15 December, 2003Issue 3.1FictionLiterature

Email This Article Print This Article

Yellow Dog

Stephen Burley

Martin Amis
Yellow Dog
Jonathan Cape, 2003
340 pages

The prophets of doom have been enjoying themselves in recent months composing Martin Amis’s literary obituaries, and his latest novel, Yellow Dog, has been proclaimed the futile flailing of a middle-aged writer desperately trying to recapture the genius of his youth. Much of this melodramatic reaction was incited by Tibor Fischer’s ‘killer preview’ in The Telegraph of 4 August. Fischer’s deeply personal invective against Amis and his agent Andrew Wylie (who Fischer himself parted company with some years ago), is as offensive as it is ridiculous, and it is no coincidence at all that Fischer’s new novel was published on the very same day as Yellow Dog. Indeed, such literary scavengers have been dogging Amis for quite some time now and one shudders to think what would happen if Amis did actually produce a terrible novel. Although it is true that Yellow Dog doesn’t quite match the standard set by Money or London Fields, it is still a dizzying journey into a parallel universe written with Amis’s characteristic dark humour.

There are five principal narrative strands within Yellow Dog. First, there is the story of the main protagonist Xan Meo, the London writer/actor with roots in the underworld of the East End. Meo, having a quiet drink on the anniversary of his divorce from his first wife Pearl, gets attacked by mobsters and suffers a serious head injury. This event has a lasting psychological effect and transforms him from the perfect husband and Renaissance Man to a primordial state in which he perpetually lusts for sex, rapes his wife, and behaves incestuously towards his young daughter Billie.

Next is Clint Smoker, the abominable hack at the Daily Lark, who lives in a disgusting semi in Foulness and whose miniscule penis is a constant concern. Perfectly in tune with the ‘wankers’ (i.e. ‘readers’) and ‘wankership’ of the Lark, Smoker’s journalistic talents are much admired. His attempts to increase the bulk of his ejaculations to ‘porno proportions’, his disappointing sexual encounters with female escorts, and his blossoming email relationship with K8, (who claims ‘the best prix r small & soft’), are described with a comic and linguistic flair that characterises Amis at his very best.

The third strand involves London godfather-figure Joseph Andrews, whose violent escapades with Keith the Snake and run-ins with Xan’s father Mick are retold in the format of Amis’ source, Mad Frankie Frazer’s trilogy of autobiographical reminiscences. Then there are the episodes surrounding the reigning monarch Henry IX, whose stupidity, and whose dependence on the servants Bugger and Love, is perhaps Amis’s attempt to provide a distorted glimpse of life under the future Charles III. This critique of the contemporary royal household continues when Henry’s daughter, Princess Victoria, becomes the centre of a scandal involving a video of her bathing naked with two ‘pretty Arab boys’. And, finally, there are the fragments detailing the difficulties and eventual crash of flight 101 Heavy, carrying the corpse of Royce Trainer.

It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that Yellow Dog is merely a comic foray into an eccentric world: it is much more. Amis engages with contemporary culture like no other writer of his generation, and there are dark undercurrents below the surface of the novel. The obscenification of every day life resulting from tabloid journalism and email culture, the primordial violence of man, the tortured relationships between men and women, the inability of parents to protect their children from society and ‘the thing which is called world’, incest, the monarchy as an institution, the war on terrorism – all are addressed by Amis with his entertaining spite and venom.

The novel begins with an allusion to Dickens, and at times the reader suspects that Amis is about to contrive a Dickensian ending that brings all of the characters together, but the novel instead expands and fragments in a post-modern imbroglio. At times the references to September 11, the war on terror and the difficulties of flight 101 Heavy can seem confusing and underdeveloped, but there is no doubt that this is a novel of considerable merit. Amis presents the reader with a world that is authentic in all of its ludicrous obscenity, tortured emotions and violent tragedies, and it is this affectation of brutal honesty, this calculated refusal to ‘toady to the reader’, that marks him as one of the better living writers. Despite what its detractors suggest, Yellow Dog is a success.

Stephen Burley has recently completed an MPhil in Romantic literature at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, and is now studying for a PGCE at King’s College London.