Yellow Dog

by Martin Amis
ISBN: 0676976166

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A Review of: Yellow Dog
by Matt Sturrock

Those early reports from overseas did not bode well. Yellow Dog, the first novel we've seen from Martin Amis in eight years, was having the hide flayed from its bones by the British press. Friends, foes, former fans, and erstwhile well-wishers were all lining up to lend a hand with the excoriation. One reckless bravo, a novelist looking to secure a provocateur reputation of his own, wrote in The Telegraph that the book "isn't bad as in not very good or slightly disappointing," but instead is "not-knowing-where-to-look-bad"-a literary embarrassment for the reader, not unlike learning that your favourite uncle had been "caught in a school playground, masturbating."
As an obdurate Amis devotee, I was ready to court reviewer ruination and write him a blinkered, one-sided defense-part propagandistic mindwarp to win over the undecided, part lacerating denunciad to destroy his detractors. But then more news arrived, encouraging stuff which freed me to write the considered, judicious report you're about to read. In the weeks since those first pot-shots had echoed through the British media, other novelists and critics had fired a countervolley of acclaim, and Yellow Dog had nosed its way onto the Man Booker Prize longlist. A late but massive statistical correction had taken place, evidence that Martin Amis stands alone in his ability to polarize critical opinion. That his work has always been so divisive is a good sign, proof that his literary output is challenging, forever testing the patience and sensibilities of his readers. Yellow Dog may be the most divisive yet.
Our story is mostly set in a modern-day United Kingdom where a Henry IX sits upon the throne. It's in this alternate universe that Xan Meo, a former street tough turned actor and author, bids goodbye to his wife and small children one evening and heads out for a nightcap or ten at his local pub. Within minutes of arriving, he's been poleaxed by two heavies working for an underworld kingpin, sustaining a curious form of brain damage that will see him regress from a loving family man and cultural pseudo-sophisticate to a hyperlibidinous brute far baser than he ever was before.
The kingpin who takes out the hit on Xan is one Joseph Andrews, elderly but still harder than a coffin nail, who's aggrieved that he appears as a character in the writer's recent short story collection. Andrews busies himself with racketeering, extortion, and the pornography biz, and it's through his exerted influences that all of the book's subplots are loosely brought together. We meet Mal Bale, "five feet eight in all directions," Andrews's most trusted face-stomper who does Xan in on that fateful night (and who, incidentally, shows up in Amis's own 1998 story collection, Heavy Water). We meet the filthy reprobate Clint Smoker, star reporter for a salacious London tabloid, whose tiny proto-penis is a source of such abiding anxiety it's driven him into a line of work where he writes about "bouncers", "bonces", and "wankers" all day long. And we meet the reigning king, a feckless boob who, with his royal aides Bugger and Love, is attempting to bury a scandal involving bathtub nudie shots of his daughter, Princess Victoria. Looming over this dysfunctional milieu is an airliner threatening to crash with all 399 people aboard, and farther off, a comet that's hurtling toward Earth with potentially apocalyptic results.
As is typical with Amis's novels, plot and the finer points of narrative structure are battered aside by the dynamic prose, ambitious conceits, and scathing humour; characters are prodded through one implausible scenario after another as Amis squeezes each one for satirical commentary. It's a trade-off I've always been able to live with, and one that I'm especially tolerant of here. On a sentence-by-sentence basis, this is as good as he has ever been.
Amis weighs in on a number of modern mores-particularly those tied to rocketing levels of personal vanity and plummeting standards of decency. When Xan reflects on his growing reputation as a writer, he notes "fame had so democratised itself that obscurity was felt as a deprivation or even a punishment. And people who weren't famous behaved famous. Indeed . . . it was possible to believe that this island he lived on contained sixty million superstars." When Clint Smoker reads an emailed advertisement for a penis enlargement system, he morosely recalls all his failed attempts at self-improvement, with the "flexers and extenders, fancy philtres in tubs and tubes, pulleys, lozenges, unguents, humidors . . . no African scarifier had subjected himself to more thorough and various mortification." When Xan goes to the bar, he wonders at the "obscenification of life" as he confronts the list of available drinks: Blowjob, Boobjob, Shithead, Dickhead. (He opts for two Dickheads.) Later, visiting Los Angeles to audition for a bit part in a blue film, he marvels at the existence of "Fucktown", an entire municipality rezoned expressly for the purposes of creating pornography.
In Amis's world, every day inflicts innumerable small psychic hurts on his characters and sporadic physical trauma. Most of the time we laugh at their misfortunes, happy that these goings-on are at a safe remove from us on the page. But in one case, midway through the book, we're forced to confront a species of violation so severe that laughter doesn't come. Xan turns on the TV in his living room and girds himself for what we all invariably see on the news: "the scorched chassis of a bus or truck, a bandaged shape being wheeled at speed down a hospital corridor . . ." These images reawaken him to the fact that, as a parent, he is powerless to shelter his children from the many trespasses and brutalities that life dishes out. He lies awake at night, obsessively cataloguing all the myriad ways in which his two young daughters could be harmed or killed, and reaches this conclusion: "He knew, now, why an animal would eat its young. To protect them-to put them back." This nurturing instinct, perverted by the effects of Xan's head injury, manifests itself as an incestuous desire for his four-year-old girl and results in some of the most discomfiting passages Amis has ever written. I was stricken.
It's easy to see why Yellow Dog provokes such antipathy in some readers, with its bizarre confluence of humour, pathos, and horror. The fact that Amis can elicit such vehement dislike from these factions is testament to his powers as a writer. He's always exposed himself to criticism by pushing past the normative bounds of the traditional novel. Let's hope he keeps going.

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