next, we have a quote from twenty-seven years in the future by Placida Linero, Santiago's mother, as she recalls the details of that day (a Monday) to the narrator. Placida conjures the thematic past, mentioning her son's dreams "the week before" his death.
Santiago awakens with a headache from the past night's wedding revels. He will leave the house at 6:05 to be "carved up like a pig an hour later."23 He is in a good mood, this beautiful February day, though some will argue the day was funereal. The narrator places himself in the present as "recovering from the wedding revels in the apostolic lap of Maria Alejandrina Cervantes."24 He only awakened later (the future) to the clamor of the posthumous alarm bells.
Santiago dresses. We now have an extended passage of the past describing how Santiago usually dressed on Mondays, where he went, and how his behavior mirrored his father's. We return to the present as Santiago takes the bullets from his gun and puts them in the night table. Placida's quote, "He never left it loaded,"25 speaks of the past but is spoken in the future. The narrator's admission of knowing this and how Santiago stored his weapons and ammunition at that time suggests the present. His recounting the servant girl's mishap when Santiago was a child is clearly the past.
Placida's last image of her son brings us to the present. "So she would remember him forever"26 places us in the future. We return to the present as the son tells his mother about his dream, but she doesn't pay attention. The narrator spans the present and future by describing Placida both in the hammock that Monday morning and in the hammock on the day he interviewed her twenty-seven years later with her "eternal headache."27 He returns to the present by calling our attention to "the baptistery smell that had startled me on the morning of the crime."28 Now Placida spans the future and present by confusing her interviewer at the threshold with the memory of her son. "She sat in the hammock for a long time...until the illusion that her son had returned left her."29 The narrator takes back time's telescope: "I saw him in her memory."30 He then remembers the past: that Santiago had turned twenty one the last week of January, that he was the child of a marriage of convenience, and that his father died three years before his own death. And joining the past and present, the narrator tells us that Santiago was happy with his father, and with his solitary mother, until the Monday of his death. In the past, we learn, his father taught him many things.
Thus, we see how Garcia Marquez weaves together the past, present, and future like a braided rag rug spiraling towards the inevitable center point of Santiago's death. In effect, it is a seamless display. Few authors are as masterful in the art and craft of fictional time travel.
At this point, one might consider the vehicle used for traveling. What is time if not merely a measure of information touch-points; the collective weigh stations of data? Indeed, the novel itself is an information delivery system, verbs driving the reader from one item to the next. The extent to which one novel distinguishes itself from another is its breadth of art. The manner in which it delivers information is craft. Let's turn to Paradise, a novel by Toni Morrison, and examine how she uses verb tense in the task of delivering information that spans approximately one hundred years.
The book opens in the present tense: "They shoot the white girl first." As the story unfolds, with nine men stalking half as many women through a site called the Convent, there is a switch to present perfect, "They have never been this deep in the Convent" and soon, the future tense, "Now they all will. And at last they will see." Back to the present, "Meantime they are startled," present perfect, and then simple past "this house was an embezzler's folly." By this point, the bottom of the first page, Morrison has set up a rhythm and woven a general pattern of delivering information from different points in time that she will continue throughout the book with some variation. The first chapter continues primarily alternating between the present and past tenses. The present tense is not seen again-with rare exception-until the seventh of nine chapters-over two thirds of the way into the book. Therefore, the majority of the book is told in various forms of past tense.
A section of the third chapter, "Grace," serves to illustrate the method of Morrison's verb tense construction and its effect. The chapter opens with a pivotal scene, one that recurs from different points of view and on which other scenes in the chapter depend. A woman gets off a bus and walks toward a group of young men and women. The verb tense sequence is as follows: past progressive-"the pavement was burning," past perfect-"K.D... had never seen a woman...like that," and past-"it was the walk that caused all the trouble."31 The past progressive in this case is descriptive; it illustrates something that is occurring or ongoing in the now of the past scene. The past perfect is informative; it tells us definite and completed data about the character's past, presenting history in the midst of the action occurring in the scene. The past tense concludes the foray into history, returns us to the action in the scene, and places us squarely in K.D.'s point of view. This carries us through to the end of the second paragraph where the opening images of "burning pavement" and "sapphires hidden in shoes" are recast as "red coals" and "something stuck in the toes" and the words "K.D. thought" leave no doubt whose point of view we are in.
The simple past, "He carried the equipment box through the dining room,"32 tells the reader that the action is no longer on the street; the location has changed. This transition is jarring. Suddenly, K.D. has arrived at his aunt's house and is grooming her dogs. Then, just as the reader's questioning mind has almost quieted and accepted dog grooming as the now of the past, Morrison leaps to simple futurity: "Just those concerned would be at the meeting tonight."33 After introducing several characters who would be at "tonight's meeting," Morrison reverts to past perfect: "Suppose she hadn't been there,"34 without immediately or clearly naming the "she." The reader is suddenly back in the street while the woman from the bus approaches. We learn through past perfect and past tenses more of what occurred amongst the group of young men and women during this incident. When K.D. slaps a young woman, Morrison uses past progressive to describe what is occurring in the scene. This has the effect of suspending time, increasing the post-slap tension as past progressive presents ongoing action. The reader is held in the tension until the shift back to past tense as K.D. finishes grooming one dog and starts on another. Morrison uses past perfect to take the reader to when K.D. told his uncles about the slap. This scene is told in the past, with family history presented in the past perfect. Employing simple futurity increases tension: "they (the uncles) would not negotiate a solution that would endanger him."35 The author ends the section by creating suspense with questions about the future, "would the uncles see it another way? ...Would her father, Arnold, have any rights then that the Morgans had to respect?"36
Morrison continues the chapter and the book in a similar way; she tells the story in simple past tense adding detail to moments and heightening tension with past progressive, adding background information with past perfect, and creating suspense with simple futurity. At times, Paradise is a fascinating tale. Other times, it is difficult to follow because of the jarring transitions and the enormity of detail. Morrison lacks the ability of Garcia Marquez to easily transport the reader from one point to the next.
In "A New Refutation of Time," Jorge Luis Borges reminds us of time's relativity when he says, "all time is time perceived by someone."37 For my eight-year-old son, riding his bicycle up the canyon path while suffering a bellyache, seconds seem like hours. For me, also, listening to him whine, a minute is interminable. Yet, when a deadline looms and I have other obligations demanding my attention, times rushes by. It is then that I wish I could jam a wedge into the wheels of time and stop the world so I might catch up on all there is to do without aging a year or missing a moment of my children's development-whining included. Two authors do stick a wedge in time and both on behalf of condemned men. The first is Ambrose Bierce in his story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." The other is Borges in his tale "A Secret Miracle."
In Bierce's story, time doesn't stop as much as it slows to the extent that a day is lived within a fraction of a second. The narrative begins as Peyton Farquhar, a man "engaged in being hanged,"38 stands on a railroad bridge watching the swift water below. The first indication of time's deceleration occurs while Peyton is looking at the water "racing madly beneath his feet"39 and he notices a piece of driftwood floating by. "How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!"40 He closes his eyes to fix his thoughts on his wife and children when a sound distracts him: a metallic pealing. He becomes obsessed with the tolling; awaits each stroke with patience and apprehension. "The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening."41 The instrument of Farquhar's torture is the ticking of his watch. Just at the moment before his death sentence is executed, Peyton fantasizes about freeing himself from the rope and escaping to his home.
Bierce now breaks from the main action to provide a section of backstory. When the narrative returns to the happenings on the bridge, Peyton has fallen straight downward and lost consciousness. He awakens "ages later, it seemed to him"42 because of the pain of his throat and a sense of suffocation, and finds that he is swinging like a pendulum. The rope snaps. What follows is an elaborate escape in which Farquhar regains "full possession of his physical senses"43 to a preternatural degree. He spends the remainder of the day and that night making his way home. The next morning, standing at the front gate, he sees his wife when suddenly a blinding light overcomes him. In the final sentence, we find him again at the bridge, hanging from his neck, and dead. And so, Peyton Farquhar's daylong journey home occurred during the second before his death.
In "The Secret Miracle," Borges gives us Jaromir Hladik, a Jewish dramatist and scholar arrested shortly after the Nazis entered Prague and subsequently, sentenced to die on March 29, at 9:00 a.m. During the first few days of his incarceration, Hladik reacts in terror, conjuring the circumstances of his impending execution over and over again so that, in effect, "he died hundreds of deaths."44 He conceives every gruesome and possible detail of these imaginary executions, believing that he could prevent their happening because "reality does not usually coincide with our anticipation of it."45 However, his logic is short-lived in that he soon comes to believe that his imaginings are prophetic, and so "he endeavored to find some way to hold fast to the fleeting substance of time."46 He fails. On the night of March 28, impatient for the bullets that would set him free of his mind's wanderings, he remembers his unfinished drama in verse, The Enemies. It was to be the work that redeemed his otherwise empty life: a drama that observed the unities of time, place, and action. Hladik petitions God:
If in some fashion I exist, if I am not one of your repetitions and mistakes, I exist as the author of The Enemies. To finish this drama, which can justify me and justify You, I need another year. Grant me these days, you to whom the centuries and time belong.47
In a dream, God responds: the time has been granted. The condemned man awakens. Arrangements for his killing continue as planned. He is led before the firing squad, moved forward a few steps so as not to stain the barracks wall with blood. A drop of rain hits his cheek; the sergeant gives his final order. At this point, the physical universe comes to a halt.
...the men who were to kill him stood motionless. The sergeant's arm eternized an unfinished gesture. On a paving stone of the courtyard a bee cast an unchanging shadow. The wind had ceased, as in a picture.48
Hladik is paralyzed. He cannot speak, nor does the world speak to him. All that moves are his thoughts. First he is anxious about this bizarre state of affairs; then he feels compassion for the soldiers who surely share his fate. Later he falls asleep. When he wakes up the next morning he sees that "the smoke from the cigarette he had thrown away had not dispersed."49 It takes him another "day" before he understands.
In his mind, Jaromir Hladik undertakes the epic task of finishing his work. He has no document but his memory. Each hexameter he adds to The Enemies strengthens a discipline unrealized "by those who set down and forget temporary, incomplete paragraphs."50 He does not work for posterity or for "God, whose literary tastes were unknown to him."51 He does not hurry. He omits, condenses, and amplifies. In time, he feels affection for his surroundings and for the faces before him. Eventually, he concludes his drama, except for the problem of a single phrase. He finds it, and the raindrop slides down his cheek. He cries out and succumbs to the quadruple blast.
In "The Secret Miracle," we see that Bierce's day within a second has become Borges's year within a second. In neither case does time stop. Farquhar's time is rich with action and a heightened sensibility. Hladik's ability to think and perceive the world around him, and his completion of his drama in verse, suggest that-though the physical world may halt-the ineffable essence we call time continues. Though time slows in each case, it is forward moving.
Alan Lightman, however, contemplates a world in which times flows in reverse.
A mushy, brown peach is lifted from the garbage and placed on the table to pinken. It pinkens, it turns hard, it is carried in a shopping sack to the grocer's, put on a shelf, removed and crated, returned to the tree with pink blossoms. In this world, time flows backward.52
In his novel Time's Arrow, Martin Amis fleshes out this notion of time flowing backward. Beginning with "I moved forward, out of the blackest sleep," the narrator awakens from his death to find himself surrounded by doctors, a profession for which he holds contempt. Doctors are "intimates of bacilli and trichinae, of trauma and mortification...they are life's gatekeepers. Why would anyone want to be that?"53 We realize the irony of this question later in the book-he is, in fact, a doctor-as the protagonist's past (and future) life is revealed. However, before such a journey can be taken, the author must first orient the reader to this strange world.
The narrative "I" in Time's Arrow is the soul-voice of the protagonist/narrator, alternately known as Tod T. Friendly, John Young, Hamilton de Souza, and Odilo Unverdorben. This unusual point of view affords the story both an intimate first-person perspective as well as a third-person observer of all action. As the "I" (sometimes "we") discovers the mechanics of this new world order, he serves as a guide for the readers' own curiosity about how this world manifests. "What is the sequence of the journey I'm on? What are its rules?"54 We find the character walking backward into his house, the hardware store, or the post office. He is a seemingly pleasant chap, a friendly guy with his "Hi" and "Bye now" and "Good. Good." However,
It goes like this:
"Dug. Dug," says the lady in the pharmacy.
"Dug," I join in. "Oo y'rrah?"
"Aid ut oo y'rrah?"
"Mh-mm," she'll say, as she unwraps my hair lotion. I walk away, backward, with a touch of the hat.55
And so Amis teaches the reader the nature of this backwards world. Once having established this, he need not reverse the phonetics of dialogue again unless doing so provides dramatic effect. For example, later in the story we find Tod pulling love letters from the trash, healing crushed and curled photographs with a squeeze of his fist, and frequently grunting, "Shtib. Shtib." By making the reader translate "shtib" into "bitch," Amis has added a wry, humorous element to an otherwise sober, dramatic scene.
Amis's narrator tells us that "the mad are said to keep a film or stage set in their heads, which they order and art-decorate and move through."56 In the chronological madness of Time's Arrow, taxi-drivers pay a customer up front for the ride; meals are regurgitated onto the plate where they are sculpted, later cooled, reassembled, stored, and then returned to the Superette for reimbursement; and, of course, there is the humiliating, painful reminder that life and sustenance issue from the toilet handle. All one can do is pull up his pants and wait for the pain to go away, "the pain, perhaps, of the whole transaction, the whole dependency. No wonder we cry when we do it."57
After Amis has set the stage for his unusual world, details of Tod Friendly's work and relationships are made known. We find Tod at a garage negotiating up the purchase of a car. He is not feeling well this day, having witnessed a funeral from a mournerless churchyard. Over time, he revisits the garage and watches as the grease monkeys patiently wreck his car. In order to claim the vehicle, he must first go to the hospital, a terribly familiar place where he gets prodded and tapped until the paramedics drive him uptown to the scene of an accident. "There was my car, like a mad old hog caught in midspasm, its snout and tusks crushed and steaming. And I didn't feel too good myself as the police officer helped wedge me into its driving seat and tried to shut the warped front door."58 By ramming his foot on the brake, Tod causes the car to lurch back onto the street where he proceeds to weave through the city at great speed. Soon we have the first installment of his love life as he comes home, hurries inside and lunges for the phone.
"Wait. Don't do anything."
"Who cares? It's all shit anyway."
"Irene," he said.
"Yes I am. Tod, I'm just this terrible old lady now. How'd it happen?"
"No you're not."
"No I'm not. I'm going to kill myself."
"No you're not."
"I'm going to call the New York Times."
"Irene," he said, with a new heat in his voice. And a new heat all over his body.
"I know you changed your name. How about that! I know you ran."
"You know nothing."
"I'm going to tell on you."
"You say it in the night. In your sleep."
"I know your secret."
"What is it?"
"I want you to know something."
"Irene, you're drunk."
"Piece of shit."
"Yes?" said Tod boredly-and hung up on her.59
Here, not only do we meet Irene, the love of Tod's elder years and the woman whose funeral he watched, but we also learn that Tod Friendly has a big secret.
Time moves on. Tod pulls more love letters from the trash. He learns that-as he suspected-he is a doctor. He begins to feel better physically-less confused, less nauseated-and he reclaims spare bits of his body from the trash. "A tooth, a nail. Extra hair."60 He deals stolen drugs to hookers and works in a crisis center where women's abrasions and black eyes "get starker, more livid, until it is time for the women to return, in an ecstasy of distress, to the men who will suddenly heal them."61 Little children get littler until they only cry, never smile, and the mothers proceed with them to the hospital. Two go in to the room with the forceps, but only one comes out. "Oh, the poor mothers, you can see how they feel during the long goodbye, the long goodbye to babies."62
Up to this point, Amis has drawn a fairly sympathetic character. Despite Tod's prejudices, emotional distance, and social awkwardness, the reader can rely on the soul's commentary to smooth the rough edges of his personality. The narrator endears Tod to the reader by presenting him as a hapless everyman, unsophisticated and pitiable for his humanity, and the narrator does so with wit. The significance of this characterization is realized as we return with the protagonist to a mysterious life in exile, followed by years working as a doctor in a Nazi death camp while married to a woman he sexually degrades. The reader would be challenged to be as sympathetic to such a depraved character were it not for this earlier treatment. In this way, the tale told in reverse makes the innocence of the main character's boyhood a bittersweet thing.
Again, we consider the arbitrary nature of time in fiction, a matter not subject to an absolute law of the universe but to the capricious tyranny of the author.
Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.63
Some time ago-I can't say for sure when-I lay in bed pondering the elements of narrative. What makes one story march off the page while another dies the silent death of the unread? Tangled in the sheets, I watched hours slip away. I realized that even if I fell asleep immediately, I would be tired throughout the next day. Still, it must have happened; I must have crossed an amorphous boundary into the black because the next thing I know I am playing poker with Moses, Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein. Moses admonishes Sterne, who was supposed to bring the sandwiches but instead offers excuses by digressing into tangents. Joyce is rambling incoherently and picking at the pipe spittle on his scarlet tie. Einstein is trying to explain to me a dream he had about birds, but I think he's saying "berts" or "boats" though he keeps pointing at the ceiling, and now I'm confused and want to flee this round table and as I stand I am simultaneously
Brian Tierney's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various venues, including Ninth Letter, Slate, Contrary, Shoot, and National Public Radio. He holds a BA from the University of Massachusetts and an MFA from Vermont College. Brian resides in Colorado and is currently at work on his first novel.
- Angelus Silesius, The Book of Angelus Silesius (I.E. Johann Scheffler), With Observations by the Ancient Zen Masters, trans. Frederick Franck (New York: Random House, 1976), 45.
- Paul Davies, About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution (New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1995), 23.
- Ibid., 22.
- Adam Abraham Mendilow, Time and the Novel (London: Peter Nevill, 1952), 11.
- Ibid., 31.
- Ibid., 63.
- Ibid., 65.
- Ibid., 88.
- Ibid., 118.
- Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dreams (New York: Warner Books, 1993), 23.
- Ibid., 24.
- Ibid., 80.
- Ibid., 81.
- Ibid., 82.
- Ibid., 83.
- Ibid., 84.
- Ibid., 175.
- Ibid., 175.
- Ibid., 176.
- Ibid., 165.
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 421.
- Lightman, 161.
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 2.
- Ibid., 2.
- Ibid., 3.
- Ibid., 4.
- Ibid., 5.
- Ibid., 5.
- Ibid., 5.
- Ibid, 5.
- Toni Morrison, Paradise (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 53.
- Ibid., 53.
- Ibid., 54.
- Ibid., 54.
- Ibid., 55.
- Ibid., 55.
- Jorge Luis Borges, "A New Refutation of Time," trans. James E. Irby, Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings, ed. Donald Yates and J.E. Irby (New York: New Directions, 1964), 229.
- Ambrose Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," Civil War Stories, ed. Candace Ward (New York: Dover, 1994), 34.
- Ibid., 34.
- Ibid., 34.
- Ibid., 35.
- Ibid., 36.
- Ibid, 37.
- Jorge Luis Borges, "The Secret Miracle," trans. Harriet de Onis, In Labyrinths, 89.
- Ibid., 89.
- Ibid., 90.
- Ibid., 92.
- Ibid., 93.
- Ibid., 93.
- Ibid., 94.
- Ibid., 94.
- Lightman, 102.
- Martin Amis, Time's Arrow (New York: Harmony Books, 1991), 4.
- Ibid., 6.
- Ibid., 7.
- Ibid., 8.
- Ibid., 11.
- Ibid., 20.
- Ibid., 21.
- Ibid., 28.
- Ibid., 31.
- Ibid., 33.
- Borges., 234.