Lapses in judgment from a major voice always seem the most confusing to gauge. Glaring faults from a lesser author, one whose renown is safely bound to expire or one who doesn’t personally speak to you, can be passed off with a guiltless lashing of criticism. But authors of more consequential ilk, ones capable of saying something quite extraordinary, can sometimes err while still giving us something with considerable weight and verve. So how do you appraise a novel whose luster is muddled with shortcomings? What do you say when the work is amply meaningful in parts and yet slips in its overall experience? One approach, muddled itself, is that significance, like experience, can reside in bits and pieces of a blemished whole. In Martin Amis’ new novel, Yellow Dog, you can acknowledge these flaws while still appreciating its notable significance.
Martin Amis didn’t, as many reviewers have charged, terminally botch his latest work. Contrary to Michiko Kakutani’s statement in her New York Times review, Yellow Dog did deserve to be published, and it very much deserves to be read. But she also had much ground to stand on maintaining that “Amis’s celebrated love of language wilts in these pages into silly and mindless wordplay”. There’s something off balance about Yellow Dog, something that could have worked better, some poignancy thwarted by an overly ambitious telling of the story. The rich potential in Yellow Dog‘s writing should be readily apparent to any reader, but it may take a perceptive forgiveness to grant its worth in the face of its limitations.
The largest and most ever-present barrier to appreciating the book is actually how well written it is. Amis’ prose, usually subtly concise and full of meaning through suggestion, has here become so crammed with observation and wit that the story can’t help but lose prominence due to the very words ambitiously telling it. In every single sentence, over-crowding every paragraph, characters aren’t allowed to breathe, raise an arm, or turn in their seat without an analogy to accompany their movements. A video tape can’t fall to the ground without a digression that it landed in “clear contravention of all life’s laws (which demanded that every dropped object lands the wrong way up)”. It may seem odd to criticize a writing style that, when taken in more modest proportions, lays a charmed omniscience onto the world (a central part of the experience of reading). But the hyper awareness of describing and analogizing the most minute of human ephemera reaches a critical density in Yellow Dog that frazzles the overall story. And it reaches this point early and never leaves it.
And there are more auteur distractions before you can get to the protein of the novel. There’s a naming scheme that can only be described as hopelessly cute. There are characters named And and He, complete with the obvious self-creating word play their names create. Xan’s American wife is named, ironically (I guess), Russia, while a royal servant, Bugger, is a completely chaste man. Yellow Dog‘s thesis, about sex and violence in the absence of social restraint, is conveyed through sometimes blatantly didactic dialogue. And the thrust of the novel is blurred throughout by “suspenseful” subplots better fit for “edge of your seat” movies. For instance, not only is the book interspersed with clips of an airplane headed for imminent disaster, but there’s another subplot about a comet that may catastrophically crash into the earth. Neither event is ever tied into the rest of the story except in their generic amplification of suspense as the other stories climax.
And still, despite all these ample hindrances, there’s much that engages and entertains in the book, and an ending momentarily strong enough to make the whole work seem to succeed.
Once you settle in to the tartness of its prose, Yellow Dog has some very compelling themes to expound. The crux of the novel, throughout its many tangential subplots and underneath of its blinding writing, is the lowlier sides of libido, the totalitarian stranglehold that sex can have over our psyches, superceding all other personal values. Or, more specifically, it’s about the hold sex can have over the male mind. The novel’s overt point is that the de-personalizing violence innate in male lust and in male behavior is never more than a discarded social taboo away.
At the center of the story is Xan Meo, a famous actor and now author, whose brute genetic inheritance is about to catch up with him. Successful to a fault, Xan describes himself as “the dream husband: a fifty-fifty parent, a tender and punctual lover, a fine provider”. Perhaps the enlightenment was too thinly veiled to last anyway: “He was a good modern person; was a liberal, a feminist (indeed a gyno-crat: “˜Give the girls a go,’ he’d say. “˜I know it’s asking the earth. Still, we’re no good. Give the girls a go’).”
We find this much out about Xan and then he gets wonked on the head in a decidedly male exchange, slowly regressing (“de-enlightenment”) to the unrestrainedly masculine instincts he’d grown beyond. A man who formerly bragged of being more feminist than his wife now bluntly starts arguments with her by stating that “Chicks like salads”, whereas men never seek out “some bullshit tomato”. His libido begins to lose its sense of place. At first, he pesters and pressures his wife for nearly constant sex. When she begins to say no, he asserts his will further and nearly forces his way with her. His response the morning after is oblivious rationalization: “‘How can a man rape his wife? She’s his wife.'” Xan contemplates cheating on his wife, on the one woman he’s sure would never hurt him. Worse, until the end of the novel, he becomes frighteningly closer and closer to justifying urges to commit incest with his four-year-old daughter. A character pushes Xan towards acting on these desires: “‘If you wanted to sexualize your relationship with your daughter “‘she’d go along with it. What else can she do?’ … Her power, her rights (which depended on what? Civilization?) had seemed to disappear; and his powers, his rights — they had corrosively burgeoned.”
Along side Xan’s tale come several other stories with inevitable connections revealing themselves through the improbable links we’re used to seeing in parallel plots. A slightly altered line of descent places King Henry IX on the British throne, whose royal duties pale in comparison to the deep anxiety he feels over a videotape of his nude fifteen year old daughter that’s about to appear in the press. And there’s Clint Smoker, a “massive pale” piece of shit, his “flesh — the rubbery look of cold pasta”. Clint works as a journalist for the Morning Lark, a wildly popular porn version of a tabloid where his sexual failures come out in increasingly hostile descriptions of ultra-brutish sexual scenarios. He isn’t only someone who spends his life immersed in the scummy mannerisms of porn like the “wankers” (readers) of the Morning Lark. He actually writes them in filler pieces and fake letters sections: “So high time [Princess Victoria] had herself deflowered and jumped aboard the cherrygoround.”
Testifying to Amis’ overall extraordinary ability to write, is the fact that it wasn’t until I’d finished Yellow Dog that I realized I hadn’t even minded the several well-worn cliches it contains. Clint Smoker has an embarrassingly small penis (a therapist tells him to “regard his organ as a middle finger without the nail”). So Clint over-compensates with an SUV. (In his black Avenger, “[H]e now weighed four tons and had a top speed of 160 miles per hour.”) Later, he gets all excited about an extended e-mail correspondence he’s having with a woman, and when they meet, just as the joke goes, she ends up being a transsexual man.
The several stories eventually converge on pornography as the book wears on: Clint and Xan go to Los Angeles, to its adult district; Clint to cover the massive release of mock Princess Victoria porn videos, and Xan, an actor without his full mental awareness back, is invited to do a paid cameo on a porn movie, one of the few ways he can still work on camera. And it’s here that Amis throws the reader head long into what happens when all restraint, all meaningfulness, either personal or artistic, is taken away from sex: namely, what goes on in the adult industry.
At the maelstrom’s center of all this porn we get Karla White, a former porn actress, who is introduced to propel the sense of the industry, as well as to plainly spell out just what Amis wants to say. The nature and purpose of Karla’s character varies drastically; she’ll later surrealistically reveal herself as a sibling of Xan’s. At first, she appears as an affair from Xan’s past intent on seducing him again, but soon becomes the moral voice of the novel. Amis’ directing hand is almost visible as she implausibly gives him a very psychological argument for father-daughter incest:
“Some fathers really do believe incest is ‘natural’. I made you so I can touch you, your first child should always be your dad’s: all that. It’s an atavism. Because getting rid of incest, outgrowing incest, was part of the evolutionary advance, like outgrowing oestrus.”
“Look at the future. Us, us victims, we’re not so frightened and repelled by the way the world is now: the end of normalcy. We always knew there was no moral order. So sleep with Billie [Xan’s daughter], and introduce her to the void.”
Later, she gives a tour of the porn realm to Clint, who’s there to interview her for the Princess Lolita video. “Hatefuck”, she says, became the principal genre in porn with the loosening of obscenity prosecution under the last administration.
The book is similarly, and very starkly, unsettling throughout. Terse as these examples are, though, they’re real and are actual quotes from interviews Amis conducted for a 2001 article on the porn industry. For such sermonizing on the perils of sex to be convincing in a generally “sex-positive” age, he had to quote directly from the triple-X video box. From his previous article, Amis wrote, “Gore Vidal once said that the only danger in watching pornography is that it might make you want to watch more pornography; it might make you want to do nothing else but watch pornography.” The contention, in the article and in the novel, is that once the restraints come off, a funneling into full time, insatiable obsession occurs — or at least, and you have to keep qualifying it thus, with men. Of women’s less obsessive, less pornographic sexuality, Amis writes, “Maybe women just couldn’t bear to see it travestied, the act of love that peopled the world.”
At its most powerful, Yellow Dog offers an utterly discomforting thesis. That entirely human habit of skimping pages in search of any snippet of sex, no matter how essential the rest of the content may be, won’t last long here. There literally isn’t any sex that you want to skip pages for. It’s all unsettling, garish sex. The argument that pornography and loss of social restraint necessarily leads to incest and rape may be a bit reductive, or it may not take into account other formidably strong instincts, such as the immense and general satiety that love provides. (Pornography has zero post-coital worth.) Also, plenty of people guiltily pursue porn here and there and then don’t touch it for long periods. But who’s to make claims for the natural benevolence of humanity when that unredeemable segment of our population, the pedophiles and sex predators, has never come under complete control. Well, there’s always repression.
But the novel’s point, and the experience itself of reading the novel, is still rich in significance. It’s clear from Amis’ other books, especially his memoir, Experience, that he’s a family man. He’d have to be to write so lovingly of small children’s uppity-anxious movements, as he did here and in The Information. He’s a father trying to reconcile the sometimes crazed tides of libido with the protective feelings he feels for his family, as we all may at times. (Even if lust doesn’t drive most of us towards children or towards Clint Smoker-style violence, it does tempt most people toward straying from more committed relationships or risking pregnancy or infection for a brief encounter.) And it’s here, at the end of a distraction-filled novel, that it finds its warmest, most permanent moment.
Xan eventually returns to a benevolent fatherly state of affection (with lust neatly, compartmentally, tucked away, off to the side, for its proper time and place). He regains the memory of his daughter’s birth and recalls seeing the “human vulva with a sanity that knew no blindspots”. Such an endearing thought could never, ever happen to this most highly featured bodily area in pornography, and perhaps only rarely in male thought. That spot is sex. Even in the delivery room, nurses refer to the “father-in-law peek” as men sneak a glance inside the opened legs of women in labor. To see the “human vulva” as just that — the human vulva, another geometry among the many shapes that make us up, as needing of protection as a sleep-curled hand — is to love the female gender outside of sexual gratification, as fatherly, brotherly, or purely romantic love.