Friday, 2 January 2009

Martin Amis, Yellow Dog (2003)

Science Fictional (alt-historical) or at the least satiric-phantasmagorical, Yellow Dog is set in a 2003 in which Henry IX sits on the throne of England—his wife is in a coma and his 15-year-old daughter subject to leering, video tabloidesque intrusions into her bathtime frolics. Henry is one character in Amis’s tale; another is Clint Smoker, a journalistic hack from a sub-Sun rag called Morning Lark. Another character is the improbable film-star, novelist, rock-star, ideal husband Xan Meo who gets clonked on the bonce and undergoes a change of personality into an alpha male. Then there’s Joseph Andrews, an elderly Brit-gangster even less believable than those delineated by Guy Ritchie. Hard to imagine, I know, but there you go. Amis sets these different storylines running, but seems clueless as to how to bring them back together again: he ends up literally smashing them into one another—very crudely handled. There’s also an underpowered conspiracy plotline that’s supposed to link them all, but that’s unengaging and unsatisfyingly rendered.

It almost goes without saying that Yellow Dog is a terrible novel. Ah, but it is terrible in interesting ways, in ways (indeed) that make it a more worthwhile read than any number of much better but deadened-by-competence pieces of fiction. It is, for instance, not a shabby, or ill-considered or hastily put-together piece of work. Indeed it could have done with being rather more hastily rendered: much of it (clogging its heart with the cholesterol of earnestness) is a series of leaden sermons about masculinity, pornography, pedophilia and the relationship between the genders: clearly very long-pondered if essentialist and wrongheaded. Also the prose has clearly been strenuously worked through. There are moments—images, and occasionally whole sentences—where this work has resulted in properly good writing:

The mist had lifted; out to sea a wildhaired wave collapsed, not all in one piece but laterally, from left to right, like a trail of gunpowder under the torch. [110]
Lovely, that. Amis is good with accounts of the sky, too. During a thunderstorm: ‘arthritic feelers of lightning’ lancing out ‘forming coastlines with many fjords’ [299]. But there’s something about this sort of writing:

The bright sky was torn by contrails in various states of dissolution, some, way up, as solid looking as pipecleaners, others like white stockings, discarded, flung in the air … others like breakers on an inconceivably distant shore. [289]
The more you read, the more it starts to dawn on you: Amis can write nicely when he’s describing stuff that’s far away. The further away, indeed, the better, as far as Amis is concerned. But when he gets close to people his good writing goes all whiffy and off: congeals into a peculiar ugliness that zooms straight past the human organ of imagination without connecting: ‘as he climbed from the car a boobjob of a raindrop gutflopped on his baldspot’ [187]. Or else he falls into a polysyllabic verbosity that very markedly falls short of being Nabokovian (‘there I am,’ he said, with a certain finicky jauntiness embedded in his indignation’, 272).

That’s the problem, right there. Amis has written a novel about people. Novels, after all, are about people. But, in numerous ways (although with a remarkably consistent intensity) Amis despises people. And, you know what? It turns out you can’t write neoDickensian social satire—the thing Yellow Dog egregiously strives to be—when you’re hobbled by such a thoroughly unDickensian contempt for human beings. ‘Dickens’, as a shorthand, is something like the opposite of contempt for people. But more than that, it turns out you can’t write Hogarthian, or even Boschian, phantasmagoria is you’re handicapped by that mode of contempt. You might be able to achieve a Waugh-like sharpness, but to do that you’d need to have Waugh’s extraordinary prosaic self-control and intensity, and Amis doesn’t have it. His objection to the porn industry (and my, what a hard-to-hit target Amis has lighted upon with that one) is gender-essentialist. In his world men all love pornography and women all hate it. In a peculiar little riff he speculates that maybe ‘women wouldn’t mind pornography if reproduction took pace by some other means: by sneezing, say, or telepathy.’ Then he thinks again. ‘But maybe it wasn’t that. Maybe women just couldn’t bear to see it travestied, the act of love that peopled the world’ [335]. So to recap: sex is good if it is about ‘love’ and ‘reproduction’ and a travesty if it is not. And actually, I doubt even Amis believes his ‘maybe’ has inoculated him against the infection of loony rightwingnuttery.

Yellow Dog tries, often, to be funny; but it is not funny at all: its humour either sneering and hateful, or else—an aristocrat with a servant called Love—feebly Blackadder-derivative. Its play, mostly wordplay, is lumpish and continually reaching for a significance beyond its grasp. Of the inherent sexism of porn’s fascination with the money shot: ‘they call it the pop-shot. They don’t call it the mom-shot.’ Yes. Right. I’ll go ahead and file that with ‘they call it mascara, they don’t call it pascara’ and ‘they call it cargo even though it’s carried by lorries and not by cars at all.

This novel aims to say penetrating things about the world we live in and it doesn’t. It’s a crashing, and an ugly novel. Turns out that even the harshest satire needs a ground in common humanity; that without a sprinkle of the yeast of sentimentality the dough of the Jeremiad will not rise.

1 comment:

Ian Sales said...

Apparently Amis defended the novel by saying, "No one wants to read a difficult literary novel or deal with a prose style which reminds them how thick they are." What a plonker.