Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1786
As Martin Amis is generally considered one of the most brilliant British novelists of his generation, the publication of each of his books becomes a media event in Great Britain. Because novels such as Money (1984),London Fields (1989), and The Information (1995) are decidedly American in their styles and themes, with similarities to the works of such writers as Saul Bellow and Don DeLillo, Amis also elicits considerable attention from the literary establishment in the United States. Yellow Dogis especially notable because of a controversy about its literary quality.
Xan Meo is a self-styled renaissance man: a well-known British actor; author of Lucozade, a collection of short stories; and occasional rhythm guitarist for a bar band. After an unhappy first marriage, he is married to Dr. Russia Tannenbaum, a history professor at King’s College, London, and they have two young daughters. Though Xan has given up the bad habits of his past, every year on his birthday he celebrates his newfound sobriety by going to Hollywood, his onetime favorite pub, to drink and smoke. This year, shortly after his arrival, he is taken outside and beaten severely. Apparently, he has somewhere mentioned the name of someone who should not be mentioned.
Amis alternates between relating Xan’s painful recovery from a head injury, (one that changes his perspective considerably, especially toward women) with events from the lives of three other sets of characters. One centers around Henry IX, king of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Henry’s life is also uneasy. He deplores “the condition of being royal: it was always on at you and it never let you be.” Making matters worse, his queen, Pamela, lies in a coma following a fall from a horse, and his beloved only child, the fifteen-year-old Victoria, has been unwittingly photographed in the nude. Should Henry pull the plug on Pamela? Can he head off the unscrupulous media’s exploitation of the video of his daughter?
Henry relies greatly upon his confidante and longtime best friend, Brendan Urquhart-Gordon. Brendan’s situation is made more complex by his unrequited love for the princess, thirty years his junior.
Clint Smoker writes for the least scrupulous of London tabloids, The Morning Lark. Clint’s employer ignores straight news at the expense of the sensational, promoting masturbatory fantasies and defending rapists. When not practicing his journalistic trade, Clint worries about his sexual inadequacies and corresponds with Kate, who sends him fan e-mails, assuring him that the size of a penis is irrelevant. Amis builds slowly to Clint’s eventual meeting with his fan.
The other major protagonist does not appear until halfway throughYellow Dog. Joseph Andrews is an eighty-five-year-old, semi-retired London gangster living in Southern California but still controlling events back home. Andrews is an old antagonist of Xan’s criminal father, Mick, and is also the source of Xan’s recent misery, not realizing that the Joseph Andrews mentioned in Xan’s fiction is named for the title character of Henry Fielding’s 1742 novel. Andrews also tries to blackmail King Henry over the princess video.
Amis is commenting on the ways men and women misunderstand each other and the resulting suspicion and confusion. He is also observing the power and corruption of the media. As in much of his fiction, especiallyLondon Fields, Amis is concerned with the decline of Britain into mindless decadence, deploring “the obscenification of everyday life.” He also pokes fun at politically correct views of the sexual battlefield.
Even though they realize they should not, men cannot avoid seeing women as sexual objects. The pre-injury Xan considers himself enlightened for going slightly beyond this view: “If you harbour an admiration for extreme womanly beauty, then feast your eyes on my wife—the mouth, the eyes, the aerodynamic cheekbones (and the light of high intelligence: he was very proud of her intelligence).” He thinks he is “the dream husband” because he shares the responsibilities of parenthood equally with Russia and is “a tender and punctual lover.”
Women are more tenderhearted and more complicated. They enjoy prolonged departures from their loved ones, leaving men to stew in boredom: “Being kept waiting is a moderate reparation for their five million years in power.” Women are less vengeful, more easily forgiving, though Pearl, Xan’s first wife, has him arrested three times before they agree to divorce. Women are also unduly suspicious, quick to think the worst of their men, as with Russia’s ungrounded fears that her husband may have sexual designs on their daughters. She also questions her role as wife: “Did I take two degrees and study history so I could get raped in a cave?”
At forty-seven, Xan experiences numerous signs of aging. Most upsetting is the fact that young women are beginning to look through him, unable to see his sexuality. The resulting insecurity makes Xan perceive his society as “A yellowworld of faith and fear, and paltry ingenuity. And all of us just flying blind.” Xan’s cousin Cora Susan, who works as the porn star Karla White, accuses him of subscribing in Lucozade “to various polite fictions about men and women. . . . As if all enmity is over and we both now drink the milk of concord.” She adds that “good sex seems to be something that writing can’t manage.” Cora, who as a child was raped by her father, is used by Amis to speak for women as victims. Incest represents unimaginable crime and society’s excesses at their worst.
Xan appears in one of Cora/Karla’s films because that is the only work he can get after his injury. To try to give their films a touch of class, American pornographers like to hire British actors to play characters who watch others having sex. These pornographers’ Anglophilia also leads them to name their stars Sir Dork Bogarde and Sir Phallic Guinness. Such humor does not detract from Amis’s serious contemplation of this industry: “Is pornography just filmed prostitution or is it something more gladiatorial?” Amis the moralist sees it as demeaning to all involved. Nevertheless, he is sympathetic toward the performers themselves: “No one cared about pornographers and what porno people cared about.” Xan wants to protect Cora/Karla “from all things—including things like himself.”
Society’s woes are cataloged throughout Yellow Dog. Even buildings are sick: Everyone at The Morning Lark is always sneezing, coughing, and retching. Homeless John, who lives at home with his mother, begs because homelessness is more lucrative than working for a living. Children carry mobile telephones for safety, only to be robbed of the phones. On their answering-machine messages, people leave “hate-crammed music inciting you to act like somebody crazy.” The media offer little but “the Borgesian metropolis of electronic pornography.” Andrews’s henchman Mal Bale, protagonist of “State of England” in Amis’s Heavy Water (1998), complains that there are “no hard men any more,” only nutters and drug addicts. In this society has evolved “a new human type. . . . wised-up, affectless, and non-emphatic, high-IQ morons . . . were also supercontemporary in their acceptance of all technological and cultural change—an acceptance both unflinching and unsmiling.” Amis’s world is clearly headed for disaster, represented by the comet, called a Near Earth Object by the press, that many fear will destroy the planet. Xan’s loss of memory is a metaphor for what seems to be a desired state of being.
The controversy in Great Britain over Yellow Dog began when novelist Tibor Fischer attacked Amis in London’s The Daily Telegraph. After identifying himself as a longtime fan and defender of the novelist, Fischer objected that with Yellow Dog, Amis strains for profundity and creates a work “unworthy of his talent”: “It’s not-knowing-where-to-look bad. . . . It’s like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating.” In The Independent, Liz Jensen found it so “unfocused” that she “had to read it one and a half times in order to fathom what in the name of Crikey was going on. And even now I am not sure.” Jensen also considered the targets of Amis’s satire too easy.
Because there were many such negative reviews, observers were surprised when Yellow Dog appeared on the long list of twenty-three novels considered for the Booker Prize, the most highly regarded British literary award. It did not make the short list, however, and The Sunday Times reported that one of the judges labeled it dated and even ridiculous. Perhaps the most devastating American objection to Yellow Dog came from Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times: “Were Mr. Amis’s name not emblazoned on this book, it seems unlikely to have found a publisher.” Suzi Feay, Sunday literary editor of The Independent, likened the attacks on Amis to “watching someone clubbing a seal.”
Amis’s defenders included Robert Douglas-Fairhurst of The Observer, who called Yellow Dog “mind-tinglingly good,” adding that Amis “seems to have guessed what you thought about the world, and then expressed it far better than you ever could.” Douglas-Fairhurst surmised that Amis’s highly literary style and complex narrative structure may be too daunting for some readers. Because Amis employs several types of vernacular, examines characters from all levels of society, and creates unexpected links between these characters, he becomes, in Douglas-Fairhurst’s words, “Dickens with a snarl.”
Regardless of any doubts about the overall quality of Yellow Dog, the novel’s detractors must admit that Amis knows how to delineate characters and settings and express the tormented inner lives of the inhabitants of Amisland. He also writes extremely well: “If he turned right he would be heading for pram-torn Primrose Hill—itself pramlike, stately, Vicwardian, arching itself upwards in a posture of mild indignation.” Xan’s despair at the modern young woman’s indifference to glamour displays Amis’s attention to detail: “Typically she wore nine-inch bricks and wigwam flares; her midriff revealed a band of offwhite underpants and a navel traumatised by bijouterie; she had her car-keys in one cheek and her door-keys in the other, a plough in her nose and an anchor in her chin; and her earwax was all over her hair, as if via some inner conduit.” Such consistently fine writing combined with insights into a society bent on destroying any traces of its innocence makes Yellow Dog a fitting addition to the Amis oeuvre.
Booklist 100, no. 2 (September 15, 2003): 179-180.
Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 16 (August 15, 2003): 1029.
Library Journal 128, no. 17 (October 15, 2003): 95.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 2, 2003, p. 7.
The Nation 277, no. 19 (December 8, 2003): 50-54.
New Criterion 22, no. 3 (November, 2003): 59-66.
New Statesman 132, no. 4654 (September 8, 2003): 48-50.
The New York Times, October 28, 2003, p. E1.
The New York Times Book Review, November 9, 2003, p. 11.
Publishers Weekly 250, no. 41 (October 13, 2003): 55-56.
Time 162, no. 18 (November 3, 2003): 76.
The Times Literary Supplement, September 5, 2003, pp. 3-4.
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