Yellow Dog By Martin Amis

Why is Martin Amis's new novel such a disturbing misfire? Matt Thorne thinks he should stop surfing the net
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Reviewing Amis's ninth novel Night Train in The Sunday Times, John Updike confessed that the fact that he wound up hating the book amounted to a "painful personal failure". I would recommend that Amis does not strain his relationship with Updike any further by sending him, or indeed anyone else whose friendship he values, a copy of Yellow Dog.

Yellow Dog is a strange, sad stew of a novel, so aggressively unpleasant that it would perhaps be best accompanied by an author photograph of Amis flicking Vs at the reader. No doubt most reviewers will seize on the book's manifold weaknesses and use this as an opportunity to write off Amis for good. More interesting to me is trying to understand why a novel that sounded so promising should prove such a dramatic and disturbing misfire. Amis's narrative concerns - chiefly, tabloid journalism, pornography and the Royal Family - are interesting, and several novelists have successfully addressed these subjects in recent years (Irvine Welsh's Porno, for example, explored the making of a low-budget porn film with much funnier results than anything on offer here.) Creating an imaginary royal family seems an unusually coy move, given that they have been fair game for satirists throughout the ages, but this is not, in itself, an invalid artistic decision. The moral dilemma they face - how to respond when stills, and later a DVD, emerge of the naked princess in a compromising position - is a workable one, and yet Amis immediately prevents the reader from engaging with this situation by overloading the scenes with bizarre, unfunny slapstick. The King, Henry IX, nicknamed "Hottie", is given an equerry called Brendan Urquhart-Gordon, who is known as "Bugger". This is how the class divide is represented: "[He recalled] the Prince at the piano singing 'My Old Man's A Dustman': 'My old men's a dustman, He wears a dustman's het, He wears cor-blimey trousers, And he lives in a council flet!' The Fourth Estate had not been slow to point out that the truth was otherwise: Henry's old man was Richard IV, and he lived in Buckingham Palace."

Clint Smoker, Amis's tabloid journalist, writes for a tits-and-bums newspaper not unlike the Daily Sport. Again, creating a fictional tabloid isn't a problem, but it seems odd that a sex-obsessed paper whose editor routinely refers to its readers as "wankers" would have such an innocuous name as The Morning Lark. Smoker is the author of a column called "Yellow Dog", writing columns about how raping 14-year-olds is fine if you've had a few or they look 16, and if they're wearing school uniform as that counts as "provocation". The humour here is black and heavily ironic, as Smoker receives text messages from a female admirer saying such things as "Never kiss your man after fell8io - by god, u'd be calling him a bum-b&it!"

The pornography sections are familiar territory for anyone who has read Amis's journalism and previous fiction, particularly the "pussies are bullshit" article he wrote for Talk magazine. Here we get a long description of the evolution of various genres of sex film, including "cockout", where "the man succeeds in arousing the woman to the point where she stops calling him a piece of shit;" "boxback", which involves premature ejaculation, and more traditionally, "the Facial", also known as the "popshot" because, as one character, Karla White, suggests, "It's how Daddy would've liked it."

The emotional concern at the heart of Amis's novel is father-daughter incest. This is a disturbing subject, but again it is one that has previously been addressed in literature and film (from Greek tragedy to David Lynch's Twin Peaks) with much greater success. One problem is the context. Much of the latter half of the novel reads as if it was cobbled together from the sort of dirty jokes you might find on an internet porn site. It's hard to take Amis seriously when he includes moments such as the following: "Mum? Aw, what's he been doing to me! When I came here, me arsehole was the size of a five-pee piece." "Yes, dear?" "Well now it's the size of a fifty-pee piece. Take me home." Queenie looks round the room and says, "Let's get it straight. You're giving up all this for forty-five pee?"

The other problem is that Amis's fathers are facing dilemmas that many will find repugnant. This would be fine if Amis didn't keep straining to suggest the universal resonance of his narrative. In a retread of material from The Information, Amis has created a character called Xan Meo who is the author of a book called Lucozade. After a blow to the head, Xan suddenly finds himself sexually attracted to his four-year-old daughter, Billie. Karla advises Xan to sleep with the girl and "introduce her to the void". Raped by her father every day between the ages of six and nine, and acknowledging that such abuse can precipitate involvement in the porn industry, Karla claims that this explanation is now clichéd and not true of all women involved in the industry. These sections of disturbing, dark debate sit uneasily alongside Xan's trips to "Fucktown" (aka LA) where Amis engages in profane riffs that go further than anything in his previous novels but with little emotional impact. Henry IX faces a similar dilemma, trying to decide what princesses, or daughters, want, although this narrative strand ends in abdication rather than abjection.

There are several other smaller subplots, including a gangster narrative and a doomed flight, but they add little. Amis has always insisted that an author should get by on "talent" and the quality of his prose. And the prose is the biggest disappointment, as Amis struggles to replicate the rhythms of his previous novels. It is like watching an over-the-hill musician struggling to play his classic tracks, desperately trying to recapture the magic that once came effortlessly. The fact that Yellow Dog is so bad is not a cause for celebration. Anyone interested in English fiction will be deeply saddened to see one of our country's greatest talents produce such a purposeless novel.

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