The Apotheosis of Vulgarity: Martin Amis’s Yellow Dog

Yellow Dog by Martin Amis
Miramax Books
339 pages
$24.95

It has been six long years since Martin Amis has written a novel. This is not to say, however, that he hasn’t been writing. Since his last novel Night Train was published in 1997, he has managed to produce two works of non-fiction, The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews—1971-2000, and Koba the Dread, as well as a highly publicized memoir, Experience. There are very few authors for whom publishing a novel is a major event. Stephen King and Danielle Steel publish far too often. John Grisham and James Patterson have been rehashing the same tired dribble for years. Martin Amis is one such novelist who still warrants a major publication party at the posh restaurants in London and New York. All of which makes him very much a celebrity in the otherwise nerdy halls of “serious fiction.” The months leading up to the British publication of Yellow Dog were embraced with the extreme sort of buzz that we in the United States would attribute to the wedding of any celebrity couple. Accompanying the publication of Yellow Dog were the obligatory series of rumors and innuendoes. You see, Martin Amis is not just a brilliant writer, he is an event. People (at least in his native England) just can’t seem to stop talking about him.

It was with trembling anticipation that I awaited the United States publication of his latest bona fide novel, Yellow Dog. Basically, the story revolves around three main characters: Xan Meo, a reformed hood who is viciously attacked one day at a London pub; Clint Smoker, a journalist whose specialty is writing a column tracing the pornography industry; and King Henry IX, a king with an Asian mistress who discovers compromising photographs of his daughter bathing. However, what drives the flimsy plot is the world of pornography and celebrity itself. Yellow Dog is a novel depicting the “obscenification” of life in the early twenty-first century. The premise sounds interesting enough. Anyone who has witnessed Jerry Springer and reality TV (and let’s face it, who hasn’t?) knows that our culture is celebrating the obscene. When I finally bought my copy of Yellow Dog I expected to read a hilarious account of perverted reality. However, to say that Yellow Dog is not Amis’s best work would be an understatement. Yellow Dog is so bad that it’s almost hard not to put it down. The reader keeps hoping that at some point the book will get better, and that the old wit and rhetorical precision Amis is so noted for will eventually emerge from the convoluted miasma of a plot. It’s not that Amis uses profanity too much; a faithful reader of his will come to accept the alarming frequency with which he employs choice four letter words in his fiction, but that he uses it too often for no reason. After all, people do use profanity in everyday speech. Yet, Yellow Dog seems to overuse profanity just for the sake of shocking its reader into an understanding of today’s society. In fact the theme of the increasing “obscenification” of daily life (the word is used by Amis) fails to come through the barricade of profanity and pornography. Even the names of his characters are becoming tiresome.

All of this is not to say that Yellow Dog does not have its moments. There are half a dozen paragraphs which demonstrate the craft of writing Amis does so well. For example, Clint Smoker’s inability to connect with women on any sort of emotional level is brilliantly rendered by the narrator (who may or may not be Amis) early in the novel: “He knew that the distance between himself and the world of women was getting greater. Each night, as he entered the Borgesian metropolis of electronic pornography—with its infinities, its immoralities—Clint was, in a sense, traveling towards women. But he was also traveling away from them. And the distance was getting greater all the time.” The message seems absurdly clear and simplistic: pornography reduces women to objects. Yet, the writing shows a spark of the old Amis talent. If only he could have filled his novel with paragraphs like that, Yellow Dog would have been the important observation on contemporary social life he had in mind. But alas…

I wanted to like Yellow Dog, I really did. Ever since I read London Fields as a naïve bookstore clerk I’ve been hooked. But, Amis seems to have become caught up in the cocktail gossip that has followed him since he changed agents and started commanding huge advances. Yellow Dog is a good parody of a Martin Amis novel. One can only hope it proves to be a temporary diversion.

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