With six billion people in the world, the opportunities for unique experience are rare. Look on the internet and you’ll see that every original idea you ever thought you’d had (jokes, puns, inventions etc.) is redundant. So it was with a certain amount of pride that I did what surely no one else has ever dreamed of doing – I reread Martin Amis’s Yellow Dog.
Now, I love Martin Amis: The Rachel Papers, Success, Money, his journalism, and London Fields are all excellent, full of the wit and verbal invention that influenced a generation of writers. But no amount of love could forgive Yellow Dog.
Most of the trouble stems from the fact that it isn’t really a novel at all, but a badly stitched-together collection of short stories and fragments. Apparently it is the first novel he has written straight onto the laptop, and it really tells. Great swathes of text read like they were randomly cut ‘n’ pasted; journalistic observations (the kind you write when you know you ought to write but can’t focus) stick out because of their inappropriateness; vulgarity permeates the novel’s atmosphere.
So what has ruined Amis? Is it the success of his fragmentary memoir, Experience? Or perhaps his preening self-consciousness has finally got the better of him. In Experience, there are extended meditations on morality and the quality of prose, with Lawrence’s lack of probity compared with Nabokov’s refined conduct. I may be wrong but it seems to me that the better Amis’s morals get, the worse his prose. From the autobiographical intimations in Yellow Dog (protagonist Xan Meo has exactly the same family set-up as Mart), it seems that after regretful episodes in his first marriage, he is far more selfless nowadays, sympathy personified. When asking how his partner’s day has been, he doesn’t append the thought – as Rushdie so eloquently put it – ‘like I give a fuck’. All very commendable, but possibly ruinous for his art.
It is notable that all of Amis’s best novels are written in the first person and problematize the authorial perspective. In Yellow Dog he often sounds like a third-rate Wodehouse imitator and not just in the ludicrously hollow Henry IX story. Even the passages of maximum ugliness attempt the Wodehouse brio. Of course, as prosecutor I realise that I need evidence, the following quotations should suffice.
The false universal:
Xan would not publicly agree, but women naturally prolong routine departures. It is the obverse of their fondness for keeping people waiting. Men shouldn’t mind this. Being kept waiting is moderate reparation for their five million years in power . . .
There is so much dialogue in Yellow Dog which does noting at all, just sitting on the page lifelessly explicating a theme that Amis has picked up on after, say, reading some astronomy-porn (he loves those enormous figures, those strange contortions, unbelievable plot lines). Look at this conversation between porn star and writer:
‘Then the first thing you’ll have learnt is that comets aren’t like asteroids, and you can’t chart them. Because they’re subject to non-gravitational forces like explosions and sublimations. They say it’s going to miss.’
‘Or shear. It’s the size of Los Angeles. And it’s going five times faster than a bullet. And the latest is that it’s going to miss by fifty miles. Fifty miles.’
‘It won’t hit. They wouldn’t have told us anything about it if they thought it was going to hit. They’ve done studies. Telling us about it would just add to the social cost. It won’t hit.’
‘If it does, the sky would ignite and then turn pitch black.’
‘. . . And you’d be pleased.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ she said in a wronged voice.
‘Oh you mean the void and nothing mattering and everything being allowed. I don’t think nothing matters.’
The utterly nugatory descriptive passages (like this recycled from his Guardian piece on porn):
Sir Dork Bogarde lived in a porno pad with a porno pal, Hick Johnsonson, in Lovetown’s Fulgencio Falls. When Clint arrived and was made welcome, they were out on the porno patio . . . [the use of three dots is very lazy throughout] In the small garden enchained porno parrots swore and shat around the porno pool. Dork lolled on a porno pouffe, his head supported by additional porno pillows; Hick poured the porno wine. It seemed that Dork had only one thing he wanted to talk about, however: porno pay.
I wonder how many glasses of porno wine it took to convince anyone that the above was even tolerable. And don’t get me started on the use of txt-spk.
In his edition of Bleak House – on the page listing the names and professions of the dramatis personae – Nabokov wrote beside each name his curt summation: zero, good, good, fraud, fair, miserable, evil, good, very good etc. The moral universe of Dickens, revealed in snatches of dialogue and off-stage acts, allows for temperaments to be pinned down like so many butterflies. If you were to do the same with Yellow Dog you would get a quite different result. It would be more like evil, evil, good, bad, bad, good, evil, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero.
Yellow Dog may not be the worst book ever, but it is certainly Martin Amis’s worst book.