A review of Yellow Dog by Martin Amis

In the often farcical rollercoaster ride that the book follows, the reader encounters a kind of Quixote tilt at the Windmills of honesty, straining to work out what is real and what isn’t, who is really guilty, and if innocence is truly possible.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Yellow Dog
By Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape (Random House)
Sept 2003, ISBN 0224050613, hb, $A45.00

Yellow Dog is not an easy book, either to read, or to review. The polarisation of critics is indicative of the challenge which Martin Amis throws to his readers. There are competing narrative threads, competing genres, competing tenses, and above all, competing moral systems. The book opens with a kind of narrative poem that also works as a riddly encapsulation of the entire novel: “But I go to Hollywood but I go to hospital, but you are first but you are last, but he is tall but she is small, but you stay up but you go down, but we are rich but we are poor, but they find peace but they find…” (3) At the same time it is just the kind of internal burble that a head trauma victim might have going through their brain. It is plausible. Not all of the book is though. In the often farcical rollercoaster ride that the book follows, the reader encounters a kind of Quixote tilt at the Windmills of honesty, straining to work out what is real and what isn’t, who is really guilty, and if innocence is truly possible.

There are four distinct stories, each following a divergent path which bisects the others only coincidentally. The most persuasive is that of 47 year old Xan Meo’s. Xan is an actor, the author of his first book of short stories, a recovering alcoholic and self-described SNAG. After offering, perhaps tongue in cheek, to bathe, read to and put his two daughters to bed, make dinner, load the dishwasher, and give his wife a long backrub, Xan goes out alone to celebrate his anniversary of sobriety from alcohol, dope, smoking and cocaine with two cocktails and 4 cigarettes at a pub called Hollywood. In a way, he never returns. He is attacked by two men who are revenging “J-o-s-e-p-h A-n-d-r-e-w-s” – someone Xan has supposedly “named” and is “coshed” on the head hard enough to send him to hospital with a brain injury. The rest of his narrative forms the heart of the book, as Xan struggles to regain himself, while coming to terms with the new man he has become – someone with anxious and often violent physical urges, depression, and pain. “You’ll remember this in pain.” And so he does as his pain forms the forward motion of the book. There is a mild whodunnit plot where we try to find out, along with Xan, who hurt him and why, as we discover Xan’s own strange family background. Xan’s story is compelling enough to carry the whole book. He is a well drawn character, and the poetic stream of consciousness of the writing which takes us within Xan’s perceptions, along with Xan’s intensely honest self-appraisal is moving. There are the other stories though.

The second story begins on page 15, with the King in his counting house. The King is Henry IX, King of England, and his story is almost pure farce. Someone has taken a film of his 15 year old daughter, Princess Victoria, and is about to hand it over to the gutter press. There is a tiny morsel of pathos in this story as the King struggles with his daughter’s pain at the personal invasion and the loss of her already compromised innocence, as well as the suspense around the perpetrator. The king himself is pure comedy though, speaking in upper class tongues – “”Why did…How could It be so arranged that such creatures play a part in God’s plen?” (16) and living in a kind of bubble of naivety – “my mind’s a blenk” with an assistant nicknamed Bugger, a servant nicknamed Love, and a lover named He. The whole thing is very light, and conjures up the Blackadder’s Hugh Laurie Prince. Although it is mildly amusing at times, the farce and low level drama dramatically reduces the pathos of Xan’s story, which isn’t at all farcical.

The third story, possibly the funniest, and definitely the raunchiest, is that of Clint Smoker. Clint is a “journalist” at the Morning Lark, the most outrageous of Daily Sport/National Enquirer types tabloids. He writes columns full of puns: “Yes, Prince Alf wokked out with his on-again off-again paramour, Lyn Noel, for a slap-up Chinese. But sweet turned to sour when photographers had the sauce to storm their private room. Wan tun a bit of privacy, the couple fled with the lads in hot pursuit – we’ll cashew! What happened, back at Ken Pal? Did Alf lai chee?” (22) Later Clint develops the “Yellow Dog’s Diary” column – a politically incorrect backlash swipe at well, it is so over the top that it is almost a swipe at political incorrectness: “So some nun took a knock from a stolen car and was left bleeding on a zebra crossing…Thirty years old and she’s ‘a bride of Christ’. In other words she’s crossed her legs forever to concentrate on her ‘good works’. Pass the sickbag someone. Word from the hospital is on the grim side, so at least she’ll be off the streets for a year or two.” (205). Clint has a running e-mail “romance” with k8, a modern “girl” constructed from abbreviations and keyboard symbols who consols him for being bad in bad and having an extraordinarily small penis – another minor plot point.

The three strands of the story sort of come together in “lovetown” – the Californian home of pornography, run by another farcical tragic character Karla White, who seems to hold a greater power in this story than one can fully believe. A forth strand which comes in occasionally concerns Flight CigAir 101 bound for Houston, Texas with a vindictive corpse. This final story doesn’t really fit at all, and adds nothing to the narrative – best ignored altogether. Despite the patchwork quality of the storylines, the writing is, as one would expect from Martin Amis, often astonishingly good. His metaphors are striking, original, and convey meaning powerfully: “During the last half-hour, in the Gallery, the ambient air had made steady gains in clarity, as if a succession of blankets were being removed from an exalted skylight…” (156)

Joseph Andrews is described as: “Wearing a black tracksuit as refulgent as a perfect shoeshine, he stepped out into the afternoon. His storefresh white trainers his dark glasses, his bronzed countenance, his backswept silver hair… (179)

Aside from Xan though, none of the characters really have enough depth to live up to the terrific sentences surrounding them. Neither the King, Clint, nor the well described but unbelievable meglomaniac Andrews has an air of reality, and although they are all funny, they just don’t seem to fit with Xan’s philosophical strivings. Nor does Xan seem to fit his own gangster background. The novel really seems to be struggling between two very different genres which don’t work well together. The farce represented Clint Smoker, and to a lesser extent, the King, is fast paced ribald (to say the least) London cockney humour redolent of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. It is light, and the characters are so much caricatures that it is possible to accept nearly any kind of action, however bizarre. On the other hand, there is Xan Meo, who is very well drawn, and whose fate is a serious one. While perhaps less wild and exuberant, Xan’s story is a rich one, and the writing around Xan’s struggle to find meaning in his strange distorted world is the best in the book. The reader remains firmly on his side, despite his shady background, and the desires that were possibly always there beneath his “snaggy” surface. Xan’s struggles with his daughters, his wife, and the real love he feels for both are real struggles, not farce, and make most of the rest of the book seem like a deus ex machina, constructed solely to drive Xan’s plot forward, while presenting a range of alternative moral systems. There is only one morality that really matters though – the rest is just a page out of a tabloid. Looking up at the Shoemaker-Levy comet crashing into Jupiter, Xan is, in effect, reborn as he recounts his daughter’s birth – an important moment for him. Does Xan find peace? It is possible. We still have only an ellipsis at the end of the story. Perhaps the easiest way to readYellow Dog is as two separate books simultaneously. Don’t look for the continuity. Enjoy the black ribald humour, and go back, as Amis directs, to the much pithier story of Xan Meo in the interludes. Or perhaps the ribaldry makes up the interludes. For more information visit: Yellow Dog