"Narrative Reversals and the Thermodynamics of History in Martin Amis's Time's Arrow"
(Site manager's note: The full text of Richard Menke's excellent essay is available in the Winter 1998 issue of Modern Fiction Studies, pp. 959-977. If you have access to a library with a subscription to Project Muse, you can read the full e-text of the essay by clicking the title above. If not, most good academic libraries subscribe to the journal.
Richard Menke sent me a précis of his essay, which I have reprinted below, followed by the reader's report I wrote when MFS editor William J. Palmer asked me if I would recommend the essay for publication.
This article interprets the backwards narrative of Time's Arrow as a fictional experiment in the reversal of entropy or physical disorder.
Classical physics describes a world in which events should in principle be completely reversible; it is the inescapable increase in thermodynamic entropy that marks the direction of "time's arrow" and makes for the fact that past does not simply mirror future as left mirrors right. Reversing the arrow of time, Amis's novel treats first consumer culture and then the Holocaust as consummately thermodynamic events, making entropic reversals the centerpieces of its gallery of virtuoso narrative effects.
After analyzing such reversals, the essay's focus shifts to the problems Time's Arrow presents to classic efforts to map the relations of fiction to history. Finally, the essay suggests that both the local reversals of Time's Arrow and its formulation of the relationship between art and history indicate the novel's treatment of twentieth-century history as thermodynamics, and it considers the implications of such a conception.
August 1, 1997
This essay succeeds admirably in demonstrating and analyzing what M. John Harrison has called the "long ironic reach" of Time's Arrow. Moving deftly from formal analysis to narratology to modern physics, Richard Menke relates Amis's ironic devices both to the novel's vision of history and to issues of postmodern representation more generally. His layered reading begins with the "narrative reversals" of the novel itself, moves on to show how it enacts a virtual "burlesque" of Lukács' sociopoetics of the novel, and finally employs thermodynamics to describe the novel's postmodern vision of history. Menke draws on a rich array of sources, weaving them into a complex rumination on the novel itself, Einsteinian temporality, and the divergent ways in which modernism and postmodernism imagine the relationship between literature and history. Throughout the essay, Menke's prose--lucid, fleet-footed, verbally inventive--achieves a highly effective syzygy with Amis's own.
Menke significantly enriches our understanding of the novel's wide-ranging allusiveness. He is the first to take the full measure of the ways in which Times Arrow employs the language of modern physics, from A.S. Eddington's coinage and explanation of "time's arrow" to the ways in which the narrative itself resembles Maxwell's Demon (I would, however, recommend at least an endnote at some point in this discussion, noting that in The Information Richard Tull's mastery of the pub game The Information is another version of Maxwell's Demon. This is especially relevant since, as Menke notes, the writing of Times Arrow interrupted the writing of The Information and the two novels share a concern with the post-Einsteinian, post-Hubble universe). He also manages to discover layers of allusiveness in characters' names that have been missed by all previous commentators, as in his illuminating mentions of St. Odilo of Cluny and St. Odilia.
When the dust of celebrity journalism settles, and Amis's fiction is judged on its own merits, I am convinced that Times Arrow, along with Money, will stand as his most important novels--at least to this point in his career. Thus it is heartening to see Time's Arrow receiving the kind of sustained and illuminating attention Menke gives it here.
This site is featured in