Reviewing a new edition of Ulysses in 1986, Martin Amis had a few reservations about the book’s popularity with scholarly intermediaries. James Joyce, he concluded, ‘could have been the most popular boy in the school, the funniest, the cleverest, the kindest. He ended up with a more ambiguous distinction: he became the teacher’s pet.’ How is Amis getting on in this notional academy? In 1986, with Money two years behind him, the untouchable champ of the Lower Sixth had recently been made Head Boy of his metropolitan English school. Since then, his prefectorial duties have inevitably ‘entrained’ – as he might put it – the deployment of a certain official pomposity. Once a brilliant back-of-the-classroom joker, he has increasingly felt himself called on to deliver grave and improving speeches, although he has not always looked comfortable while doing so. ‘When I read someone’s prose,’ he said recently, with a withering glare at his fellow prefects, ‘I reckon to get a sense of their moral life.’ Regrettably, a few of the younger pupils were seen smirking at the back of the hall, perhaps because the book he was brandishing – by Lenin, no less – wasn’t written in English. So now he’s going to take the whole school round the back of the bike sheds, crack out the Rothmans and floor the wits with some incredibly dirty jokes.
‘Julian Barnes has said that novelists don’t write “about” their themes and subjects but “around” them,’ Amis has said, ‘and this is very much my sense of it’: Einstein’s Monsters ‘consisted of five short stories around nuclear weapons and an introductory essay that was very definitely about them’. Amis’s latest novel, Yellow Dog, consists of three loosely interconnected plot-strands, each in its own way very definitely around pornography, sexual dysfunction, masculine violence and masculine angst. (There’s a fourth strand, too, involving an imperilled airliner, but this is less obviously connected to the rest of the book.) And these strands correspond, roughly speaking, to the general class structure of Amis’s fiction, as disclosed in the final pages of Koba the Dread. ‘The aristocracy, the intelligentsia’ and ‘the lumpenproletariat’ take their turns in the spotlight, while ‘the urkas’ – the criminal classes – drive the plot.
First up comes Xan Meo (intelligentsia), a Ray Winstone-like middle-aged actor who plays cockney wideboys in British gangster flicks. Xan – who shares his surname with Duane Meo, John Self’s ‘whizzkid editor’ in Money – is sardonically described as a ‘Renaissance Man’: he has published a short story collection called Lucozade, and plays rhythm guitar in a Camden café ‘every second Wednesday’. His old man, Mick Meo (deceased), was an East End gangster, and in his hot youth Xan was a little bit tasty, too; his first marriage – to Pearl O’Daniel, another East Ender – was a chaos of infidelities and coke-fuelled fistfights. Now, though, Xan is comprehensively reformed. He has undergone a nightmare divorce from Pearl – which means he doesn’t see as much as he’d like of their two teenaged sons – and married a beautiful American academic called Russia. Russia and Xan have two beautiful little daughters, Billie and Sophie; they live in a beautiful house near Regent’s Park, full of beautiful stuff – ‘And so on. But it wasn’t the money.’ Xan is also very tall. Ominously, he has largely given up smoking. Even more ominously, he is ‘a good modern person . . . a liberal, a feminist (indeed a gynocrat . . .)’ – although, thankfully, he still has enough of a sense of humour to laugh when he hears a passing proletarian shout: ‘Harrison! Move your fucking arse!’
On the anniversary of the day his divorce came through, Xan is in the habit of going to a bar for a couple of drinks, a few cigarettes and ‘half an hour of writhing reminiscence’. So he mooches down to a Camden bar, observing Camden’s tramps, Camden’s dogshit, Camden’s ‘slum of cars’. He orders some cocktails – ‘I’ll have a Shithead. No, a Dickhead. No. Two Dickheads’ – and sits outside watching a ‘paparazzo’ sparrow while pondering ‘the obscenification of everyday life’. Enter a pair of menacing proletarians. One of these is Big Mal from Amis’s story ‘State of England’, now shrunk to ‘five foot eight in all directions’ (in ‘State of England’ it was ‘five feet nine’), but still a formidable adversary. A ‘changed forcefield’ takes hold. Violence is about to ensue: violence, ‘an ancient category-error – except to the violent’. ‘You went and named him!’ Big Mal says. ‘Named who?’ ‘J-o-s-e-p-h A-n-d-r-e-w-s.’ Xan is perplexed (and so is the reader). Then Big Mal and his accomplice stave in the back of Xan’s head.
Xan wakes up in hospital a slobbering wreck, and Dr Gandhi, Russia and ex-wife Pearl fill us in on the frequently horrifying consequences of head injuries. They’re not mistaken: for some time Xan can barely use a knife and fork, and by the time he’s allowed to go home more sinister symptoms have begun to manifest themselves. His yob genes have, it seems, been agitated: his grammar starts to go (‘how’s me . . . how’s my English?’). Worse, his pious feminism has evaporated: he starts announcing that only ‘Chicks like salad’ and telling his wife to ‘Fuck off out of it!’ His armpits start smelling of meat; he becomes an urban caveman, forever subjecting Russia to ‘the detailed exaction of his connubial rights’ (‘he invaded Russia’). But ‘the worst thing was that all this wasn’t the worst thing.’ The worst thing is the way he starts behaving with four-year-old Billie, eyeing her up with a predatory leer: ‘Daddy’s different now.’ Xan’s good half struggles with all this primordial atavism, but he still wants revenge. Who on, though? There aren’t that many clues for him to work on – especially because he can’t remember what Big Mal so cryptically said.
Next comes Henry England, a.k.a. Hal Nine (aristocracy). Henry is ‘in a ridiculous situation’: he is King of England. More precisely, he is Henry IX. (We are in a parallel universe. And perhaps, in another parallel universe, a parallel Martin Amis is dreaming up a potplant-lecturing, tampon-envying Charles III.) Henry has a tremendously posh voice (‘My mind’s a blenk’); he is pampered and cosseted and none too bright, given to calling things ‘ghastly’ or ‘a curate’s egg’. Otherwise, he comes across as a fairly likeable guy: generous, well-meaning, non-judgmental. His regal talent is largely confined to an astonishing capacity for enduring boredom: he just takes it, ‘like a daily dose of chemotherapy’. He’s happiest falling asleep at the races or slumped in front of the snooker, and his hobby is watching television – or at least staying still in front of it. In fact, his cultural life isn’t all that different from Keith Talent’s in London Fields – Keith Talent, who lived in a high-rise called Windsor House.
Apart from the boredom, the condition of royalty is persuasively depicted in Yellow Dog as involving a mixture of media intrusion, mildly petulant noblesse oblige, inappreciable wealth and preposterous high camp. When not putting in obligatory appearances among lepers, ‘Aids people’, head-injury victims etc, Henry shuttles between a series of fiendishly draughty and forbidding royal residences, the bleakest of which is called the Kyle of Tongue. The King’s right-hand man – Brendan Urquhart-Gordon, a.k.a. ‘Bugger’ – has chosen chastity over ‘the reification of his schoolyard nickname’; the King’s own nickname is ‘Hotty’, and his chief manservant is called Love. So Hotty and Bugger get to sit around calling for ‘Two large Remy reserve, if you would, Love’ – a joke more tirelessly pursued some years ago by Blackadder’s General Melchett and Captain Darling.
Having been thrown by a horse a few years before, Queen Pamela – ‘Pemmy’ – is in a persistent vegetative state. Her husband is guiltily relieved about this, mainly because he’d been having trouble getting it up for his rather mannish official consort. Now, in utmost secrecy, he has taken a mistress. She is Chinese; her name is He Zhizen, and this gives rise to yet more sophisticated wordplay: ‘As she removed her clothes He caressed him with them, and then with what the clothes contained. He touched him. He touched He. He was hard. He was soft. He touched him and he touched He.’ (Just to confuse things, we’re later told that ‘He’ is pronounced ‘Her’.) But even He’s ministrations don’t entirely console the King when persons unknown send him a photograph of his daughter, Princess Victoria, naked. Princess V. is only 15 years old. Could it be ‘blickmail’? Probably. But how was the picture taken? Bugger is charged with ferreting out the truth.
Finally, we meet Clint Smoker (lumpenproletariat, or lumpencommentariat). Smoker is an unbelievably nasty piece of work. Like Dirk Smoker – who ghosted the autobiography of Kim Twemlow, Keith Talent’s all-time darting hero – he’s a miserable hack. And he works for Talent’s paper of choice, the Morning Lark: a sub-Sport rag where ‘no global cataclysm had yet had the power to push the pin-up off the front page.’ At the Lark’s headquarters (publisher: Desmond Heaf), it’s universal practice to refer to readers as ‘wankers’, as in ‘Wankers’ Letters’, ‘the wanker comes first’ and ‘is this of genuine interest to our wankers?’ Smoker is revered for his near-mystical grasp of the Lark wankership’s most urgent needs and prejudices. He knows they don’t really care for the editor’s earnest Nuke the Nonces campaigns, and when an ill-judged attempt to set up a Wankers’ Wives page results in a powerfully emetic double-page spread, Smoker saves the day by sending in the stunnas. He also has a sharp line in anti-Arab invective and sexist diatribe, and can churn out appalling puns without pausing for thought. In other words, he’s ‘a very fine journalist indeed’.
When we meet him, Smoker is setting up an ‘exclusive’ tryst between Donna Strange, the Lark’s bustiest stunna, and a washed-up troglodyte footballer called Ainsley Car. This brings him into contact with Big Mal, who sometimes works as one of Ainsley’s bodyguards. More generally, Smoker’s work as a porno reviewer will later propel him into the thick of the plot. But his abject unpleasantness is by no means confined to his professional activities. In fact, Smoker is less a character than a voodoo doll, bristling with so many spikes and barbs of authorial disdain that it’s hard to see what likeness – if any – lies beneath. He is utterly humourless (and, as we know from Experience – where the great line is wasted on a bitchy sideswipe at a hostile reviewer – the humourless man ‘must rig up his probity ex nihilo’). He is a sadist, a ‘high-IQ moron’ and an ‘identikit modern uggy’, with a blubbery neck and a head like a shaved camel’s hump. From his nose hangs a nostril-ring shaped like a pair of handcuffs, ‘explorable by the petri-dish of the Smoker tongue’. His semi in ‘Foulness, near Southend’ has long been reduced to ‘a condition of untouchable sordor’, and is also ‘saturated with pornography in all its forms’.
Then there’s the problem of the Smoker penis, a ‘No-see-um – and no-feel-um’. ‘Is this as big as Clint gets?’ a girlfriend asks, back in the distant days when Clint still had girlfriends – and this is a Clint ‘pre-empurpled’ by ‘Potentium’ (i.e. Viagra). He has tried every Johnson-enlarger advertised in his inbox, to no avail: Clint Smoker, we’re told again and again, has a fantastically tiny cock. Women scorn Clint and Clint scorns women, writing misogynist rants under the byline ‘Yellow Dog’. Friendless, he tries to make do with escort girls, but it doesn’t work out: even the professionals can’t handle Smoker’s morbid obsession with the volume of his ejaculations. But help is at hand – or so it seems. A Lark reader who calls herself ‘k8’ has started sending him e-mails. She declares ‘th@ the best prix r small & soft’, and that’s she’s ‘very happy to per4m oral 6 @ any time’. ‘Blimey: she’s ideal. Talk about taking the pressure off.’ Questions remain, though: ‘What sort of bird read the Lark?’ And do we ever believe that Smoker won’t come a cropper with this one?
So Yellow Dog lurches into action. And, as you might expect, each page is a seething riot of Martin Amis-isms, with many a repetition, many a hyphen, many a ‘many a’ – and many an ellipsis after many a mini-climax, like an old-school comedian’s punchline drum-hit and cymbal-clash . . . French continues to infiltrate the Amis word-hoard (‘pudeur’, ‘nostalgie’ – as in nostalgie de la boue), along with openly Joycean turns of phrase (‘oxbow of oxblood’; ‘sighed softly as the stairs above him softly creaked’). He has also kept up with more recent developments: ‘throwabout’, ‘blogged’, ‘bigged-up’. (Amis uses ‘bigged-up’ to mean ‘specious and inflationary’ rather than ‘much hailed by MCs on pirate radio’, but from his point of view the two probably aren’t that different.) There are in-jokes: ‘Don’t. Be. Silly,’ plummy King Henry writes at one point, reprising a line from one of Christopher Hitchens’s voluminous replies to Koba the Dread. And sometimes there’s a flash of the old comic vigour, oddly transformed by creeping fogeyism. Here’s the narrator’s description of the strangely dressed young women observed by Xan as he passes Camden High Street (Xan also notes their lack of interest in middle-aged men):
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.
Clint Smoker might call this a ‘good riff’. And there’s a lot more where it came from. Those ‘wigwam flares’ are slightly familiar, though – the introduction to The War against Cliché casts a similar glance at ‘the twin tepees of my flared trousers’ – and this isn’t the novel’s only thrifty rummage through the Amis recycling bin. As in The Information, Money and London Fields, the air is divided into three levels: a bird is ‘a feathered creature of the middle air’, a pocket of turbulence ‘a beast of the upper air’, and on a misty day ‘the ocean medium’ has ‘leaked into the lower air’. In the tradition of Money’s great ‘bees have booze problems’ soliloquy – ‘even the microbes, the spores of the middle air, are finding all this a little hard on their nerves’ – Yellow Dog’s pigeons are ‘tubercular’; its gulls dry-heave. Denims are still ‘winded’. Power-mad doctors still drop dead once they’ve retired (as in Night Train). There are testy observations on time-wasting acronyms (as in The Information). The Amis chiasmus is exhibited in all its glory: ‘Normally a bodyguard protected the client from the outside world. With Ainsley, you protected the outside world from the client.’ (In London Fields, Hope and Guy Clinch ‘had worried about the kind of world they were bringing their child into. Now they worried about the kind of child they were bringing into their world.’) The patented Amis repetitio is wheeled out once more: on a ‘porno patio’, beside a ‘porno pool’, porn stars loll on ‘porno pillows’ drinking ‘porno wine’.
Meanwhile, the plot gets on with the three-legged race, striving to establish a sense of approaching menace. A ‘Near Earth Object’ is set to cross the planet’s orbit on Valentine’s Day. There are frequent allusions to 11 September and subsequent events: we catch a glimpse on TV of American troops in the desert (‘the jihads of the jarheads’), and Ainsley Car is given to channelling such outbursts as ‘All passengers to the rear of the plane! . . . Stam back! Don’t no one go near! Fuck amfrax – this geezer’s got hepatitis G an an an-grenade up his arse! OH MY GOD! IT’s THE TOWER! IT’s BIG BEN, IT’s OLD TOM, IT’s BUCK PAL! NO! THE UMFINKABLE! OH MY GOD, WE’RE ALL GONNA –’ We’re also given regular bulletins on the troubled progress of Flight CigAir 101. Stowed in the hold, the corpse of one Royce Traynor seems set to prove that – as Amis says of Stalin in Koba the Dread – ‘he could kill people violently even from his coffin.’
Xan Meo, having subdued the urge to rape his four-year-old daughter, heads off to ‘Fucktown’, USA – the Beverly Hills of porn – to confront Joseph A., who turns out to be a high-end porno producer and retired London villain. Clint Smoker is already in town, conducting admiring interviews with the likes of Dork Bogarde and Hick Johnsonson (and taking a furtive trip to the San Sebastiano Academy for Men of Compact Intromission . . .). By now, cheesecake pix of Princess Vicky have long since spread from the Internet to the Morning Lark, and Fucktown is awash with strangely prompt quickie productions – Crown Sugar, King Rear, Pump and Circumstance, Princess Lolita – aimed at cashing in on the regal bosom-uncovering. Flight CigAir 101 gets into serious trouble, and for a while, as all the storylines begin to converge, it looks as though Amis is about to engineer a mighty collision.
Then the whole thing falls apart. This is partly due to the usual Amis problem with endings (and some of the final payoffs and suspense-strategies will be familiar to readers of his longer novels). But Yellow Dog also indulges in the sermonising that emerged so cantankerously in The Information. ‘General thoughts are not my strength, but here’s a general thought,’ Xan writes in a clinching letter to his wife. And the novel is much concerned with general thoughts – general thoughts dramatised, discussed and, finally, leadenly explained. PC is a bit pious. Porn is a bit gay. Muckraking tabloid journalists are wankers. The monarchy is an ‘incestuous and narcissistic’ institution, and kings and princesses would do better to abdicate. Even delivered from the somewhat diminished pulpit of the Ironic High Style, these observations don’t strike the reader with the visionary force of a revelation; nor are they dramatised with much subtlety.
When we meet Joseph Andrews, for instance, he’s in the middle of dictating his memoirs. This allows Amis to parody the hard-man autobiographies turned out by the likes of Tony Parker and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser (his acknowledged sources). The dictation device also allows him to crack such jokes as ‘I hadn’t been out for long when I was fancied for a murder [click] which I fucking done [click].’ Crazy ‘Jo’, it turns out, was in the habit of ‘doing’ his favourite lieutenants’ ‘birds’, and if the lieutenants complained he’d ‘do’ them as well, though in a different sense. ‘Hey Jo. You want to stuff my bird so you can pretend you’re me?’ suggests Keith the Snake, the most favoured lieutenant of all. ‘You want to stuff my bird so you can pretend you’re her?’ Earlier on, there’s an allusion to the scene in Blue Velvet in which the sex-crazed villain, Frank Booth, shows that he’s in love with his disturbing associate Ben. But the movie never spells it out, unlike Yellow Dog. ‘He wants to have them so he does them,’ Xan says. ‘And has their wives.’ ‘Mm,’ his interlocutor says. ‘Hence the love of pain: he’s correcting himself for it.’
Jo also says in his memoirs that he got engaged, twice, ‘but by an unfortunate coincidence, both of them’ve gone and took they own lives.’ By another coincidence, Russia gives an offstage lecture about ‘Geli Raubal and Eva Braun’, two women in Hitler’s life who famously killed themselves. In Koba the Dread, Amis sometimes made Stalin sound like a bit of an East End wideboy: ‘What has Stalin gone and done here?’ (He’s only gone and established a personality cult.) He also issued a diagnosis that Jo’s dead fiancées have apparently been introduced in order to remind us of: ‘Nazism, and also Bolshevism, exude the confusions of crypto-homosexuality, homosexuality enciphered and unacknowledged – the cult of hardness, with all the female qualities programmatically suppressed. Heterosexuality has clarity, and homosexuality has clarity; but much violence waits in the area in between.’ This isn’t the only insight from Amis’s non-fiction that’s ushered into play in Yellow Dog. Xan’s primordial urge to rape his daughter, for instance, seems partly designed to demonstrate that ‘given total power over another, the human being will find that his thoughts turn to torture.’ Most insistent of all, though, there’s a lot of stuff about women and children, inadvertently encapsulated by a headline in the satirical weekly the Onion: ‘Oh, Girls Are No Good At Genocide’.
In Experience, Amis wittily updated E.M. Forster’s claim that the words ‘women and children’ exempt the English male from sanity: ‘Now it’s “taxpayers’ money”.’ For Amis, however, ‘women and children’ remains the trigger-phrase. At the mention of children, the chip of ice in Amis’s heart turns into a Slush Puppy. The sentiment, as Amis would say, is ‘near-universal’, but the handbrake turns of his prose are ill-equipped to cope with this kind of emotional modulation: the cartoonishly satanic Marmaduke Clinch was a better object for his writing than either of Yellow Dog’s fondly observed little angels. Meanwhile, the ‘women’ part of the equation lures out the obsession with ‘sex difference’, which here leads a character to make the straightfaced assertion that ‘all women hate space’ – space, that is, of the extraterrestrial variety. In Amis’s books, generalisations about women are usually brandished as examples of human nature and, by extension, the universal. Do you really believe, runs his implied riposte, that there aren’t any differences at all between the sexes? Well, sure there are. But it still seems a tactical error – to say the least – to choose as a commanding trope for ‘the universal’ an area in which the border between history and nature is so sketchily mapped and so vigorously contested.
A touch of calculated self-parody was once one of Martin Amis’s stauncher allies. ‘Keith finished his fourth Bramley Apple Pie and said, “Shut it”’: this is genius. Sad to say, Yellow Dog isn’t that kind of self-parody. ‘And so his daubed fingertip sought the intima’ – as John Self would put it, Dah! The jokes are flaccid: when Clint Smoker fails to laugh at the discovery that the terrorist group behind a ‘dirty bomb’ is called – ho ho ho – the ‘Legion of the Pure’, the reader looks to his or her probity in vain. The satire has lost its purchase on the things being satirised, many of which have already satirised themselves a lot more effectively. Phonetic coincidences are treated as staggering insights (‘They sometimes call it the Popshot. They don’t call it the Momshot’). And the once mighty, still virulently infectious Amis prose style seems to have been getting high on its own supply. Perhaps the Young Pretender will one day return. For the time being, though, all the ground lost since London Fields is still lying fallow.