Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow and experimental fiction

Subversion of Realistic Writing: Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow

This research article is a critical discussion of Amis’s experimental writing which subverts from realistic writing. Amis uses ‘time and narration’, ‘dialogues’, form and structure’ in an abnormal way which is different from realistic writing to show the political absurdity of the Hitlerian model of progress and racial revival of Aryan.

Experimental Fiction

Julie Armstrong in her book Experimental Fiction: An Introduction for Readers and Writers argues that ‘Experimental fiction to be literary works that are in direct opposition to traditional realistic works’ (3). Traditional kind of writings reproduce the real world in the imagined world of fiction but experimental writings destabilize the real world. Similarly, traditional writings create the authenticity of the experience, convey a recognizable time scheme, evoke a vivid sense of place and display a coherent explanation of actions. But experimental fiction subverts a sense of the normal, introduce debates about the status of the text and the act of writing, present different world view and engage with the moving play of signifiers to construct endless cycles of meaning. Onn that note, Amis uses ‘time and narration’ in a reverse form which makes him different from other writers. As we have read much realistic fiction where time and narration are in the linear style where the main character of the fiction is born and after some years of struggle, he or she meets death but in experimental fiction, this could not happen. In experimental fiction, the main character can die in the first chapter and then only he or she travels through his or her past life.

Julie Armstrong

Julie Armstrong in her book Experimental Fiction: An Introduction for Readers and Writers argues that ‘Modernist work departed from linear chronology to show anti-linear thought process more accurately convey how the works are perceived’ (30). Amis’s Time’s Arrow is narrated in reverse time; the novel begins at the death bed of the character Tod, whose life literally rewinds before his eyes. In the first chapter of the novel, the main character or narrator is in death bed where he says ‘I moved forward, out of the blackest sleep, to find myself surrounded by doctors…American doctors’ (1). Amis used this reversed narrative structure is important insofar as it reveals how the distinction between creation and destruction became blurred under Nazism.

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Amis uses two kinds of narrative which is totally different than realistic writings. Firstly, the narrator’s voice is not the doctor’s own, but that of a disembodied personality who, whilst residing in Odilo’s body, has virtually no access to his thoughts and feelings. Secondly, the reversed movement of the time in the novel has the profound effect of inverting the moral implications of everything he does and sees.

Realistic Writing

Firstly, realistic writing does not follow co-consciousness or ghost consciousness in the narrative of the story but experimental fiction follows this type of technique where there is the co-consciousness exists as an exile within the main character’s body. On that point, Gerg Harris in his article “Man Giving Birth To New World Orders: Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow” argues that “Times’s Arrow is narrated from the perspective of a co-consciousness that exists as an exile within Tod’s body” (489). At the beginning of the novel, the consciousness-split occurs at Tod’s deathbed as the narrator becomes aware of his separation: “Something isn’t quite working: this body of mine won’t take orders from this will of mine. Look around I say. But his neck ignores me. His eyes have their own agenda” (6).

Next, the Reversed dialogue is not applicable in realistic writing but in experimental writing reversed dialogues are common and are in practice. Amis’s novel also uses reversed dialogues which differentiate it from realistic writing. Dialogues between Tod and patient shows us reversed as:

“They’ll break the glass,” says the patient, frowning

“What is meant by the saying ‘People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones?’

“Uh, seventy-six. Eighty-six.”

“What’s ninety-three minus seven?”


“What are the dates of First World War?”

Here the dialogue between Tod and Patient is in reversed form. Question and answer are from bottom to top respectively.

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Jago Morrison in his book Contemporary Fiction postulates:

The novel of this period attempts to break with the straitjacket of chronometric time, to show the diversity of time experience, the many notions of desire and of memory, the different and dissident conception of the past, and the implications of speculating on fantastic utopian and dystopian futures. (29)

Amis’s Time’s Arrow flows on the same pattern that Morrison argues in his book. Tod, the main character of the novel moves backward and memorizes his past and finds out the mistake which he had done.

We believe that holocaust novels are based on the real incident and it falls under realistic fiction but Amis’s Time’s Arrow provides the real picture of Holocaust trauma in the reversed form to prove that the holocaust incident was never fruitful for them. And providing the historical perspective often approached a difficult way, and this frequently finds expression in disjunctive techniques of narration.

In realistic writing, the narrative is very appealing to readers, unlike experimental fiction which can be unpredictable, random and confusing. Experimental fiction departs from the traditional notions or Aristotelian principles that a novel has a beginning, middle and an end with steadily rising action and conflict that builds to a climax and then resolves. On that point, Amis’s Time’s Arrow starts from the death bed or end and then only the main character moves to his past. As the past gradually approaches, we face that the major character Tod/John/Odilo is an ex-Nazi. And we find out that this main character was not satisfied with his job in Nazi camp.

            Traditional writings

Traditional kinds of writings focus on auto-pilot expectations but experimental writings suspend the auto-pilot expectations and discover new ways of seeing. As we read Amis’s Time’s Arrow, we find a new way of seeing the Holocaust trauma and Nazi concentration camp.   In experimental fiction, readers are required to become more active and less passive. Reading experimental fiction is a challenging job where there are a perplex narrative plot and strategy. Time’s Arrow also provides the same kind of perplex in time and narrative.

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Realistic writing engages a reader’s emotions and brings about empathy but experimental writing does not provide any room for the reader’s empathy and sympathy toward the protagonist. In Time’s Arrow reader does not give their empathy and sympathy because he was involved in Nazi camp.

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Often realistic writings are smooth in structure and form. But experimental writing does not follow that smooth way. It looks rough in structure and quite abnormal. Amis’s Time’s Arrow also follows that rough structure where many paragraphs start from ‘And’ “And a love life” (7), incomplete sentences “My career…” (9), and use of italics and bold letters.

Generally, realistic writing gives meaning and messages in a straightforward way but experimental writing does not give messages and meanings straightforwardly. To know the hidden meaning of experimental fiction reader should know the craft, method, content of writings. Julie Armstrong in her book Experimental Fiction: An Introduction for Readers and Writers argues that:

When reading as a writer of any fiction, a reader needs to look at how the writing works in terms of craft, form, content, and techniques. An awareness of the methods, procedures, and strategies writers use to enhance the experience of reading and make it liberating, leading to a fuller understanding of fiction. (6)

Experimental fiction, whose aim is not necessarily to tell a story, is often ambiguous and challenges artistic principles that have different preoccupations from traditional works.

Amis’s Time’s Arrow cannot be understood in the single reading and we cannot understand the cause of reversed time without knowing the fact about the contemporary time, methods, procedures and strategies.


In conclusion, there is no doubt that Amis’s Time’s Arrow falls under experimental fiction because it experiments with time and narrative, the dialogue in reversed form, the structure is quite abnormal, does not provide empathy and sympathy, suspends the auto-pilot expectations, follows co-consciousness or ghost consciousness and many more. And all these facts prove that Amis’s Time’s Arrow is the subversion of realistic writing.


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