There is an undeniable trajectory to Martin Amis’s novels – downward. Not just in quality but in coherence, tone and taste. He peopled his 2003 effort ‘Yellow Dog’ with disgusting grotesques and events that made it hard to stomach. The best I can say about this novel is that it is not as bad as ‘Lionel Asbo’, but from the author of ‘Money’ this is such a fall.
‘Yellow Dog’ was one of those novels that bitterly divided reviewers when it was first published. If you enjoy critical reviews, you will probably appreciate these more than the novel itself. In an industry where most reviews are by default favourable, this in itself was extraordinary. The Independent gave it both barrels:
Yellow Dog is a strange, sad stew of a novel, so aggressively unpleasant that it would perhaps be best accompanied by an author photograph of Amis flicking Vs at the reader….The fact that Yellow Dog is so bad is not a cause for celebration. Anyone interested in English fiction will be deeply saddened to see one of our country’s greatest talents produce such a purposeless novel
The Times Literary Supplement was more surgical, describing the novel as “not absolutely terrible”.
Tibor Fischer, one of Amis’s contemporaries went even further with this celebrated denunciation:
“It’s like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating”
If you have time you can also read numerous monsterings of the novel on Goodreads, which gives ‘Yellow Dog’ one of the lowest average scores I can remember seeing.
Plotwise the novel is a complete mess. Amis runs several storylines in parallel, tying them together at the end of the novel with a summary neatness that seems insulting, as if he just lost interest and stopped writing. We have an author assaulted in a pub, and acquiring a sexual interest in his daughter as a result; a plane slowly approaching a crash landing; a comet passing near to the earth, and a blackmail plot involving a sex tape and a princess. A tabloid journalist for the Morning Lark buzzes around doing what journalists in comic novels do, making up headlines and being offensive. None of this has any point or purpose. A visit to America to visit a porn studio is a clumsily inserted (forgive the pun) piece of repurposed journalism.
None of these plotlines are particularly interesting, devoid as they are of real characters. In fact, the image that came to mind when reading yet another set piece of absurdity was the adult comic, Viz. Joseph Andrews, the psychotically violent gangster, is surely a thinly disguised Big Vern, Henry 9th, King of England in this parallel universe, is any one of the comic’s thick but dim upper class characters; Clint Smoker is a tabloid journalist with a micro-penis. Like Viz but without the humour, Amis sets out to offend with these caricatures, the sexual violent, incestuous paedophiles that people the pages of ‘Yellow Dog’. The class hatred that seeped from the pages of ‘Lionel Asbo’ is equally obvious here. The working class are amoral, ultra-violent criminals, although in the interests of balance the upper classes don’t come off much better.
What redeemed ‘Money’ from these obvious criticisms was Amis’s ability to craft an elegant metaphor, a skill that seems to have abandoned him here. Here’s an example of a paragraph which is Money would have fizzed with vividness:
“The bright sky was torn by contrails in various stages of dissolution, some, way up, as solid-looking as pipecleaners, others like white stockings, discarded, flung in the air, or light bedding after beauty sleep, others like breakers on an inconceivably distant shore.” (page 289)
Do these images work for you? Do they conjure up thoughts of a bright sky crossed by aircraft trails? I wonder how many readers will still know what a pipecleaner looks like? The ‘light bedding after beauty sleep’ simile works after a fashion, although the beauty sleep addition is pretentious. He’s working hard, and it is not bad writing, it just doesn’t impress in the way ‘Money’ did, and to redeem the other features of the novel it really needed to be magnificent. I’ve chosen one of the more innocuous passages from the novel – dip into any page and there is gratuitous often sexual violence and pretentious philosophising.
This was a 50p charity shop find – I am glad I didn’t pay more.